Anti-Muslim Rhetoric Is a National Security Threat


Half of Americans say they support barring Muslim refugees from entering the country and a similar number support establishing “security patrols” in America’s Muslim neighborhoods. And a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that two-thirds of Americans said they believe that some form of torture can be justified to elicit information from suspected terrorists. Anti-Muslim rhetoric currently receives widespread media coverage. In the face of a massive refugee crisis and growing instability across the Middle East and North Africa, the public discourse often eschews nuanced distinctions about extremism and misappropriation of violence and instead takes the form of broader attacks on Islam.

Political correctness, politicians and others have argued, is keeping America from adopting policies that would help keep the country safe. They contend that this political correctness is obscuring what they see as the true problem: a widespread belief that the majority of terrorists are Muslims, and Muslims are terrorists.

Distinguishing between Muslims and radical Islamic terrorist groups is critical to developing and implementing effective counterterrorism policy. Lethal operations, efforts to capture terrorists before they strike, or to prevent them from becoming radicalized in the first place, can all be seriously impacted by anti-Muslim rhetoric — because it deters information-sharing and cooperation by peaceful Muslims. Moreover, such rhetoric can undermine relationships with key partners. As more than 100 national security experts recently noted: “Hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric undercuts the seriousness of combating Islamic radicalism by alienating partners in the Islamic world (who are) making significant contributions to the effort.”

How Rhetoric Relates to Policy Effectiveness

Additionally, empirical evidence has repeatedly shown that the United States must make it as easy and as safe as possible for people to provide information, or they just won’t do it. Anti-Muslim rhetoric makes this more difficult.

National security and counterterrorism experts agree that rhetoric that paints all Muslims as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers has a high chance of breeding future terrorists. Additionally, empirical evidence suggests such language can hamper U.S. efforts to stop terrorists before they strike and to capture them after attacks. To understand why, consider the three principal ways the United States has to combat terrorists: It can deter them, it can catch them, or it can kill them. These strategies may work more or less well depending on the context and group in question, but none are enhanced by anti-Muslim rhetoric that deters cooperation and in turn reduces available, credible information.

Under the rubric of deterrence the United States tries to combat what it calls the “root causes” of terrorism by engaging with Muslim populations at home and abroad, but evidence is scant that this has been successful in places like AfghanistanIraq or Yemen. Anti-Muslim rhetoric can make this harder if the use of such language is transmitted overseas. The alternative way to attempt to deter terrorism is through stiff judicial or other forms of penalties for those suspected of supporting or enabling terrorists. If extremists are trying to compel action through violence, which they often are, then government policies to deter must show that such support is counterproductive and costly. Some might argue that this is the primary justification for much of the anti-Muslim rhetoric — that is, to threaten harsh treatment for lack of cooperation or any perceived tolerance of extremist activity. This is, more or less, the Israeli policy in dealing with suspected supporters of terrorism. The evidence suggests these policies have not been terribly effective.

Capturing terrorists allows the United States to bring to justice those responsible for attacks, but also allows it to collect additional information on the tactics and techniques of the terrorist group and its affiliates. However, catching terrorists is hard — it requires cooperation from individuals with information on the terrorists (typically also Muslims) in addition to other forms of intelligence, cooperation with host-nation security forces (if the terrorist group is abroad), and a mechanism to judicially process and interview these individuals in a manner that generates actionable intelligence. According to research, Muslims helped law enforcement intervene in half of the al-Qaeda plots foiled in the United States since 2009, but anti-Muslim rhetoric may make that more difficult. Threatening violence against those who have information, and treating Muslims as the enemy, reduces the incentive to cooperate. Scientistsintelligence experts and military officers, and the Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program have all underscored the same point: Such threatening techniques are also largely ineffective at producing useful information.

In terms of killing terrorists — assuming, as evidence suggests, that lethal action can eliminate safe havens and kill senior leaders — it is critical to recognize that these operations, like capture operations, rely on intelligence and information. That intelligence and information becomes increasingly difficult to collect when more of the population is radicalized or at least is inclined to support extremists over Western forces.

Countering Violent Extremism and the Danger of Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

The United States has increasingly focused on countering violent extremism by seeking to counter the radical Islamic narrative. This effort should continue. There are some legitimate concerns and nuanced calls for reform within the religion of Islam. These are important to the United States’ narrative and should be encouraged. But all of this is made more difficult when little distinction is made between informed discussion and hyperbolic rhetoric. Some may disagree with the argument when experts and analysts point to specific aspects of a religion or culture that may contribute to a problem, but the approach can still advance the discussion. When hateful statements are used in an attempt to score political points — and these statements support and even reinforce a radical terrorist group’s narrative — the rhetoric verges into being a national security threat by supporting the terrorist narrative that the United States is fundamentally anti-Islamic.

It is likely that anti-Muslim rhetoric has already lessened the United States’ ability to effectively collect intelligence, reduced the willingness of individuals to come forward with information, supported the Islamic State narrative, and increased the ease with which it can recruit new combatants. A similar scenario unfolded when such practices were used 15 years ago, according to recent statements by FBI agents who conducted “enhanced interrogation” interviews. How the United States treated its prisoners became al-Qaeda’s No. 1 recruiting tool, the agents said, bringing in “thousands of foreign fighters who killed American soldiers.” In addition, counterterrorism experts say that xenophobic rhetoric that paints all Muslims as terrorists or terrorist-sympathizers has a good chance of breeding future terrorists. Americans should reject such destructive language in the interest of national security.


Radha Iyengar is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation.


Photo credit: Saleh M. Sbenaty

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