WASHINGTON -- Former President George W. Bush was a lot of things, but one thing he wasn't was soft. He responded to the attack on 9/11 by invading not one but two countries, authorized the use of torture and indefinite detention and launched a mass surveillance program. When the occupation of Iraq turned against the U.S., he surged more troops at it.
Bush did all of this, he felt, to keep the country safe. (He was wrong, of course; his decisions essentially created the self-described Islamic State.) But there was one more thing he did, not because he was soft or in the grips of political correctness, but because he knew it would make the country safer: He embraced Muslims and regularly referred to Islam as a "religion of peace." Whatever horrors befell Muslims overseas on Bush's orders, here at home, he worked to be as inclusive of the Muslim community as possible.
Surprising as it may seem today, that effort mostly worked. Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political parties in Europe have stirred up a tremendous amount of Islamophobia there, and such attitudes naturally drive feelings of anger and betrayal. For a young man or woman on the edge, it can be just enough to push them into radicalization, and it's not a coincidence that Europe has seen far more homegrown attacks. Yet we here in the U.S. seem to be barreling headlong for that same cliff.
For members of the national security community, Bush's approach is 101-level strategy, which accounts for its longstanding bipartisan support. It's why Bush refused to say "radical Islamic terror" and why President Barack Obama followed his lead. But with the rise of the ultra-conservative wing of the GOP, and the surge of presidential contenders like Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, all of whom have demonized Muslims in one way or another, it is nearly a requirement for a GOP candidate to dog whistle, or worse, against Muslims. And voters have rewarded them: Trump, Carson and Cruz are now vying for the lead.
In his Oval Office address on Sunday night, Obama took aim at Islamophobia.
"We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam," he said.
On Dec. 2, an American citizen of Pakistani descent and his wife, a Pakistani-born legal resident, had become radicalized enough to launch an attack in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people.
It is not easy, but it is doable for global spy agencies to track the movements of known or suspected militants. It is impossible to track the mind. If someone already in the United States goes through a personal evolution and decides to lash out violently, there is very little authorities can do to prevent it -- especially when Congress has shown no ability to control the flow of weapons of war within the United States. Instead of focusing on Syrian refugees literally fleeing from ISIS, the goal instead should be to stop people already here from joining them in spirit.
In his address, Obama also argued that anti-Muslim bigotry plays right into the hands of ISIS.
"If we're to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate," Obama said.
When politicians push to block Syrian refugees from coming to the United States -- or, more grotesquely, as Cruz did, suggest only the Christian refugees be welcomed -- they are pretending to be advancing the national security interests of the U.S. But the Muslim-Americans already here, and others on the path to conversion, see this bigotry and scapegoating. Some chalk it up to political expediency and do their best to ignore it; others see it as an affront to their human dignity and resent it; a few become furious; fewer still combine that fury with some mental instability or vulnerability. And from there, it's not hard to get an assault rifle.
The challenge for the U.S., which Obama attempted to address in his speech on Sunday, will be how to put the racist genie back in the bottle. Now that politicians sense an opening by exploiting Islamophobia, the less scrupulous ones will drive right through it.
GOP leaders, if such a thing exists, seem incapable of stopping it. Only voters can stop it. If voters decide that bashing Muslims only makes the country less safe in the long run, and reject candidates who stir up fear, fewer candidates will try it in the future. That's how politicians work. And without politicians amplifying the racism, it can dissipate on the ground, as it did when Bush tamped it down.
But the politics have turned so sharply since then that even Obama felt the need to say a few lines about the Muslim community's responsibility to reel in radicalism. It's a trope that many find offensive, as Christians are rarely asked to condemn violence by Christians, or white men to condemn an attack carried out by a white man.
We cannot deny "the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities," Obama said. "It's a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse. But just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans, of every faith, to reject discrimination."
Most Americans, of every faith, reject discrimination because it's wrong. Yet instances of homegrown terror give us another reason to reject it -- our own safety. Even if deep in your gut you harbor deep fear or suspicion of people you think might be Muslim, do the rest of us this favor: Keep it to yourself. Don't spread that fear and discrimination in the name of patriotism, if only because it is guaranteed to backfire. Your racism is putting all of us in danger.
The list of people who need this advice is long, and if you're one of them, or know one of them, sit them down and have a talk. We can decide to divide the country and drive people into the arms of ISIS, or we can decide not to.
And if you're Muslim, know that the president -- not the extreme wing of a primary electorate in Iowa -- speaks for the country when he says:
It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It's our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim-Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values, plays into the hands of groups like ISIL.
Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes. And, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.
We were founded upon a belief in human dignity that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law. Even in this political season, even as we properly debate what steps I and future presidents must take to keep our country safe.
Let's make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional. Let's not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear. That we have always met challenges, whether war or depression, natural disasters or terrorist attacks, by coming together around our common ideals as one nation and one people.
We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want.
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