Is America Facing a Domestic Terrorist Threat?

Middle Eastern online
John Esposito,Ph.D; Board Member, MCA

After Jews, Muslims are the most educated religious community in the US. Muslim women (unlike their Jewish counterparts) are as likely as their male counterparts to have a college degree or higher. 40% of women have a college degree as compared to 29% of Americans overall, notes John L. Esposito.

The recent arrest of five young men from Northern Virginia arrested in Pakistan, suspected of terrorist activities, precipitated new, dire warnings. Some charge that there is an emerging pattern which challenges long-held assumptions that European Muslims are more susceptible to radicalization than better-assimilated Muslims in the United States. This charge clearly leads us in the wrong direction. While there must be zero tolerance for terrorists, it is important to remember that the American Muslim community is a valued and much needed partner in countering extremism.

Just as Muslim countries differ significantly from each other and in their relations with America so too do Muslims in Europe and America differ markedly. The majority of European Muslims have been laborers and blue collar workers, educationally and economically disadvantaged, often socially marginalized. In contrast, the vast majority of American Muslims came to the US with education and skills or came to acquire the degrees and abilities they needed to become more integrated. While some pockets of poverty exist in America, unlike Europe, there are no “Muslim ghettos” in America. A Pew Research Center 2007 study found that most Muslim Americans are “decidedly American” in income, education and attitudes, rejecting extremism by larger margins than Muslim minorities in Europe. Similarly, a 2009 Gallup report found that 70% of American Muslims have a job compared with 64% of the US population. Muslim men have one of the highest employment rates of religious groups; Muslim women are as likely as Catholic women to say that they work. After Jews, Muslims are the most educated religious community in the US. Muslim women (unlike their Jewish counterparts) are as likely as their male counterparts to have a college degree or higher. 40% of women have a college degree as compared to 29% of Americans overall.

American Muslims are as concerned about extremism and terrorism as other citizens. Their families and friends in “the old country” have been the primary victims of terrorist attacks. Like other Americans, Muslims also were victims; they too lost loved ones and friends in the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, they have seen their religion, not just the terrorists, vilified and as a result those in the mainstream majority have been victims of profiling, discrimination and hate crimes. Major civil liberties organizations have identified a host of serious abuses including racial profiling; overzealous and illegal arrests and detentions, surveillance, and wiretapping of Muslims, undercover infiltration of Muslim civic and religious organizations and trials using “secret evidence”. Yet, despite these extreme measures, as the FBI and Homeland Security have stressed, the majority of Muslims remain an integrated part of the American mosaic; many of their religious and community leaders and organizations work to fight extremism by cooperating and continuing to work with government agencies. In addition, the families of the five men accused in Virginia were the ones who reported them to the authorities.

What about the four other cases in the last year?

In addition to the Northern Virginia case, four previous arrests last year are cited: — Najibullah Zazi, the Denver airport shuttle driver charged with testing explosives for an attack; Bryant N. Vinas, an Hispanic American convert, who pleaded guilty to receiving training from al-Qaeda in Pakistan; David C. Headley, a suspect in the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai; and the Minnesota American Somali youths accused of joining an Islamist insurgency in Somalia. Each of these cases is not connected to another case; each involves a very small number of radicalized individuals with no apparent connection to domestic al-Qaeda networks. It is useful to remember that a leaked February 2005 FBI internal memo admitted that the FBI had not identified a single al-Qaeda sleeper cell in the entire United States. Almost nine years since 9/11, no al-Qaeda related terrorist networks have been discovered in America. Moreover, in a population estimated at 4-6 million Muslims, the number of arrests and convictions for terrorism has been very small. Of course, this does not detract from the ongoing need to remain vigilant and guard against potential domestic terrorist attacks.

What about the future?

Of course there is an ongoing need to remain vigilant and to guard against potential domestic terrorist attacks. Home grown extremism must be aggressively contained by law enforcement agencies, but done without brush-stroking local Muslim communities that notify and cooperate with them. In addition, the conditions that contribute to radicalization and recruitment must also be addressed. Like other American ethnic and religious groups, many Muslims do identify with unjust or oppressive conditions in their ancestral land or with the plight of other Muslims globally in Bosnia, Kosova, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan, Chechnya and China (Uighurs).

A critical distinction has to be made between those that are nationalist struggles and those that are terrorist, between those that constitute a direct threat to the U.S. and those that do not. In recent years, Irish and Jewish Americans have supported and some even fought in wars in Northern Ireland and Israel. Few if any have been prosecuted.

We must also distinguish between what are seen as struggles against injustice versus acts of terrorism. Most American Muslims, like their fellow citizens, express opposition non-violently. A very small minority, like the Somali American youths, may be attracted to fight against what they perceive as illegitimate, oppressive governments and their supporters: whether they are Ethiopian, American, British, Russian or NATO forces. The primary target of the accused in all of these cases has not been the U.S.; their focus has been international; their goal has been fighting what they see as unjust, oppressive wars, not specifically to target Americans. Not surprisingly, foreign struggles and US extended presence (now and possible permanent bases in the future) are exploited by jihadist ideology and jihadist internet sites. But as we have seen thus far, the end product is not a well trained and equipped warrior with broad support at home but naïve and misguided wanna-be jihadists.

John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

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