From the Sacramento Bee
By Benjamin B. Wagner
Special to The Bee
Published: Saturday, Apr. 16, 2011
As the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack approaches, those of us in law enforcement know all too well that al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations continue to target the United States. While some of their attacks – like the attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day – originate overseas, foreign-based terrorists increasingly seek to recruit and radicalize individuals here in the United States.
Al-Qaida has made no secret of its intention to use Americans to launch attacks inside the United States. Anwar al-Awlaki and others like him around the world are actively encouraging Americans to take up arms against their neighbors, often using the Internet to identify, radicalize and recruit individuals in our own communities.
We have seen the results of this effort at Fort Hood, Texas, in New York’s Times Square and elsewhere. Preventing these attacks is the highest priority for our nation’s law enforcement organizations.
Reasonable minds can differ about the best approach to this threat. Some, however, have resorted to portraying American Muslim communities – or the Islamic faith itself – as a threat to our country.
While it is true that we must repel attempts by foreign terrorists to radicalize young American Muslims, vilifying Islam will not make America safer. Indeed, suggesting that most American Muslims are less loyal than their countrymen is not only inaccurate and irresponsible, it adds an air of legitimacy to violent extremism of another kind: directed not by American Muslims, but at them.
Look at events around the country in the past year. In New York City, a taxi passenger stabbed a cab driver after learning that he was a Muslim. In Tennessee, an arsonist burned a mosque to the ground. And in Texas two months ago, a man pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges after setting fire to a playground attached to a mosque.
It happens in this region too. Last month the FBI announced the arrest of a Madera man, now being prosecuted by my office, who allegedly vandalized a mosque and posted signs in that community containing warnings and threats about Muslims in America.
Although Sikhs are not Muslims, they are often mistaken for Muslims and can also be the targets of violence. Two men who assaulted a Sikh taxi driver in West Sacramento while shouting anti-Middle Eastern epithets pleaded guilty in state court last month.
Stigmatizing Muslim communities not only contradicts our nation’s commitment to religious freedom, it makes it easier, not harder, for al-Qaida to radicalize Americans. A key tenet of al-Qaida’s militant propaganda is that America and Islam are at war.
This is not true. Practitioners of every faith are guaranteed the right to worship freely in the United States. And while al-Qaida poses as the defender of Islam and of Muslims, its attacks have killed many more Muslims than non-Muslims. Acts of violence and hostility against American Muslims obscure this fact and seem to corroborate the myth that America is at war with Islam. This false narrative bolsters al-Qaida’s efforts to radicalize Americans.
Instead, we must recognize American Muslim communities as part of the solution to the problem of radicalization. Al-Qaida does not radicalize communities; it radicalizes individuals. Many in American Muslim communities have spoken out against violent extremism, have played a key role in alerting law enforcement to potential threats and are serving as vital counterweights to extremist groups that seek to influence impressionable young men.
In an effort to improve communication, collaboration and trust between American Muslims and federal law enforcement, the U.S. Department of Justice has been working to promote greater engagement with those in American Muslim communities. For the better part of a year, I have been part of a group of U.S. attorneys around the country who’ve been working to forge cooperative bonds with Muslim communities in our districts.
During this time, I have spoken with members of the Muslim community in a variety of settings and listened to their concerns about national security and criminal justice issues, civil rights and other matters.
In these meetings, I have heard them express the same concerns that other members of our community have: They want safe streets, good schools and fair treatment. The men and women I have spoken to are parents, teachers, wage earners and civic leaders contributing to the safety and well-being of their communities. The values that tie us together as Americans – faith in equal opportunity, and in religious and political freedom – are far more significant than the cultural and religious traditions that set us apart from our neighbors.
Violent extremism of all kinds feeds on anger, misunderstanding and alienation. Law enforcement alone cannot eradicate these root causes of terrorism and hate crimes. Each of us should do all that we can to forge lasting relationships with our Muslim neighbors and join them in affirming that they too are a welcome part of this diverse society that contains many faiths, languages and ethnicities.
A united front is the best defense for all Americans, regardless of their faith, against acts of violent extremism of all types.