When you hear the word "terrorist," who comes to mind? Basque separatists in white hoods? Anarchists wearing bandanas with five-pointed stars? Or perhaps some right- or left-wing pariah building bombs in basements?
My guess is that none of these characters wins top billing in the minds of most people when they think of terrorists. Why? Mainly because we don't generally hear about these kinds of terrorists in the news, and when we do, they aren't typically called "terrorists." They're called murderers, thugs or lunatics. These days, when we read or hear the term "terrorist" in the news, it's almost always accompanied by some reference to "Islamic extremism" or worse yet, to Islam itself.
So, it must be that most terrorists are in fact Islamists, right? Not so much.
According to the 2010 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report: "294 failed, foiled, or successfully executed attacks" occurred in 2009 in six European countries -- down almost 50 percent from 2007. The breakdown of attacks with respect to responsibility was thus: 237 by separatist groups; 40 by left-wing and anarchist groups; four by rightists; ten with no clear affiliation; two by single-issue groups, and one by so-called Islamists.
And yet, the report points out: "Islamist terrorism is still perceived as the biggest threat to most Member States, despite the fact that only one Islamist terrorist attack -- a bomb attack in Italy -- took place in the EU in 2009."
So, why is this? Why is it that according to a poll of 1,600 French and German citizens recently published in Le Monde, 40 percent of them consider Islam a threat? Why is it that the Swiss felt compelled to outlaw minarets? Why is it that so many Americans are up in arms about the building of an Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan?
Clearly, many people -- particularly in Europe and the U.S. -- feel threatened by the amorphous group of over a billion people worldwide known collectively as "Muslims."
As a member of this collective, I have a few things to say to those who feel threatened by me and my kind:
First, it's not your fault. Members of the media, including myself, need to start choosing our words more carefully. If individuals within any given community employ violence against a particular group or nation in an effort to evoke widespread fear and panic, then those individuals are terrorists. Period. Their religion is irrelevant. Even if they claim to be murdering an abortionist in service to Christianity or an Israeli in service to Islam or a Palestinian in service to Judaism, they are not legitimate representatives of any of the faiths they claim to be following and they, in fact, do them all a disservice.
Secondly, your fear is irrational. Look at the statistics above; go meet your Muslim neighbors, and get over it.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, your fears are counterproductive. Islamophobia is far more threatening than any Muslim could ever be, for it breeds ignorance and bigotry. It also only further alienates Muslims, and if you've ever been alienated or outcast, you know how vulnerable it makes you to radicalization. It's why people join gangs; it's why people form crappy garage bands, and it's why people become terrorists. Nothing is more threatening than hating and fearing another person for no good reason.