The recent discovery of attempted terrorist plots by Muslims in America has prompted overreaching accusations of radicalization of an entire religious group. As a consequence, pressure is mounting on American Muslim leaders to actively engage in elusively defined counter radicalization. But rather than spend limited resources on programs that assume collective guilt, efforts are better spent tapping existing grievances and redirecting them towards the exercise of constitutionally protected dissent.
Focusing on counter radicalization is misguided for two reasons. First, the current discourse on radicalization comes dangerously close to repeating past mistakes of confusing legal political dissent with illicit activity. Second, there is insufficient evidence of systemic unlawful radicalization of American Muslims.
Most people would agree that adopting violence to propagate a political agenda is radical and warrants punishment. However, in a troubling bout of amnesia, American public discourse has reinvigorated the misuse of the term ‘radical’ to label both criminal activity and unpopular political dissent.
Let’s not repeat past mistakes. During the Red Scare and McCarthyism, immigrants and religious minorities were scapegoats to fears of Communism. By labeling them as radicals, many were deported and imprisoned en masse. Senator McCarthy and his anti-communist crusaders notoriously bullied political opposition by labeling them as radicals to justify heightened scrutiny of their activities and associations. His campaign of suspicion, fueled by strident anti-Semitism, eventually focused on leftist Jewish Americans. Prominent business people, Hollywood celebrities, and ordinary citizens were blacklisted and spied on, leading to irreparable reputational harm and in some cases malicious prosecution.
It was not the first time a religious minority in America was collectively suspected of disloyalty. Nor would it be the last.
Since the September 11th terrorist attacks, the American Muslim community has been the subject of heightened scrutiny by the government and the public. And with each new allegation of a few individuals’ terrorist activity, the collective suspicion of over 6 million Muslims in America grows. Take for example the case of the American Somali youth who, unbeknownst to their parents, returned to Somalia to fight in the civil war on behalf of a terrorist organization. Indeed, there is evidence that one of them became a suicide bomber. But these are only twenty some individuals out of nearly 100,000 Somalis in America. Nonetheless, the bad acts of a handful from a minority ethnic and religious population have led some government officials and members of the public to conclude a larger problem of radicalization among Muslims.
Consequently, Muslims’ are experiencing an increase in profiling at airports and increased surveillance in their mosques and neighborhoods. They believe their religious leaders are targeted for deportation or coercive tactics by law enforcement, and in the case of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, unlawfully killed. Many American Muslims feel they are treated as a fifth column as their loyalty to America is questioned merely because of the bad acts of a handful of young men. Indeed, their fears are reasonable in light of the findings of a new Gallup Poll in which over fifty percent of Americans held a “not too favorable” or “not favorable at all” view of Islam.
In another unrelated case, five young Muslim men who, again unbeknownst to their families, flew to Pakistan to allegedly join a terrorist organization. Their behavior refueled charges of radicalization among Muslims in America. Putting aside the guilt or innocence of these five individuals, is it fair to impute their acts on 6 million individuals who also happen to be Muslims? Of course not.
Such forms of collective punishment undermine the fundamental American principle that individuals should be accountable for their own behavior and not acts committed by others of the same ethnic, racial, or religious background. This principle was upheld after the uncovering of the Unabomber or the arrest of Timothy McVeigh. All white males were not suddenly suspected of criminal activity. Similarly, when a white male goes on a shooting spree at his workplace or at a post office, the public knows better than to assume all white males are prone to such violence on account of their race or gender. Thus, concluding systemic radicalization of Muslims based on unrelated bad acts of a handful of individuals demonstrates a glaring double standard.
Equally important, labeling people accused of unlawful activity as radicals, as opposed to criminals, risks confusing unpopular political viewpoints with illegal activity. The First Amendment protects dissent, especially unpopular dissent. Being a radical is not illegal so long as one does not violate a specific law – a distinctively American tenet currently upheld by the aptly titled “tea partyers” actively opposed to President Obama and perceived as radical by some Americans. While American Muslims who criticize American policy on whatever grounds, religious or otherwise, are as protected as their outspoken compatriots, Muslims may fear their dissent will be mischaracterized as indicia of unlawful radicalization.
Rather than hastily proclaim radicalization and demand counter radicalizing youth that have no direct link to those accused of engaging in terrorism, youth of all backgrounds should be trained on how to express dissent. These are difficult times for the American people. Americans of all stripes are frustrated, if not disenfranchised, with their government. Our country is spending billions of dollars in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile the unemployment rate is at its highest level in decades, most profoundly among youth. Many Americans, including Muslims, oppose our military involvement abroad on political or religious grounds while others oppose it because they believe the money is better spent on our economy and job creation. However, unlike their compatriots, many American Muslims may not feel at liberty to express their grievances in light of suspicions of their collective radicalization.
Hence community leaders concerned with the alleged terrorist activity of a handful of Muslim youth in America should focus their efforts on teaching youth to channel any grievances they may have into legitimate dissent. Encourage them to speak out and speak freely about their views on the war, the economy, and other policies. Teach them how to legally organize, protest, contact elected officials and participate in grassroots campaigns.
And when they do, the government should not misinterpret their dissent to create a twenty first century version of the Red Scare.
(Photo: Giulio Garavaglia)
Sahar Aziz is a civil rights lawyer with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee in Washington, DC. She previously served as a Senior Policy Advisor with the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.