Arab and Muslim Engagement


Face of terrorism is multi-hued:
Focusing on just one group blinds us from seeing other threats

by Pamela C. Marsh, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida;
William N. Nettles, U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina;
Sally Quillan Yates, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia;
and Timothy J. Heaphy, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of VirginiaU.S. Attorneys Pamela C. Marsh, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida; William N. Nettles, U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina; Sally Quillan Yates, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia; and Timothy J. Heaphy, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia

Since the horrific attacks on our country on Sep. 11, 2001, those of us who work in law enforcement have had one central and overarching priority — safeguarding our country from terrorism. Our deep, daily focus on this issue leads to the inevitable conclusion that the terrorist threats facing our country emanate from numerous unrelated sources. On the front lines of this fight, we have seen that the face of international and domestic terrorism is multi-hued.

The diversity of the terrorist threat makes a single-minded focus on Muslim radicalization shortsighted and incomplete. It ignores the reality that the vast majority of Muslims who live in the United States are proud Americans, modeling the core values on which this nation was built and as offended by threats to our safety and freedom as any other citizen. If we are to truly meet the terrorist threat, we must understand its complexity and resist the temptation to oversimplify and compartmentalize the problem based on ill-informed stereotypes.

Terrorists all share a basic feeling of hatred. They differ significantly, however, in their specific paths toward that hatred.

Hate takes many forms. It is spewed by anarchists who believe we should have no national government. It is perpetuated by racists who believe that some people are inferior by virtue of the color of their skin. It dwells in the hearts of some religious extremists who have divined a justification for violence from the Bible, Torah or Quran. It afflicts those whose advocacy for a particular political issue makes them willing to murder or intimidate in support of that goal. We will inevitably continue to face hatred in all of these forms, and new strains of the disease yet to be incubated.

When we isolate one form of hatred and highlight those who use it to justify violence, we fail to appropriately diagnose the terrorist threat. The concern about Muslim radicalization is a legitimate reaction in the post-9/11 world.

Our focus, however, should be on radicalized individuals, not entire communities. In the towns and cities within our districts, the threat of the “lone wolf” terrorist is much more acute than that posed by groups of radicalized Muslims. We must continue to zealously pursue dangerous individuals, whatever religion, ideology, or other motivation informs their actions. A focus on the individual is smart law enforcement — much more than isolating a particular religion, ideology or motivation for unique scrutiny.

There is another, very real downside to singling out American Muslims for scrutiny that is not trained on other groups. When we single out Muslims as more threatening, more dangerous, more worthy of scrutiny than the other faces of hate, we create a dangerous stigmatization of all who practice that religion. We suggest that their religion is nefarious, that their motives are impure. We assign to the whole the sins of a few.

That kind of stigmatization stimulates hatred — the very thing that motivates terrorists themselves. We have all seen unfortunate incidents of hatred directed at Muslims. Just as we have a duty to protect America from acts of terrorism, we also have a duty to protect the civil rights of all citizens.

Those of us who work in the Department of Justice are working hard to develop close relationships with Muslim leaders across the country. We have forged cooperative bonds with many American Muslims and built relationships based on shared commitment to security and justice. In the past year alone, American Muslims have provided vital intelligence that has helped law enforcement thwart a number of potential terror attacks in this country. They are our partners in the struggle against terror and hate in all of its manifestations. Suggesting that domestic terrorism is largely a function of Muslim radicalization threatens this cooperative relationship.

In a meeting we convened with law enforcement and Muslim leaders in Roanoke last year, one attendee eloquently told the group that his community had been “living in caves” since 2001. He described instances of anti-Muslim bullying in schools. He suggested that many in the Muslim community have withdrawn from others in the face of the very real prejudice, harassment and fear that they experience. He suggested that our outreach effort had encouraged him and others at the meeting to “come out of the caves,” to commit to a renewed level of engagement with people of other faiths.

All of us who attend meetings with Muslim leaders in our communities share a sense of hope borne of mutual respect and understanding. That hope is threatened when we treat Muslim American communities as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We need the assistance and vigilance of every American — including American Muslims — to thwart the terrorist threat. Our shared interest in security is one way to unify our diverse communities. Singling out one community undermines our effectiveness and offends our ideals. We must not lose sight of those ideals in pursuit of our goal of protecting America.