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Islamophobia: ISIS's Not-So-Secret Weapon

In this photo, Shiite Muslims pray together while they rally for peace outside of the White House, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/ AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this photo, Shiite Muslims pray together while they rally for peace outside of the White House, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/ AP)

The revelation that one of the shooters who killed 14 in San Bernardino last week had swooned for ISIS is bound to feed the Islamophobia that, to quote Duke researcher Christopher Bail, has gone “mainstream.”

Even before the massacre, Donald Trump condemned New Jersey Muslims for allegedly cheering the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11; when that proved to be pants-on-fire untrue, the Donald doubled down on his claim, and now says we should ban all Muslim immigrants from the country.

Trump’s a buffoon, his critics snort. But what about religion-ridiculing scientist Richard Dawkins and comic iconoclast Bill Maher, each with a following and each of whom echoes Trump’s intolerance? Meanwhile, Bail says, 32 states have debated banning sharia law in the last 10 years (Whew! That sharia groundswell had me worried.), concurrent with a doubling of Americans holding negative views of Islam.

ISIS is banking on us to hate Muslims, knowing that it would be the best recruiting tool we could hand them.

Islamophobia is an especially virulent form of anti-immigrant sentiment, the nexus most obvious in fear of Syrian refugees, particularly Muslim ones. Yet aside from a minority of radicalized outliers, most people in Muslim nations don’t support ISIS. As for Muslims in this country, there’s a point that bears constant repeating: Most immigrants, including Muslims, assimilate into American culture, as did past generations of newcomers. And today’s immigrants commit fewer crimes than we native-borns.

After attending last year’s annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America, an Economist reporter noted how attendees had woven themselves into American life — Islamic Boy Scouts; representatives from a Muslim liberal arts college; and discussions about constructing mosques in compliance with rigid building codes (a problem familiar to non-Muslim Americans, as this former municipal reporter saw while covering countless planning and zoning board meetings). By several measures — decent incomes, recognition of the plight of women in many Muslim countries, concern about Islamic extremism — American Muslims were better assimilated than their European counterparts, the magazine reported.

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Meanwhile, a report this fall on immigrants generally from the National Academies of Science (NAS) found that “neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have much lower rates of crime and violence than comparable non-immigrant neighborhoods,” according to a press release. “Foreign-born men age 18-39 are incarcerated at one-fourth the rate of native-born American men of the same age.” Alas, these newcomers’ descendants become too American: “In the second and third generations, crime rates increase and resemble that of the general population of native-born Americans.”

Adding more perspective, a Muslim Navy Reserve officer wrote in The New York Times that before the San Bernardino carnage, Islamic extremists in the U.S. had murdered 31 people since 9/11; the tally for right-wing hate groups was 48.

Unlike Trump, the NAS researchers are upfront about what they don’t know, citing limits on their study such as the small size of the U.S. immigrant population and unknowns about the effects of an immigrant’s legal status on her assimilation. By contrast, there is no shortage of measures that we should follow in trying to avert suffering like San Bernardino’s. Gun nuts and the fearful will disagree with The Boston Globe editorialist who wrote that “there is no legitimate civilian use for body armor or assault weapons,” used by the San Bernardino killers. “Neither should be available to the public.” Fortunately, most Americans share the Globe’s values, including responsible gun owners, and support reasonable gun control.

today’s immigrants commit fewer crimes than we native-borns.

If they can work reliably, fingerprint-identifying smart guns that lock triggers when their owners aren’t handling them should be part of our policy. Ditto for spending more to identify potentially dangerous people and to treat the mentally ill. Finally, of course, we must continue military and diplomatic efforts to crush ISIS, as President Obama acknowledged in his televised speech Sunday. Indeed, we probably need to intensify our airstrikes against the group, as even some former Obama advisers urge.

Tashfeen Malik entered the U.S. last year from Pakistan on a "fiancee visa" to marry her husband, with whom she committed the San Bernardino slaughter, according to police. The Obama administration is reviewing the vetting process for those visas for possible tightening, and that's appropriate. But there's a difference between prudent precautions and overblown fears of immigrants. There's a reason to avoid the latter on which we all can agree: ISIS is banking on us to hate Muslims, knowing that it would be the best recruiting tool we could hand them.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled San Bernardino. We regret the error. 

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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