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A Red, White and Blue Zone for Muslims in America

December 2, 2015

In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 and wounded hundreds more, there is little doubt that the U.S., France, the UK and other American allies will step up their strikes on Daesh targets in Syria and Iraq. Beyond that, the questions about what the coalition should--and shouldn't do--to combat ISIS get a lot more complicated.
Defeating ISIS means denying the Sunni extremists their number one objective by rolling back the territorial gains comprising their "caliphate" on either side of the border. Whether this will be accomplished before or after Bashar Al-Assad is removed from power in Syria is very much an open question. Inextricably linked to that quandary is another: Will the destruction of Daesh in its home base proceed in conjunction with or despite the Russians and Iranians propping up Assad's Alawite minority government? And whatever the outcome on a Shiite partnership of necessity versus Sunni Gulf State alliance to eject Daesh from its caliphate and safe havens in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, the American coalition will have to decide whether to deploy ground forces to recapture, occupy and protect the lands to enable refugees to return. All of these are primarily political--and not military--decisions.
Political, that is, not just for the Western coalition but for ISIS itself, especially on the question of introducing NATO or other allied troops into combat. After all, that's just what ISIS wants. (And not just as a powerful tool for recruiting new fighters; the apocalyptic vision shared by some of the Daesh fighters foresees a final conflict with "infidel" forces at the Syrian town of Dabiq.) But that's not the only overreaction ISIS wants from the West. Central to its global strategy is eliminating the "gray zone" for Muslims caught between the so-called Islamic State and its enemies in the West.

After the Charlie Hebdo slaughter earlier this year, ISIS released a 10-page editorial describing "the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil, the caliphate and the infidel." As The Guardian reported:

Quoting Bin Laden it said: "The world today is divided. Bush spoke the truth when he said, 'Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists', with the actual 'terrorist' being the western crusaders." Now, it said, "the time had come for another event to ... bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone."

Delivering the weekly White House address last Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden warned Americans about what ISIS hopes to accomplish:

Earlier this year, the top ISIL leader al-Baghdadi revealed the true goal of their attacks. Here's what he said: "Compel the crusaders to actively destroy the gray zone themselves. Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one and two choices. Either apostatize or emigrate to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution." So it's clear. It's clear what ISIL wants. They want to manufacture a clash between civilizations. They want frightened people to think in terms of "us versus them."

The United States and the American people can't let that happen. By demonizing Muslims in America, erecting barriers to welcoming refugees from the Syrian civil war and adopting the larger politics of fear, Americans will only help Daesh do its bidding. Instead, we should embrace the diverse and thriving Muslim-American community and champion its success. Making the United States a red, white and blue zone for Muslims isn't just a daily rebuke to Daesh, but the reaffirmation of America's highest ideals.
To do that, we have to begin by debunking the demagoguery here at home. It's not just that we know a great deal about the would-be Syrian refugees we would add to the roughly 2,000 already here. (The resettlement process, as the New York Times helpfully illustrated, can take up to two years to complete.) And as the Migration Policy Institute documented last month, "the U.S. record shows refugees are not a threat":

The reality is this: The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since September 11, 2001. In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities--and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible.

