Radicalized Islamic terrorists have become the focal point of national security concerns and much of the 2016 presidential election. Not without good reason – groups like ISIS, al-Nusra Front, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and others are among the most barbaric gangs of cold-blooded killers, kidnappers, torturers, rapists, sex traffickers and drug dealers ever. But treating them as an existential threat superseding the Nazis, as some have done, is granting them way too much legitimacy.
To be certain, ISIS must be taken seriously. In addition to the incalculable refugee crisis caused by Western bombings and terrorist takeovers, more than 32,000 lives were lost to terrorism in 2014, according to a recent New York Times analysis. That number is expected to be even higher in 2015. But the same Times analysis found that only 3 percent of terror-related deaths from 2000 to 2014 were in Western nations, and the vast majority of those happened on 9/11.
Terror is largely an overseas problem. Not only do groups like ISIS and Boko Haram claim far more lives and unleash far more carnage in countries like Iraq and Nigeria, people in the Middle East are also subjected to the bombings and drone campaigns of nations like the US, resulting in death tolls that Western media doesn’t even bother tallying. With wounds from the San Bernardino and Paris attacks still fresh, it’s important not to lose this perspective.
Scary as Islamic terror may be, it is a relatively minor problem, at least domestically. In the US, white supremacists and right-wing antigovernment separatists kill more than their Muslim counterparts. Even adding the 14 people killed in San Bernardino won’t even the score, which stood at 48 to 26 as of June 24, according to a study by the New America Foundation.
Muslims only account for about 1 percent of the total US population, so they are committing terror at a disproportionate rate. But the violence is still being carried out by far too small a minority of Muslims to demonize the entire population, as Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has done – with much applause from his base, it should be noted.
For all their efforts to cast liberals as cowards who are too afraid to fight ISIS, no one is guiltier of whipping up fear and granting the terrorists the legitimacy they crave than Republicans. Perhaps without realizing it, politicians like Trump are playing perfectly into the hands of ISIS. After all, it is the goal of terrorists to frighten populations and manufacture a global clash of civilizations with Muslims on one side and infidels on the other.
Playing into that narrative, as Trump and his supporters so willingly do, virtually guarantees their success. With every American bomb that is dropped on a Muslim village, a new terrorist can be born. Every time an innocent Muslim is discriminated against or assaulted, ISIS’s barbaric crusade becomes holy in a new pair of disillusioned eyes.
The ISIS that Trump and his supporters are fighting is not the ISIS that exists, but the ISIS that wants to exist: a rich, well-connected, fast-growing movement seeking to impose a caliphate over the entire world. In reality, ISIS experienced a net loss of territory in 2015. And for all the bloodbaths they unleashed this year, there was also a remarkable amount of bumbling that shows just how shoddy and ragtag Islamic extremism can be.
On Boxing Day, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a jihadist call to arms. ISIS’s savvy use of social media has been widely reported, but this time it backfired. Unilad compiled a list of tweets from Muslims responding to al-Baghdadi’s appeal, responses which included, “I’ve got Star Wars on Sunday. Maybe later” and “Sorry Dudes, I got a tomato garden I have to take care of.”
In May, radicalized Muslim terrorists attempted an attack on a “Draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas. The event, put on by ultra-right political activist Pamela Geller, essentially dared terrorists to attack. Artistic, especially satirical, renderings of the Islamic prophet have been a magnet for controversy and terror ever since the publication of a Danish cartoon depicting Mohammed as a terrorist in 2005.
As if on cue, two American Islamic terrorists rolled up to the Garland event, printouts of ISIS flags in their vehicle, and started to attack. They shot a security guard in the ankle but were killed by police before they could injure anyone else. Despite the failure of the attack, ISIS jumped at the chance to claim responsibility for it, allegedly their first on American soil.
Even the horrific Paris attack, which claimed 130 innocent lives, didn’t go exactly as ISIS hoped. Explosions outside the Stade de France, where a soccer match was being held, were assumed by commentators to be firecrackers. Suicide bombers wanted to detonate inside the stadium, but they were stopped at the entrance by security guards who discovered the bombs during a pat-down. Three suicide bombers wasted their lives that day, taking only one civilian with them.
These instances and several others demonstrate that terrorism is best thwarted at home by solid police work. Islamic terrorism as a security concern is serious, but marginal. It certainly isn’t fit to dominate the national conversation when there are issues of mass surveillance, climate change and economic inequality affecting a far greater number of lives. The average American – unlike, say, the average Iraqi – is extremely unlikely to be killed in an act of war or terror.
America has a certain obligation to proactively combat extremism in the Middle East. Exactly what form this takes should depend on the needs and desires of peaceful people in the Middle East. Nation-building, bombings, and funding of supposedly pro-Western terror factions has largely been the cause of, not the solution to, the problem.
It is a problem that must be taken seriously. But it doesn’t require compromising our freedoms or turning our anger to the billion-plus Muslims who are nonviolent, millions of whom are looking to us for help and refuge. We must not give into fear of delusional religious zealots, whose success depends largely on how the rest of the world reacts to them. If we are willing to see them as a super-powered, existential threat, as so many in American politics and media want us to, then they’re winning.