In London on Wednesday afternoon, the British Parliament went on lockdown after an assailant drove through a crowd on Westminster Bridge and stabbed an officer before being shot down by the police in what officials are describing as a terrorist attack. We do not know what the assailant’s background is, or what his motivations were, but this incident mirrors previous terrorist attacks led by violent extremists inappropriately touting a perversion of Islamic ideology.
While many details of the incident have yet to be released, what’s clear is that domestic terrorism and lone wolf attacks are increasingly becoming a preferred tactic for groups looking to strike western targets. It’s a last-ditch effort of a flailing ISIS that’s rapidly shrinking in size and influence in the Middle East but also a symptom of the overall alienation felt by Muslims abroad. Cultural differences are one thing - but a completely distorted interpretation of religion paired with increased anxieties developing in the wake of an “us vs. them” mentality sends young individuals, often in poor communities, who come from volatile backgrounds or conflict zones, spiraling out of control and into the arms of violent extremism.
But how do we combat this issue?
Aside from counterterrorism efforts launched by the government, the much greater responsibility for preventing future attacks must fall on Muslim communities.
Community mobilization is imperative. It’s one thing for Islamic leaders to publicly denounce terror and an entirely different thing to monitor from within. Active participation is vital, a kind of “If you see something, say something” concept for Muslim communities.
Extremist terrorism is an even bigger threat to Islam and it’s communities, since Muslims are more often victims of the violence itself, but also because each new terrorist attack perpetrated by someone affiliated with Islam further grows the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims.
And here is what won’t work: Calling Islam a scourge or cancer that needs to be wiped off the planet. Labeling groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda “radical Islamic” sects or banning entire populations from entering the U.S. This reinforces the dangerous notion that there is a war between Islam and the West - which is literally the best possible recruitment tool terrorists could ever imagine using. Well, that and bombing the hell out of their countries and leaving their economies crippled and then instituting hatred-driven travel bans based out of fear and bigotry.
Another thing that won’t work is listening to certain opportunistic individuals like Donald Trump, who gleefully greet every act of violence with a purely evil self-promotional rigor and who tweet and scream from the bully pulpit to further spread a message of intolerance.
And I’m also not completely separating the idea that a perversion of Islamic doctrine is what motivates certain individuals to join these extremist groups that operate exactly like criminal organizations, often targeting vulnerable youths and providing them with a sense of purpose, a sense of family and a sense of power.
But pointing the crosshairs directly at Islamic doctrine is not only inaccurate but also exacerbates the problem. One must not forget that Malala Yousafzai read the same Quran, but interpreted the text as a call to education and female empowerment. But to those who fear monger, ISIS is the face of Islam instead.
The first step in defeating terror is acceptance and tolerance. I want to leave you with the words of George W Bush in the aftermath of 9/11:
“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 English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.
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.
Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.
I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.
Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.
This is a great country. It’s a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth. And it is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel just the same way I do. They’re outraged, they’re sad. They love America just as much as I do.”