The world seems a threatening place. The pre-election terror plot revealed al-Qaeda (AQ) continues its attempts to strike US and Western targets. A series of horrendous attacks occurred in the past week, including the massacre of Iraqi Christians and two suicide bombings of Muslim religious sites in Pakistan. And last Tuesday, voters in Oklahoma banned the application of sharia in the state's courts. Some on the right may claim these are examples of, and responses to, the spread of "radical Islam" throughout the world. Others might suggest xenophobia among some Americans is leading to both a hostile environment for American Muslims and the exaggeration of terrorist threats. I would offer the alternative explanation: AQ and its allies represent a continuing threat to the United States, which we ignore at our peril. At the same time, American Muslims are an integral part of our society, and the overwhelming majority of them do not share AQ's beliefs. Demonizing them serves only to distract us from the true danger, redirecting our energies into frivolous debates and manufactured fears.
Numerous details have emerged about the recent terror plot. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) appears to have disguised bombs as electronic appliances and mailed these to the United States, intending to either destroy the cargo planes or the synagogues to which they were addressed. Saudi intelligence or the diligence of airline screeners led to the bombs being discovered.
I have long believed incidents like this pose a threat to the United States, but one that must be placed in context . The bombs may have caused little damage if placed in the middle of the cargo area, but if they were by the planes' skin an explosion could have caused a crash. The resultant disruption of global air cargo network would have significant economic ramifications. Yet, America's economy and society are resilient enough to survive the effects of even several terrorist attacks. And the threat AQ poses is one of a shadowy network, rather than an ever-present anti-American insurgency.
The sharia ban, however, is different. At some point anti-Muslim sentiment in America (or at least media coverage of it) increased. This manifested itself in the Park51 controversy, and the vandalism of mosques around the country. And it has culminated in Oklahoma's attempt to head off a move to impose sharia by the state's Muslims (who make up less than 1 percent of the population).
The fear some Americans have of Islam is completely unfounded. The Park51 issue involves a moderate Islamic cleric's cultural center, with most of the controversy due to media manipulation. And there is little indication Sharia will be imposed here anytime soon. There have been scattered incidents of judges pointing to sharia to hand out unfair sentences, but these decisions have mostly been overturned. And while Muslim Americans tend to be very religious, they are better off economically and more integrated socially than Muslims in Europe.
I think it is safe to say there is no wide-ranging conspiracy to Islamize America. Yet, too often anti-Muslim hysteria and concerns over terrorism are linked in the public discourse: by those with the anti-Muslim attitudes, of course, but also by their critics who at times lump terrorism in with the manufactured "Islamic threat." This would be a mistake, as dismissing terrorist threats because of the lies and exaggerations of a few Americans would be almost as bad as denying the diversity and moderation of Muslim Americans because of the radicalism of a tiny minority.
So where does this leave us? One takeaway is that Americans must be sure to appreciate the threat we face from terrorism; it is unlikely, though, that we will experience a down-playing of terrorism anytime soon. Instead, it may be more important to emphasize that rejecting anti-Muslim attitudes is not the same as ignoring AQ and its minions. That is, we can be tough on terrorism and still accept religious diversity.
How? First, by doing exactly what the Obama Administration is doing: increasing counter-terrorism activities while trying to engage with Muslim publics. It also involves emphasizing the extent to which anti-Muslim attitudes increase the terrorist threat.
This partly involves America's image; more important, though, is the effect they have on our political debates. We should be discussing how to exert leverage over Pakistan to crack down on extremists, what the best ways are to use drone strikes while minimizing civilian casualties, and what level of airline security is enough to prevent terrorist attacks. Instead we are stuck in facile debates about whether an Islamic cultural center is too close to Ground Zero and how likely a pro-sharia movement will be among American Muslims. The anti-Muslim animus we are experiencing may only be rumors of threat, but that is enough to derail public discourse and undermine our ability to defend America.