Islam Does Not Fuel Violent Extremism, Islamophobia Does
Last Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump retweeted three Islamophobic videos from the leader of a right-wing nationalist group, Britain First, depicting Muslims committing acts of violence. One of these videos has already been proven fake, and the other two are highly questionable. Regardless, this action, coupled with President Trump’s growing collection of anti-Muslim comments and policy proposals, including the travel ban directed at Muslim countries, is clearly designed to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment in America.
President Trump’s approach to Islam is not just xenophobic and wrongheaded, it is dangerous. The President of the United States spreading and endorsing Islamophobia fuels violent extremism and undermines American values.
The Alliance for Peacebuilding and our partners have been at the helm of innovative research finding that the key drivers of extremist violence are perceptions and experiences of injustice, feelings of isolation, exposure to violence, and the notion that violent movements are the most effective pathways to justice and fulfillment. Anti-Islamic rhetoric, and the rash policy responses it incites, only serve to fuel these grievances, exacerbate feelings of marginalization, and increase inclinations toward violence.
Islam is not a source of violent extremism, but Islamophobia is. A recent Department of Homeland Security intelligence assessment confirms the perception that the unjust U.S. government treatment of Muslims unjustly drives radicalization in both native-born and foreign-born violent extremists, and that better treatment of refugees and immigrants depresses violence. Furthermore, certain violent extremist groups weaponize divides between Muslims and non-Muslims to further their mission, while ISIS propaganda often paints a picture of the battle between the faithful and the non-faithful to justify its violent acts. Portraying Islam as a source of violent extremism and signaling to Muslims that they are not welcome in America will contribute to, not prevent, radicalization and the growing strength of violent extremist groups.
Not only does Islamophobia incite violence and threaten our national security, it undermines American ideals and American democracy. The prejudice against Muslims that President Trump seems intent on spreading dishonors the right to religious freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, betraying our national identity as an inclusive and welcoming society. It directly threatens the safety of American residents and citizens by contributing to an escalating number of hate crimes against Muslims. Perhaps most worryingly, the proliferation of anti-Muslim sentiment takes a page from authoritarian playbooks. History demonstrates that authoritarian regimes often consolidate power by attacking and scapegoating vulnerable minorities. In a time when faith in democratic institutions is dwindling, America cannot play to populist principles, allowing minorities to be blamed for the real economic and social issues we must address during a time of political division.
The xenophobic actions taken by President Trump last week are detrimental to American security, values, and democracy and shifts in how U.S. foreign policy is conducted and communicated make these actions especially egregious. As tumult, funding cuts, and gaps in leadership threaten the State Department, American foreign policy is seen by the world to be under the control of the White House. As twitter supplants traditional Presidential communication channels, tweets have become the unfortunate conduit of American foreign policy. Thus, a hateful tweet by the American president is a signal that America condones hate. Spreading such islamophobia is counter-productive to preventing violent extremism and only serves to exacerbate the grievances underpinning the rise of violence at home and abroad.
Americans must resist fear-mongering and rely instead on facts. Islam does not drive violence, but injustice, poor governance, and human rights abuses do. Reducing violent extremism will ultimately require programming and policy rooted in fostering inclusive, just, and peaceful societies – not in public shaming of an entire religion by the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy.