The Solution to Radicalization Begins at Home

Here's one strategy for preventing terrorism: slam the door to immigration. Give in to our irrational fears and shut them Muslims out. Put some boots on the ground and wipe them Muslims out. Problem solved.

Giving into our fears arises from a perceived threat to our community. The instinct toward intolerance seems to be, or to have been, a healthy defense mechanism, protecting one's own community from threats to its survival. Unfortunately, this healthy defense mechanism, one that protects one's community, has a dark side; it has motivated vicious and even deadly acts of intolerance.

Intolerance served our ancient ancestors well at a time when their lives were much more violent than ours. Pre-historians believe that throughout early human history the likelihood of an adult male being killed in battle was about 65 percent--so much for the myth of the noble, peaceful savage. Fear drove them to develop a natural suspicion and distrust of those not in their group--those different from themselves.

How does this psychological defense mechanism work?

Just as we do with trees, clouds and bodies of water, we categorize people into "kinds." Think of all the ways we put people into categories--white, black, peasant, rich man, elegant woman, American, French, Arab, Rabbi, Muslim. Instantly, upon hearing these terms ascribed to a person, you think you know something about them.

When we categorize a person -- say, as Chinese or French or Muslim -- we feel that we've got them figured out. We think we know something about that person because we assume that members of that group are all the same. The Chinese are smart and respect their parents. The French are snobs. And it's hard to avoid associating "terrorist" with "Muslim."

For centuries, many characteristics, some very negative, have been associated with "Jew" and then applied to all Jews. Some of these characterizations are physical -- Jews have large, hooked noses, dark hair, and olive skin. Others are not -- Jews are meek and miserly, and are greedy and cunning money handlers.

The song, "Arabian Nights," from the Disney film Aladdin, perpetuates a host of Arab stereotypes:

Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where it's flat and immense
And the heat is intense
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home

Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don't like your face
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home

In spite of the fact that the vast majority of Muslims Americans oppose radical Islam, we still fear and judge and alienate Them.

Our stereotypes of others who are different from us are almost uniformly negative; our evaluative differences place Us above Them. We instantly move from "that person is different from me" to "that person is less than me." We = Good. They = Bad.

It's easier, then, to ignore the suffering of refugees and to kill Arabs (and thousands of innocents in "collateral damage") if we think them Muslims are somehow beneath us -- medieval, barbaric, vicious, and crazy. We, on the other hand, are modern, civilized, restrained and rational.

This very human fear response has unintended and even deadly consequences. Our dehumanizing -- "You are less than U.S." -- attitude creates the conditions of radicalization. Recent studies show that our intolerances towards Muslims in our country contributes to radicalization. The more we make Muslims feel like they don't belong, the more likely some of Them are to radicalize.

Go figure -- if we look down on them, think of them as closet terrorists, and fear them, some of them start to hate us. If we fight against the building of mosques, close our borders to Muslims, and threaten to register and monitor Them, some of them might feel diminished and disempowered and want to strike back at us.

Turns out, no surprises here, people who feel insignificant, ashamed, and hopeless, look for ways to feel significant, proud and hopeful. Radical Islam provides all three.

We are in a death spiral: as prejudice and intolerance against Muslims escalates, the conditions of radicalization dramatically increases. This is precisely ISIS's strategy, and when we give in our to fears, ISIS wins.

But all is not lost. The same studies that show that our fears and intolerance and bigotry create conditions where radicalization festers, also show that the more we make them feel like they belong, the less likely they are to radicalize. We need to help them, the "culturally homeless," to feel at home in American or Europe.

Making them feel at home does not imply that they need to become just like us. We are a culturally pluralistic society, one which values (at least in principle) difference. We need to embrace unity and diversity.

What better way, then, to make them feel at home than to invite them into your home? Sip some coffee, share a meal, talk about your children. Turn a stranger into a friend. Break the cycle of radicalization, one friend at a time.

I'm often asked, what can we do in the Middle East? I always confess that I don't know. But I do know what we can do in the United States. Fight our fears and then welcome our Muslim brothers and sisters into our homes.