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Treating American Muslims Like Citizens vs. Treating Them Like Threats

If ever you want a distillation of the differences between Obama’s conception of how to handle the emerging problem of domestic extremism and how his right-wing critics view it, check out the National Security Strategy’s take on what intelligent domestic counterterrorism looks like:

Several recent incidences of violent extremists in the United States who are committed to fighting here and abroad have underscored the threat to the United States and our interests posed by individuals radicalized at home. Our best defenses against this threat are well informed and equipped families, local communities, and institutions.  The Federal Government will invest in intelligence to understand this threat and expand community engagement and development programs to empower local communities. And the Federal Government, drawing on the expertise and resources from all relevant agencies, will clearly communicate our policies and intentions, listening to local concerns, tailoring policies to address regional concerns, and making clear that our diversity is part of our strength—not a source of division or insecurity.

The Department of Homeland Security has documented increased attempts by al-Qaeda and those inspired by it in recent months to attempt what John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, calls attacks of “low sophistication” within the United States. That creates a choice for intelligence and law enforcement. One answer is to apply counterinsurgency principles of population protection. That entails treating host communities as essentially “at-risk” cohorts that run the risk of infection by radical recruitment techniques. By partnering with community leaders, you give financial and political support to the recognized and legitimate authority figures so they can prevent extremism from taking hold — and to isolate, marginalize, identify and target for law enforcement those people who might still fall under its sway. This is what the NYPD’s old counterterrorism chief, Mike Sheehan, did in Muslim communities in New York City early last decade. It was as often as simple — and as crucial — as showing up to mosque meetings and letting people vent their grievances.

And this is the approach the National Security Strategy embraces: one that distinguishes between the extremists and the communities that they emerge from and exploit; treats the communities as under threat; and empowers those communities to handle that threat at the most immediate, legitimate and basic levels.

There’s another approach. You could treat the communities as the threat. Andy McCarthy, the most influential conservative legal authority on national security at the moment, ridicules the very idea of “Muslim ‘moderates’” as a “hopelessly ill-conceived construct.” His new book portrays Islam itself as a threat to America. The natural remedy is to empower law enforcement to target those Muslim communities in the United States. Subject them to surveillance. Detain them when necessary. If every Muslim who looks to their faith to inform their politics — which is all the wide, varied, catch-all term “Islamist” means — is on a slippery slope to swearing fealty to Osama bin Laden, then that approach makes sense.

Except that it doesn’t. And as John Brennan explained yesterday, it’s the exact strategy that bin Laden wants the U.S. to pursue, because it will guarantee that greater numbers within those communities turn to extremism in their frustration, precisely the outcome the strategy seeks to prevent. It’s worth quoting extensively from Brennan’s remarks:

Finally, remaining faithful to our values requires something else – that we never surrender the diversity and tolerance and openness to different cultures and faiths that define us as Americans. Several months ago, I had the opportunity to speak at NYU, where I was hosted by the university’s Islamic center and the Islamic Law Students Association. The audience included people of many faiths – Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu and Sikh. I was there to have a dialogue on how, as Americans, we can all work together to keep our country safe from the terrorists who seek to drive us apart.

After I was finished speaking, person after person stood up to share their perspective and to ask their questions. Mothers and fathers, religious leaders and students, recent immigrants and American citizens by birth. One after another, they spoke of how they love this country and of all the opportunities it has afforded them and their families. But they also spoke of their concerns, that their fellow Americans, and at times, their own government, may see them as a threat to American security, rather than a part of the American family. One man, a father, explained that his 21-year-old son, an American born and raised, who was subjected to extra security every time he boards a plane, now feels disenfranchised in his own country.

This is the challenge we face. Even more than the attacks al-Qaida and its violent affiliates unleash or the blood they spill, they seek to strike at the very essence of who we are as Americans by replacing our hard-won confidence with fear and replacing our tolerance with suspicion; by turning our great diversity from a source of strength into a source of division; by causing us to undermine the laws and values that have been a source of our strength and our influence throughout the world; by turning a nation whose global leadership has meant greater security and prosperity for people in every corner of the globe into a nation that retreats from the world stage and abandons allies and partners.

That is what al-Qaida and its allies want – to achieve their goals by turning us into something we are not. But that is something they can never achieve, because only the people of America can change who we are as a nation. Al-Qaida can sew explosives into their clothes or park an SUV with explosives on a busy street. But it is our choice to react with panic or resolve. They can seek to recruit people already living among us, but it is our choice to subject entire communities to suspicion, or to support those communities in reaching the disaffected before they turn to violence. Terrorists may try to bring death to our cities, but it is our choice to either uphold the rule of law or chip away at it. They may strike our communities, but it is our choice to either respond wisely and effectively or lash out in ways that inflame entire regions and stoke the fires of the violent extremism.

Originally posted at Washington Independent.

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