It should go without saying that the perceived threat of terrorism is dramatically overstated. In terms of probability, the average American citizen is more likely to be killed by virtually any other threat you can name than terrorism. Indeed, if we were to dedicated a comparable amount of time and anxiety to the other threats (like driving a car, taking prescription drugs, being obese, etc.), we would not have time for anything else. If you think about this for a second, you’ll know this is true. (But if you want to see just how true it is, I’d recommend this absurdly thorough article that did several comparisons for us.)
Given that the real risk of terrorism for Americans is incredibly small, it is obviously quite silly that anyone presents “radical Islam” as an existential threat. It is not. And we can quibble about whether that’s because our law enforcement agencies are so effective or because the Atlantic Ocean exists or because it’s actually pretty difficult to convince a person to become a martyr. I have my preferred explanation, but let’s set that issue aside. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the threat is preposterously small from a probability standpoint.
Unfortunately, reminding the American people that terrorism is not a big deal is not politically palatable. And yes, Obama has sort of tried to do this in his last few speeches, but he never commits. His narrative boils down to this: Yes, ISIL is a real and significant threat, but our noble drones and law enforcement agencies have us covered. That’s very different than saying this entire threat is being blown utterly out of proportion by irresponsible media outlets and politicians. He’s not going to do that, precisely because he’s one of those irresponsible politicians. Maybe not as committed as most, but he definitely gets an invite to their Christmas party. So calling them out would get awkward fast.
But I digress. The point here is that no major politician or pundit is willing to explain just how overstated the threat of so-called Islamic terrorism truly is. This creates a space for fear-mongering politicians to hype the threat even more and thoroughly vilify Islam. Occasionally, they are slightly careful. For example, Sen. Cruz added a surprising degree of nuance in one of his responses in the GOP debate to clarify that we are not fighting a war against Islam in general.* But nuance is never what sticks, and many folks are happy to forego such “political correctness” entirely to make a stronger case. The end result is that the American people are increasingly fearful and hateful toward Muslims in general. Trump has probably done the most to normalize these anti-Muslim sentiments recently, but as we discussed recently, he’s had plenty of help.
Now it seems we are starting to see the sad results of the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment. American Muslims and mosques are now routinely experiencing abuse ranging from threats to vandalism to assault and even arson. These actions are appalling and unjust, but entirely predictable. Interestingly, they also show how opposing sets of radicals so often mirror each other’s behavior. In the present case, both sides are engaged in collective punishment. Islamic radicals tend to be primarily inspired by the interventionist foreign policies of Western governments (France, US, UK, etc.). And in attacking Western civilians, these terrorists are effectively blaming random civilians for the actions of their government, regardless of the civilian’s participation or their actual views on war. Similarly, radical Islamophobes in America and elsewhere blame all Muslims for the actions carried out by a handful of people that self-identify as Muslims. Even though the terrorists are roundly denounced by the broader Muslim community, the nominal association (but they’re both called Muslims!) is apparently enough to direct violence against all of them. The justification is the same; only the targets and tactics differ.
At The Intercept this week, Glenn Greenwald has a solid story that aggregates some of the most recent attacks and threats against the Muslim community. And since you probably won’t see any of these dominate the 24-hour news cycle, it’s worth taking a look.
*In case you’re interested, here’s the Cruz quote: “It’s not a war on a faith; it’s a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us.”