In early February, 2016, President Obama visited an Islamic mosque in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. The purpose of his visit, and discussion with the mosques membership plus a subsequent address, was to assure America’s Muslim residents and citizens there and across the nation, that he, as President stood by them as fully entitled citizens. More specifically, his message was to reject the hostility and acts of vandalism that American Muslims have had to endure in the face of international and domestic acts of terror by other Muslims.
No one should argue that such a message, in itself, was not a proper thing to do. Indeed, included in the religious attire worn by most of the participants were also the uniforms of the Boy Scouts of America, the next generation of American Muslims whose loyalty and adaptation to America’s culture and values is critical if the current gulf of understanding between Islam’s American adherents and the larger society is to be overcome.
So while Obama’s purpose was positive, he cast his speech within narrow boundaries. He seemed to be defining the domestic tension as simply unjustified intolerance of “good” American Muslims and that the nation must do better.
“We’re one American family. And when any part of our family starts to feel separate or second-class or targeted, it tears at the very fabric of our nation.”
“This is a moment when, as Americans, we have to truly listen to each other and learn from each other. And I believe it has to begin with a common understanding of some basic facts. And I express these facts, although they’d be obvious to many of the people in this place, because, unfortunately, it’s not facts that are communicated on a regular basis through our media.
In fairness, he did briefly mention the inescapable conclusion that “peace loving” Muslims have a role in challenging the jihadist interpretation of Islam’s holy texts and its radical religious figures.
“Muslims around the world have a responsibility to reject extremist ideologies that are trying to penetrate within Muslim communities.”
But the President could have used this opportunity to clearly outline the magnitude of the Islamic jihadist threat in order to further contrast that movement with the hoped for willingness of American and other Muslims living in Western, secular nations to accept the values of their adoptive homes.
Instead he reiterated the flawed argument that the “extremists” were only a “small fraction” of the world’s Muslims. A significant threat need not be represented by a majority or even a large minority. The basis of this argument is the fact that the total number of the world’s Muslims is 1.6 billion thus a “fraction” or a “percentage” can be characterized as “small” while in reality comprising a formidable number, and horrendous terrorist acts are typically perpetrated by individuals or very small groups.
On the other hand the Islamic State (IS; ISIS, ISIL) itself is estimated to have up to forty thousand fighters, while recruitment from Middle Eastern and Southeastern European countries continues unchecked. Other jihadist groups are located across the world: Boka Haram in West Africa, Al-Shabab in Somalia, ISIS affiliates in Turkey, Libya, in Islam’s most populace nation Indonesia and in the Philippines.
Al Qaeda terrorists operate throughout the Middle East.
As a counter point to Obama’s diminution of the Islamist threat, while Obama was giving his speech in Baltimore, the U.S. Attorney in Kansas and Assistant Attorney General for National Security, announced that terrorist suspect John Booker had pleaded guilty to attempting to detonate a car bomb at the Fort Riley Army base. Booker filmed a video he intended to be seen after his deadly attack.
“You sit in your homes and think this war is just over in Iraq,” he reportedly said in the video. “Today we will bring the Islamic State straight to your doorstep.”
Still, the debate goes on. Are those in the media, the blogosphere and political realm, especially in this election year, exaggerating the terrorist threat of Muslims living in America? It would seem so if the standard by which that threat to any individual American is numerical probability, or the numerical probability of any specific Muslim American or resident being a perpetrator of a terrorist act which is correspondingly small.
But how many individual domestic Islamic terrorists, what level of deaths and injuries are acceptable ?
In his Baltimore speech, Obama said:
“Engagement with Muslim American communities must never be a cover for surveillance. We can’t give in to profiling entire groups of people. There’s no one single profile of terrorists. We can’t securitize our entire relationship with Muslim Americans.“
These admonitions are overly broad and reject reality. Muslim jihadists in the U.S. have in many, if not most cases, been associated with mosques. Anwar al-Alaki the U.S. born terrorist whose assassination Obama authorized was interviewed several times regarding his ties to three of the 2001 Twin Towers attacks. He had met two of them at a mosque in San Diego in 2000. He later became a preacher at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va.
After moving to Yemen he became closely associated with the terrorist group Al-Qaeda and has been associated with the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas terrorist attack, the so called “Underwear bomber” plot to blow up a U.S. airliner and the failed 2010 “Times Square” bombing plot.
In 1995, the so called “Blind Sheik”, Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian jihadist, was convicted in the conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. Rhaman had entered the U.S. on a tourist visa, was later granted permanent residency and while using New York City as a base and preaching at three different mosques there, he traveled the country preaching hatred an advocating violence. He even issued a “fatwa” declaring it lawful to rob banks and kill Jews in America.
These two examples are not part of a “tiny fraction” of Islamic mosques in the U.S. In December, 2011 the Terrorist Research Initiative released a study entitled “Perspectives on Terrorism”. The study, “The Shariah Adherence Mosque Survey” was based on a random sample of 100 of the more than 2000 Islamic mosques in the U.S. and found that:
“80% of U.S. mosques provide their worshippers with jihad-style literature promoting the use of violence against non-believers and that the imams in those mosques expressly promote that literature."
The study also found that when a mosque imam or its worshipers were “sharia-adherent,” as measured by certain behaviors in conformity with Islamic law, the mosque was more likely to provide this violent literature and the imam was more likely to promote it.”
In another recent study, North Carolina University professor Charles Kurzman, found that
. . .”attacks and disrupted plots by Muslim Americans in 2015 more than doubled over 2014.”
He of course added the academically required politically correct numbers rationale that “. . .the overall threat they posed to public safety has been exaggerated.”
But had all of the 81 “violent extremists plots in 2015” which the report identified been successful, the carnage would have been extreme, even though the threat to any single American across the nation would have been acceptably low by politically correct standards.
With respect to the President’s claim that “There’s no one single profile of terrorists.” it is only technically true given that a few of the domestic terrorist plots and acts have been carried out by non-Middle Eastern individuals. Still the vast majority of these activities have involved young men or older radical preachers of Middle Eastern or South Asian ethnicity. Their common association with mosques or other Muslim social groups engaged, or potentially engaged with the proliferation of radical theology, greatly narrows the profile. Ignoring this obvious association would be irresponsible and “peaceful American Muslims” should be convinced to be part of the watchful eye of the government for their own benefit.
So President Obama continues to believe that acknowledging actual and possible future terrorist attacks on American citizens as a significant part of the world’s and America’s Islamic belief system is a not a reality and is only a numerically tiny theological and liturgical aberration.
He is willing to constrain obvious security measures and accept deaths and destruction as “collateral damage” in an effort not to offend the larger Muslim American community. Vandalism and verbal abuse against the innocent members of this community should not be excused as inevitable or justified but these offensive acts are in fact carried out by a “tiny fraction” of the non-Muslim American population against a “tiny fraction” of American mosques.
American Muslims need to do more to join the fight than issue simple statements of overused and tepid “condemnation”. Vigorous programs of instruction about the nature of their “peaceful religion” need to be a continuous part of their religious programs and a careful screening of their religious leaders should be exercised. They should accept the reality of the security situation and cooperate with authorities in identifying those in their midst who represent potential threats of violence, which is the root cause of their dilemma.
Once highly visible actions across the nation along these lines are put in place instead of the steady drum beat of “Islamophobia” and “victimization” the American public will be able to draw the distinction between the extremists and the American version of Islam.