America needs to get a grip.
Since the slaughter of 14 innocents by two radicalized Muslim terrorists in San Bernardino, Calif., common sense has been a collateral casualty. Leading a wave of hysteria has been Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, with his harebrained ideas for denying various civil liberties to Muslims.
None of them would pass constitutional muster, thank goodness, and while his diatribes have found fertile ground among his party’s base, the Republican establishment has begun to push back against Trump.
That’s good sign, because we do have a terrorism problem that requires clear thinking and sober judgment. Our actions and policies must be grounded in accurate and detailed information. A report that received relatively little press at the time of its release in early December deserves a spotlight.
It’s far from comforting. The main message is that there is no snapshot profile to identify the jihadist on the block. That fact alone renders much of the blather we’re hearing about restrictions on this group or that beside the point.
“ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa” is the result of a six-month study by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. It studied online chatter, arrest data and other information in the cases of the 71 people arrested since March 2014 for crimes related to support of the Islamic State, along with counter-terrorism research. Fifty-six were arrested in 2015, a record number in a single year since the 9/11 attacks.
The report asks a crucial question, in the context of students and others caught heading to Syria, intending to join the Islamic State: “How could these seemingly ordinary young American men and, in growing numbers, women, be attracted to the world’s most infamous terrorist organization?” The answer is that we don’t know, “as each individual’s radicalization has its own unique dynamics.”
Average age of those studied was 26, but they ranged in age from 15 to 47; 86 percent were male, and most were U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
Another point that might surprise those who obsessed with Islamic immigrants: Converts to the faith were 40 percent of the people arrested.
In some ways, the study proved to be a bit prophetic about San Bernardino. It noted a decrease in the numbers traveling to join the Islamic State overseas, which raises the possibility that homegrown terrorists will increasingly focus on U.S. targets.
At less than 1 percent of the total adult population, Muslims in America are at a disadvantage with respect to public perception. Many Americans literally don’t know a single one of the estimated 1.8 million adults in the U.S. who are Muslim.
Assimilation and acceptance, as opposed to isolation, the report notes, are key to blocking radicalization. That’s actually a hopeful point we can look to. Despite the caustic debates about Islam playing out in our media of late, America’s Muslims are far more integrated than their coreligionists in many European countries. That’s a huge strength – and one that should not be undermined.
About 63 percent of Muslims in the U.S. are immigrants. They are also more likely to hold a college degree than native-born citizens, and Muslim women stand out for educational attainment. They’re an asset to our nation, and it’s in everybody’s interest, in the measures we take to protect ourselves from terrorism, not to alienate them.
If American citizens are truly to follow the “if you see something, say something” mode of alertness, we need to be knowledgeable. A mentality of Muslim-equals-terrorist will not help keep us safe.
Here’s a more helpful attitude. How about taking up some of the burden? Read up on the politics and history of the regions and countries where Muslim immigrants and refugees come from, on the conflict now ravaging Syria and Iraq, on the Islamic State and how it is recruiting and how its tactics morph. And get to know more Muslims.
This is an awkward time in our history when Muslim Americans are being expected to speak out after each radical attack, to defend their faith, to denounce bloodshed.
The presumption is offensive.
God forbid if I had to answer for every horrific deed committed by any Latino, or any woman, or any Catholic, or any journalist, or any other member of a group with which I could identify.
That’s a burden that can be lifted from Muslims in America only when the rest of us gain more insight into the faith, its members and the horrific ways that the Islamic State seeks to radicalize.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.