(RNS) “Right now, many Muslim Americans are worried because threats and harassment against their community are on the rise,” President Obama recently wrote in a commentary for Religion News Service. “We’ve seen Muslim Americans assaulted, children bullied and mosques vandalized, and we’ve heard shameful political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country.”
The president’s words recognize higher levels of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in America, the intensification of an Islamophobia that spiked after 9/11.
What is going on?
On one hand, American society is conflating Islam with the group that calls itself the Islamic State and reacting to Muslims in a way reminiscent of its 1940s internment of ethnic Japanese. On the other hand, there is concern that acts of radical Islamic fundamentalists present a threat to the nation.
A nonexhaustive list of such events might start in 2009, when 13 people were killed and 30 were wounded by a lone gunman at Fort Hood, Texas. In May 2010, a car bomb was poised to go off in New York’s Times Square. Recently, two shooters killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. — the latest tragedy among a number far too large.
There is fair and growing angst within American society about the behavior and treatment of Muslims. But the greater concern should be the emergence of a vicious cycle arcing from fear, to grievance, to violence.
Are we already spiraling? While the 9/11 hijackers were foreign nationals, those behind more recent attacks are often American-born or naturalized citizens. Many grew up in this country and even earned college degrees by virtue of their U.S. citizenship.
To prevent similar events in the future, we may be inclined to ask of past perpetrators: “Were you motivated entirely by religious radicalization, or was your anger sparked by mistreatment and disenfranchisement?” Whatever the answer, the required response will involve the Muslim community, a part of which has shown little inclination to address the problem of the radicalized within it.
We’re seeing now that events like those since 2009 make victims of survivors as well as the deceased. Muslim communities in North America and around the globe mourn alongside the bereaved, but with their grief there is also the fear that all who practice Islam will come to be perceived as terrorists. The natural reaction is to turn inward, and as current events show, it is reasonable for Muslims to be fearful.
But it is also reasonable to believe that homegrown terrorist attacks can be prevented, and if we are learning anything, it’s that the best opportunity — and the responsibility — to do so begins at home — first with immediate family members and then friends, co-workers, community members and religious leaders. It ends with law enforcement authorities.
What can Muslims do to break the cycle of violence and Islamophobia?
Work within Muslim communities to identify extremism and radicalization before it culminates in violence. Uniting a community under a common goal can turn strangers into friends and make the communities warmer, more vigilant and safer for everyone. Neighborhood and community watches do this already and are organized for the same purposes — safety and crime prevention. A well-run program can achieve greater socialization, spot early signs of concern and effectively prevent crime without abandoning personal privacy.
American society is made stronger and more resilient when it is a community of overlapping communities and when responsibilities are shared.
“You are not Muslim or American. You are Muslim and American,” Obama said in his RNS commentary, echoing a recent speech at a Maryland mosque. It is as much a statement of fact as it is a challenge, and in both cases, it begins at home.
(Athar Javaid is president of INDUS — Mobilizing People’s Power, a Washington, D.C.-registered 501(c)3 tax-exempt think tank and advocacy group dedicated to a progressive and politically stable Pakistan, strong U.S.-Pakistan relations and community integration and civic promotion in the United States. INDUS has no political affiliations in the United States or political ambitions in Pakistan.)