The muted public reaction to the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla at the hands of Adam Purinton in Kansas sent chills down my spine, because it revealed how far we are from effectively combating terrorism and extremism in our country.
I am a first-generation American Muslim who has spent my career in public service, including as a translator in Iraq and a policy adviser at the Department of Defense, and what I have learned is this: The enemy we face as Americans is not limited to one race or religion. Our enemy is extremism of all kinds, and the best way to fight it is to embrace our diversity and the strength it gives us.
During his first address to Congress, President Trump specifically and rightly denounced racism in the context of Black History Month, and anti-Semitism in the context of the abhorrent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries. But when it came to Purinton's attack on two young Indian men, the president simply referred to “the shooting in Kansas.” He didn’t mention that the attacker mistakenly thought his victims were Middle Eastern, or that he yelled, “Get out of my country” before pulling the trigger. He didn’t mention the victims’ names, their families' heartache or the fear now gripping their communities.
Choosing not to label Purinton's attack terrorism or extremism, while simultaneously labeling every violent attack by a Muslim as such, further compounds the false argument that one faith holds a monopoly on terrorism. That narrative ignores two beliefs common to all forms of extremism — that human beings are not created equal and that our labels transcend our shared humanity.
The FBI’s annual Hate Crime Statistics report documented 558 anti-Muslim incidents and offenses in America in 2015, a 45% increase, on average, from 2012, 2013 and 2014. Similarly, a 2016 report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, revealed 196 anti-Muslim incidents in 2015 in the 20 states surveyed, compared to 110 in 2014. By contrast, there were three attacks that year by Muslim extremists in America — in San Bernardino, in Chattanooga,Tenn. and in Garland, Texas.
It was in this environment, following the San Bernardino shooting, that then-candidate Trump cited Pew and "other research" in claiming that "there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population." In the same statement, he said that "without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension." Such rhetoric from an influential public figure, simultaneously vague and combative, contributes to a permissive atmosphere for anti-Muslim sentiment and, more dangerously, in which Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim are attacked because of how they look.
President Trump’s prolific use of Twitter to speak directly to the American people, as well as his “tell it like it is” communication style and penchant for bestowing nicknames that stick, indicate he knows better than most people that words matter. He should also know that in his position, his words could now mean the difference between life and death for those he chooses to demonize.
To be clear: I am not advocating that we ignore the dangerous strain of extremism perpetrated in the name of Islam. But disregarding America’s long and dangerous history of right-wing and other forms of extremism simply exacerbates the false perception that the only threats to our homeland — indeed, to the West as a whole — are those arising from extremist Muslims.
The dehumanizing of Muslims in America today is, sadly, not unique. Scapegoating of the past includes the shameful internment of individuals of Japanese descent during World War II and the anti-Semitism that partly influenced U.S. policy towards Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.The historical struggles of minorities make me wonder what dangers lie ahead for my own family, from my hardworking immigrant mother to my second-generation American nieces and nephews. What headlines will we have to hide from them? What obstacles will they face in order to belong?
I want Trump to know that my fellow Muslims in America are not part of the problem; we are not “the other.” Only by condemning violence against Muslims as forcefully as violence by Muslims does the current administration stand a chance of turning the tide against the real enemy: all forms of extremism, regardless of faith or color.
Jasmine M. El-Gamal, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, was a translator in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and advised three Defense secretaries as Country Director for Iraq, Lebanon and Syria from 2008 to 2013. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.