(During that same time period, the numbers show that terrorist incidents perpetrated by homegrown, right-wing, anti-government extremists dwarf those committed by Muslims.)
But the much bigger picture is this. Both the stories of thriving Muslim communities in the Houston, Silicon Valley, Detroit, Washington, Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas and exhaustive survey data show people who are as American as apple pie.
In 2007 and again in 2011, the Pew Research Center conducted nationwide surveys of the Muslim population of the United States. The headlines ("Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream" and "Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism" and "Mainstream and Moderate Attitudes") tell the tale. Having simultaneously embraced their American identities and cherishing religious freedoms that exceed their countries of origin, our Muslim friends and neighbors are a lot more like "us" than "we" knew.
For starters, Muslims in America are diverse. A quarter are African-Americans. Overall, 37 percent of Muslim-Americans were born in the United States, with 26 percent from the Middle East and North Africa, 9 percent from Pakistan and 7 percent from South Asia, with Iran (3 percent), Sub-Saharan Africa (7 percent) and Europe (5) accounting for most of the rest. Of the foreign born, 71 percent arrived after 1980. Impressively, 81 percent of all Muslims here, including 70 percent of those born abroad, are now citizens of the United States, a much figure than for most other immigrant groups.
In many other respects, Muslim-Americans resemble the overall population of the United States. Like American Christians (45 percent), 47 percent of U.S. Muslims attend their house of worship weekly. Sixty-nine percent say religion is very important in their lives, compared to 70 percent of American Christians. After Mormons, Muslims are the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. They don't just vote; America's three million Muslims (up from just 1 million in 2000) now make a crucial voting bloc in swing states like Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Their employment status, incomes and educational attainment are similar to the overall populations. Some groups with mixed populations of Muslims and Christians, like Iranian-Americans and Arab-Americans, enjoy higher per capita incomes than the national average.
Muslim-Americans are little different in embracing the American dream. Seventy-four percent believe that you can get ahead with hard work, compared to 62 percent of Americans overall. When it comes to assimilating into U.S. culture, 56 percent say they want to adopt American customs while only 20 percent want to remain "distinct." (Another 16 percent want both.) They believe in religious pluralism, supporting the idea that there is more than one path to eternal life. Compared to Americans overall, Muslims are just as likely to see their faith as compatible with modernity (63 percent versus 64 for Christians), have positive views of their communities (79 versus 83 percent), and even more optimistic about their lives (82 versus 75 percent) and the United States (56 versus 23 percent). And Pew's Muslim survey respondents provided those rosy numbers even though 55 percent lamented that life for American Muslims had become harder in the decade after 9/11.
And one other thing. As the charts at the top show, Muslim Americans overwhelming believe life is better for them in the United States than in most Muslim countries. With the sad exception of African-American Muslims, most, too, find the American people friendly towards them.
Their story is a powerful refutation of ISIS propaganda. Or, more accurately, it would be, if only the xenophobic, nativist reaction to the Paris attacks wasn't jeopardizing their all-American success story.
Consider just some of the reactions of the Republicans' best and brightest. Among the 2016 GOP presidential field, Donald Trump declared his support for a database to track Muslims. Marco Rubio and Ben Carson compared the refugees to Nazis and "rabid dogs," respectively. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush called for a religious test to allow only Christians fleeing the Syrian civil war into the United States. And even as Ohio Governor John Kasich was briefly advocating the creation of a new federal agency to promote "Judeo-Christian" values, one Tennessee GOP lawmaker proclaimed he wants to round up those Syrians emigres already in his state.
Now, despite the millions of Muslims in the U.S., recent polling suggests "there is a growing sentiment that the Muslims who live here stand 'at odds' with the American way of life."

According to polling data released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority -- 56 percent -- of Americans say Islamic values are at odds with American values. Among people who identify as Christian or Republican, the number is even higher -- 76 percent of Republicans say Islam is at odds with America, while over 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, and Catholics say the same. Even among Democrats, only 52 percent disagreed that Islam was incompatible with American values. Forty-three percent agreed.

These numbers aren't just an impediment to winning hearts and minds in the long struggle against ISIS and its affiliates. This Islamophobia is downright anti-American.
Muslims, after all, have been a part of the American story from the beginning. The first arrivals didn't come here as refugees or immigrants but as slaves; up to 15 percent of those stolen from West Africa were Muslim. In his negotiations with the Barbary Pirates, George Washington assured them in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli that "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Freedom of religion in the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1821, was meant to "comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination."
It's no surprise that President Obama responded angrily to the incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric about the Syrian refugee crisis emanating from would-be Republican successors. "I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL," Obama warned, "than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate." But you don't have to take his word for it. Just days after the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush explained why America must be a red, white and blue zone for Muslims:

These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that...
The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.
When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that's made brothers and sisters out of every race -- out of every race.
America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.

Now, more than ever. If not, as conservatives are so fond of saying, the terrorists win.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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