Fighting Terrorism Starts with Ending Islamophobia

All-out war against ISIS will not defeat terrorism; nor will the mistreatment of American Muslims. Instead, we must use tolerance, inclusivity and above all, institutional investment in the Middle East to our advantage in slowing recruitment efforts of terrorists.
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This week's attacks in Brussels took a fractious European Union and dealt it the worst blow since the similarly coordinated attacks in Paris last November. Inundated with refugees from the very same countries where the Islamic State commands the most power, this latest act of terror will undoubtedly fuel the xenophobic fire that has gripped the E.U. and will only complicate important deals like the one struck with Turkey just last week.

And yet, more troubling is the response from Americans - particularly certain presidential candidates - that demonstrates a lack of understanding of what drives young men and women to jihad. It's that same response that inadvertently serves as propaganda and as a recruitment tool for the same terrorist organizations carrying out attacks from Mali to Belgium.

All-out war against the Islamic State will not defeat terrorism; nor will the mistreatment of American Muslims. Instead, we must use tolerance, inclusivity and above all, institutional investment in the Middle East to our advantage in slowing recruitment efforts of terrorists and keeping the U.S. safe.

Now to be clear, I'm not advocating for the same type of nation-building that former President George W. Bush unsuccessfully engaged in in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anyone can point to those two states today as failed states, where terrorist organizations thrive and citizens live under the shadow of guerilla warfare day in and day out.

But that's exactly the point. As a reminder, the Islamic State did not exist prior to the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, or even five years ago for that matter. There was a governance vacuum in parts of Iraq and Syria that was inevitably going to be filled by a terrorist organization, and the Islamic State used its deft social media skills to recruit soldiers and begin seizing territory. Ironically, they are a byproduct of a decade of international foreign policy intended to strengthen Middle East states and weed out terrorists, not create a breeding ground for them.

What the Islamic State quickly realized is that many in the Middle East - especially the youth - have few opportunities and have a largely negative view towards the Western world. Unemployment is high, many live in poverty, there is inadequate higher education in the region for those interested in pursuing it, and above all, each day brings with it more bombings and attacks. The Islamic State takes this context and simply uses it to their advantage in recruitment and the spread of their ideology.

Many Americans have not been so quick to this realization. Presidential candidates have exploited American fear of terrorism and espoused a variety of pro-war, anti-Muslim opinions that have resonated with a surprising number of voters. Following the attack in Brussels, Ted Cruz reiterated his commitment to "carpet-bombing" the Islamic State -- a proposal that has been routinely condemned by top military officials as unrealistic. More shocking, Cruz also suggested that American law enforcement must "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods" throughout the country.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, responded to the attacks by advocating for torture and referring to Brussels as a "disaster city". In the past, he has also proposed that our government ban all Muslim travel to the U.S., among other frighteningly anti-Muslim remarks.

For a group that commands such a grip on the national media spotlight, it is irresponsible to make such hateful remarks and incite such xenophobic fervor among the American populous. Yet, a troubling, cyclical pattern is emerging: terrorists carry out attacks such as the November attack in Paris and this week's attack in Brussels; American war hawks and those against Islam make damaging statements disparaging both Muslims in general and the Islamic State specifically; and the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations use those remarks as propaganda in order to recruit more to its cause -- which is to carry out more attacks.

It is well past time that the U.S. pivots towards an investment in the institutions of failed states in the Middle East and works to provide better opportunities for those that live there. Fighting terrorism means providing an alternative to those who are otherwise swayed by terrorists' aggressive recruitment strategies. Investing in government stability (that may not always mean a democracy), education, and welfare will go a long way in steering youth and others away from the grasp of Islamic extremism. Sure, in order to foster foreign direct investment (FDI) we must first ensure that these states are safe places, but there is a difference between creating safety and waging an offensive war.

But we must also rethink how we treat Muslims living in the Western world. A December 2015 report by the Soufan Group showed that the number of western Islamic State recruits had roughly doubled in the past twelve months -- a staggering increase. By isolating Muslims -- many of whom have lived in the West their entire lives -- we are guiding them straight into the arms of those who wish to harm us. As Max Fisher wrote this week in Vox, fighting terrorism "will mean addressing at-risk individuals or communities without overpolicing them or otherwise treating them as the enemy when they're not."

Terrorism is a horror that unfortunately will never be fully eradicated, despite our best efforts. But today, it's difficult to argue that the U.S. is even putting our best efforts forward. To stop the flow of recruits joining the ranks of the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, we must focus on providing alternatives to those susceptible to their message. That starts at home, where we must no longer tolerate hateful remarks by presidential candidates and others, and ends with a focus on less war abroad and an effort to foster more stability in unstable states in the Middle East.

The Islamic State fights with fear -- we must start fighting back with hope.

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