“Our way of life is under threat by Radical Islam and Hillary Clinton cannot even bring herself to say the words,” tweeted Donald Trump after Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last Thursday. There’s really no difference between his rhetoric and that of ISIS on this: both say there’s a war raging between Islam and the West.
It’s true that ISIS says it wants to destroy the West, and kill “infidels.” But let’s not forget how it acts: On July 23, it killed at least 80 Shiites protesting in Kabul. On July 2, during Ramadan, it killed nearly 300 people in Baghdad who had been out shopping and enjoying the post-Iftar hours, women and children among them.
Jihadi groups—ISIS, the Taliban—don’t just attack Western targets or the Western way of life. They bomb schools and markets and mosques in Muslim countries. But that truth is an inconvenience for the Republican nominee for president. He casts the war that is being fought devoid of context. He never mentions that the majority of victims of what he calls “Islamic terror” worldwide are Muslims. Instead, he holds all Muslims complicit in the creation of terror.
We know he is wrong. We know that militant groups distort Islam to justify their violent quest for power. And those who join militant groups or pledge allegiance to them are typically troubled individuals, in no way representative of all Muslims, or immigrants, or refugees who come to the West. We just don’t say it enough.
More terror in the West only makes Trump more popular. And the support for Trump—and the hate and venom directed toward Muslims at his rallies—all alienate the “gray zone”: the Muslims in the West who are assimilated, well-adjusted. It is ISIS’ goal to eliminate this gray zone; Trump is doing it for them.
Until this week, when Trump stirred political and public outrage by offending Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, we had seen only a muted response to his denigration of Muslims and Islam. But, as Peter Beinart has also argued, it shouldn’t have taken Trump’s callousness toward the parents of a slain soldier to provoke an outcry against his Islamophobia—both politicians and the public should have jumped on this sooner.
We should not lapse into complacency again. A Muslim-American need not have made the ultimate sacrifice—or any sacrifice—for America in order for us to be outraged if he or she is insulted by Donald Trump. We all need to call out Trump unequivocally—and we can do this with a clear narrative that separates ordinary Muslim Americans from terrorists. We can champion them without setting a higher bar for them, or compelling them to prove themselves worthy of their rights. Khizr Khan should not have been one of the first to articulate that case forcefully, as he did in his DNC speech. Politicians on both side of the aisle had that responsibility, as did ordinary citizens. The numbers are on our side: let’s use them.
Playing our part
We all have a subtler role to play as well, in how we respond to terror.
When terror strikes in America or Europe—with alarming frequency of late—it shocks and stuns us. The world mourned with Paris last November, for lost lives and a wounded city. We shed tears for Orlando in June. But the world shrugged for Baghdad and Kabul in July. Attacks in Peshawar and Quetta seem to blur into one another. We expect them, and we’ve lost count.
To an extent, this is natural. We know cities in the Middle East, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan, only as war-torn; we think that people there know the risks they face. And we are more attached to where we’ve been, to what we’ve seen.
We express our horror on social media, more for some attacks than others. There are exceptions, attacks that shock people worldwide—such as the Peshawar, Pakistan school attack in December 2014, which killed more than 130 schoolchildren—but by and large, the world reacts more strongly to an attack in France than it does to one in Pakistan. And this makes many Muslims feel that their lives matter less to the world. Our selective responses, however unintentional, create a divide between Muslims and the West, and in so doing we play into ISIS’ and other jihadi groups’ hands.
In its reporting on terrorism, the media makes things worse. It focuses more on attacks in the West, partly because of logistics. As a result, we see the human toll of terrorist attacks more clearly if they occur in Europe or America. Most Muslim victims remain invisible. There are exceptions: The New York Times recently tracked and told the stories of 247 victims of terror attacks that occurred across the globe during two weeks this March, including attacks in Lahore, Peshawar, Istanbul, and Brussels.
There is also a bias in how the media represents attacks. If the attacker is Muslim and brown, his details are revealed immediately, the label of terror applied instantly—even before any confirmation of radicalization. We still don’t fully understand why Omar Mateen attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando—was he truly radicalized, or mentally disturbed?—but the public indictment was complete before an investigation.
If the attacker is non-Muslim and white, it’s not terror; the attacker is described as a lone wolf. The media rollout of information is more careful and considered, even for right wing extremists who use attacks to send a wider message. Consider Thomas Mair, who killed the British Labor Member of Parliament Jo Cox a week before the British referendum on EU membership. The attack was never labeled terror. The media emphasized his mental illness, even as he shouted “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in a pre-trial hearing. Also, the language used to describe such attacks tends to be passive—“Labor MP Jo Cox dies after being shot and stabbed”—not requiring us to visualize a killer. And while there is growing recognition of the blurred lines between terrorism and lone wolf attacks, the subtleties are mostly lost in the headlines.
We can change all this. We can temper our responses to terror, and mourn for all lives lost. The media can recognize its biases, and pledge to report attacks with more fairness. In this, we can look to Germany, which reacts to attacks with remarkable maturity—from politicians and the media to ordinary citizens—carefully parsing the varying motivations for its recent attacks.
All this will give ISIS less propaganda that it can use to recruit—and it will benefit all of us.