Learning to differentiate: Why linking Islam with Terrorism will only undermine our very fight against it

“Pedophiles.” “Murderers.” And a “twisted religion…at war with Christianity since first appearing on the world stage.” Strong words in the aftermath of the Paris attacks; and not exactly the kind of words you’d like to see posted onto social media by a woman you once dated. Was she referring to Muslims in general, or ISIS in particular? It wasn’t exactly clear — And that’s the problem.

Each time a terrorist bomb shatters the peace, my heart breaks twice: The first time because of the horrifying injustice committed against humanity; and the second time because of my fear as what my own countrymen will think about me and fellow-Americans who carry Islam as a part of our identity. Sadly, it’s a feeling that many American Muslims can resonate with.

The normalization of this associative tendency — however alarming — is not altogether surprising. When we have leading presidential candidates the likes of Ben Carson cast doubt on the notion that a Muslim can hold office as President; Donald Trump unapologetically propose to shut down mosques and mark Muslims in a national database; and Sen. Ted Cruz (the son of a Cuban refugee himself) advocate religious tests upon those war torn refugees entering the country, in order to filter out Muslims, how can we expect any different?

With this constant narrative of fear and suspicion, it’s no wonder more than half of Americans hold negative perceptions about Muslims. But is this warranted? Put into context, what kills more Americans than Muslim terrorists every year since 2001? Single white-men with guns, toddlers, and furniture. Yes, toddlers and furniture. In the words of religious scholar and media pundit, Reza Aslan: You’re more likely to be killed by your Lazy-Boy than by a Muslim terrorist. Let that sink in.

It’s one thing to express anger and direct policy targeted at criminal terrorist enterprises like ISIS. They practice everything that is against humanity, justice, and peace. They and their twisted world-view have no place in human civilization, and ought to be eradicated. It takes another vast and irresponsible leap altogether to link the actions of a few disparate groups of politically motivated criminals with the faith of 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. Let it be clear that it is Muslims themselves that face the worst of the problem: 95%+ of global terrorist victims are Muslims themselves. If there is any question how the vastly diverse groups of Muslims around the world feel about terrorism linked to their faith, let this statistic ring loud and clear.

There is an opportunity here for unity and collaboration with a natural ally against a common threat, and this opportunity is squandered each time lazy and expedient generalizations are made about the “other”. To cast blanket statements and harmful associations is not only the very definition of bigotry, it undermines productive policies by perpetuating the same twisted world-view held by the likes of ISIS: That the world is black and white, divided into forces of light and dark; Muslim Jihadists vs. Christian Crusaders in an eternal battle for supremacy of good over evil. This is a myth, and one that’s not only entirely historically inaccurate, but vacant of any meaningful and positive outcomes.

To buy into this divisive narrative is to give them victory. So let’s be mindful of the words we use, and the policies we support.

I wrote an email to this former flame, “I happen to be a Muslim. My family, and many of my nearest and dearest also happen to be Muslim. I don’t see in them or in myself an iota of what you have described, and I really hope you don’t either.” A few days later, I received a note of apology. She explained that the post came from a place of “anger and fear, and acknowledged how “careless and impulsive” it was. Her note concluded with some words of clarity “We need unity against hatred and prejudice against all its forms.” The post was deleted.

Just as in this micro-instance, I am hopeful that any initial feelings of anger and fear will fade in the face of clarity and inclusiveness in our national context; because when it comes down to it, our pluralist democracy is strengthened by the fact that we are all in this together. And that’s precisely what terrorists fear most: That we are all in this together.

Samier Mansur has worked in the field of public policy and international relations, and has had his writing published by the US State Department as well as by international press. He delivered a TEDx talk the topic of religious pluralism and progress in 2013, and is the co-founder of a mobile safety and crime-reporting app.

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