When a church is bombed in the Middle East, American politicians compete to condemn the act as terrorism. They offer condolences to the Christian victims. Yet when the mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota was bombed just before morning prayers last Sunday, the silence from politicians was deafening.
Nowhere to be found were warnings that anti-Muslim terrorists are a national threat, hand wringing by policy makers about the challenges in stopping domestic terrorism, or expressions of solidarity and empathy with Muslims in America. The minimal media coverage referred to the bombing as a potential hate crime, as if terrorism and hate crimes are mutually exclusive. The lone voice of courage came from Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who declared the mosque bombing terrorism.
While there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, an act of terrorism is a premeditated use of violence by nonstate actors against civilians for a political or social objective. The violence intends to intimidate a larger audience rather than just the immediate victims. And despite popular framing, an act of terror can be a hate crime if it is motivated by prejudice against the victims’ religion, national origin, or race (among other traits).
The bombing of the mosque in a quiet suburb of Minneapolis was both an act of terrorism and a hate crime. The perpetrators seek to intimidate the tens of thousands of Somali Muslims who attend mosques in the Minneapolis area.
Indeed, Minnesota boasts the largest population of residents of Somali origin, many of whom are U.S. citizens. Like many refugees from war torn countries, Somalis arrived in the U.S. with minimal resources. And also like refugees who have arrived on U.S. shores over the centuries, Somali Americans have built thriving communities comprised of small businesses, professionals, entertainers, and elected officials such as Ilhan Omar in the Minnesota state legislature.
However, Somali communities are collectively defamed as news media and politicians brand Somali American youth a domestic security problem, or in national security parlance, potential “homegrown radicals.” Pointing to a handful of cases in 2007 and 2008 where young men traveled to Somalia to fight in a civil war between Somali factions and more recent cases of targeted sting operations, politicians and selective media coverage stoke the fire of prejudice that contributes to hostility towards persons of Somali origin.
The hostility has risen to such an extent that Somali Americans are frequent targets of anti-Muslim discrimination in the workplace, schools, and hate crimes. Somalis are targeted by a dangerous blend of Islamophobia combined with anti-Black racism. As such, the attack on the Bloomington mosque is likely attributed to hatred and violence at the intersection of race and religious animus.
The political and ethnic motivation of bombing mosques in the United States is troublingly analogous to bombings of churches (and mosques) in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The bombers have a sectarian objective to terrorize Christians, Sunnis, or Shi’ites who reside in the area where the house of worship is located. They communicate the political message that the religious group is unwelcome, its congregants’ lives have no value, and they should leave the country if they care for their safety. The terrorists’ political objectives are legitimized by the government’s affirmative sectarian policies or failure to condemn sectarian violence.
Muslims, more than ever, are portrayed as a fifth column and their mosques labeled as incubators of terrorists. Government programs to counter violent extremism focus exclusively on Muslims even though right wing extremist groups are increasing.
And, when an explosion by an improvised explosive device occurs in a mosque, Trump remains silent. His silence may be interpreted as indifference, giving future terrorists the go ahead to bomb again. Next time they may get the mass casualties they seek.
The glaring contradiction in how our government (and the public) responds to political violence based on the identity of the victims exposes the racialization of U.S. counterterrorism. Consequently, Muslims in Minneapolis and elsewhere will fear attending or sending their children to mosques. The refrain from practicing their religion is precisely why terrorists attack churches (and mosques) in the Middle East. The same holds true when mosques are bombed in America.
By failing to condemn and stop religious violence against Muslims, the U.S. government is giving the terrorists what they want—a society where religious minorities fear for their safety.
Sahar Aziz is the Professor and Chancellor’s Scholar at Rutgers Law School; Director of the Center on Security, Race, and Civil Rights. Professor Aziz is the author of Policing Terrorists in the Community.
Khaled A. Beydoun is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, and Senior Affiliated Faculty with the UC-Berkeley Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project.