By Ed Husain
23 April 2013
Watching the American television news cycle, it is as though the country had been occupied by an army of Islamist radicals. The criminal actions of two young American men are derailing the sense and composure of the world's only superpower.
Rightwing pundits are exploiting Boston to revive their pet policies on immigration control, and fuelling hatred of Islam. Ann Coulter demanded Tamerlan Tsarnaev's wife to be jailed for merely wearing a Hijab and Sean Hannity wanted to water board the suspect. Both wanted to kill, not arrest, try, and convict. No, do not dismiss them as "marginal" – they opine on prime-time television in America's largest cable television network, Fox News.
Many on the American left have an altogether different impulse: denial and deflection. Melissa Harris-Perry and her guests at MSNBC thought Islam had as much to do with Boston bombings as Ben Affleck movies. She was wrong.
Cooler heads must prevail. Between bigotry and denial, there is a sensible middle ground that offers ways forward.
Boston will not be the last home-grown terror attack. Bombastic statements and burying our heads in the sand do not prepare us for future attacks. Chechnya is not the only grievance exploited by radicals to create support for violence against the west. There are grumblings across the Middle East from Syria (a new hub for violent extremists), to Lebanon's Hezbollah training camps, to ungoverned tribal areas in Libya, to a tide of violent Salafis in Tunisia, to the abiding Palestinian conflict.
Then there is the widespread anti-Americanism of Pakistan, combined with Taliban remnants in Afghanistan, and the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Just as Chechnya may have captured the imagination of the Tsarnaev brothers, any of the above lists can radicalize others.
The United States cannot become a fortress; nor can it target its Muslim citizens as a suspect community. Both actions are un-American, short-sighted, and counterproductive.
After Boston, the United States can learn from Britain. The British not only dealt with Irish terrorism, but since the July 2005 London underground bombings, have made headway in containing and countering Islamist radicalism. The challenge has not gone away: almost 3,000 extremists remain under surveillance. America's domestic radicalism problem is less significant, in fact, and easier to overcome.
First, extremists benefit from each other. The far right helps their radical Muslim cousins. Europe has seen this in England, Germany, and Holland, where the rhetoric of far-right pundits and politicians such as Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali fueled the victimhood and persecution mindset of extremists. If Islamists needed evidence of a war against Islam, then they readily cited the inaccuracies of Wilders and his ilk.
Here in the US, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and others are fueling Muslimphobia, making America unsafe for fellow citizens, and promoting falsities. This symbiosis between extremes needs to be disrupted.
Second, unlike Europe, the United States is confident in discussing God in public. Most Americans are believers, and the accommodation of religion in the public space makes it easier for Muslims to adjust to America. French-style laicité is one reason for the anger of France's Muslims.
Unlike any European country, American Muslims led by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) have twinned mosques and synagogues across the country. This robust partnership of Abrahamic religions in a pluralist America has given birth to refreshing Muslim religious leadership in a way that is absent in Europe. This is an American asset, a model for other nations.
American Muslims, in general, are much more integrated than their European counterparts: their patriotism, embrace of the US constitution, and ethic of hard work can be seen in most mosques. Why slander and suspect this community? Why risk isolating segments of this American populace, and minimize tip-offs to law enforcement agencies?
Finally, there is something to be learnt from the British government's handling of Muslim extremism. In Boston, the local Muslim community expelled Tsarnaev from the mosque when he rejected the imam holding up Martin Luther King as an example to emulate. This behavior, in part, is driven by the thinking that Muslims have to stamp out extremism, eradicate it from any mosque in which it raises its ugly head.
At times, the FBI is tipped off, which can then lead to sting operations. This is all very well, and yes, spy when necessary; but a far more effective method has been to introduce the extremist to a credible Muslim scholar who counsels and debates radical views based on scripture. When Muslims in Britain report extremism, the local authorities activate this network. Extremists are humans: they have doubts and uncertainties, too.
Remember the words of George Washington:
"The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges. They may be Mohammedans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists."
America must know that its greatest strength against Islamist terrorism is its Muslim population.