Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Capitalising on fear

Despite Obama’s call for moral resilience, right-wing demagogues such as Donald Trump are using the San Bernardino attack to stoke hatred against Islam and Muslim Americans, writes Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

When the first reports came in that 14 people had been shot dead, nearly all US local news networks dealt with the breaking news as yet another domestic mass shooting that Americans and the world have become accustomed to. The killings took place on 2 December at a Christmas lunch held at a centre offering services for the disabled in San Bernardino, California.

The debate immediately centred around same old arguments over easy access to automatic guns, rifles and machine guns in the United States, and how US President Barack Obama, like all his predecessors, couldn’t change this reality due to the strong influence of the gun lobby in the United States and the belief among many Americans that gun ownership is a right and tradition guaranteed by the US Constitution.

However, coverage changed radically as soon as it appeared that the shooters were a man and his wife, both Muslims of Pakistani origin, Sayed Farouk and Tashfeen Malik. This was definitely very bad news, mainly for millions of Muslim Americans.

But it was also bad news for President Obama. He had already been facing sharp criticism by opponents and friends alike that he was not doing enough to confront the threat of terrorism at home and abroad.

This was especially so in the wake of the 13 November terrorist attacks in Paris, claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group, led by the self-appointed “Khaleefa” in Ramadi, Iraq, Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi. IS warned it would carry out more attacks in European capitals and even in Washington, DC.

Particularly alarming to US terrorism experts was that both Farouk and Malik did not fit any of the profiles used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to identify would-be terrorists or IS sympathisers.

Farouk, 28, worked for years at the Inter-Regional Centre where he shot his colleagues. His appearance was that of a conservative Muslim with a heavily veiled wife who had previously lived all her life in Saudi Arabia. But neither the FBI nor the CIA, or any world intelligence agency, picked up communications between Farouk and IS or any other terrorist organisation.

IS immediately welcomed the San Bernardino attack and the killing of “infidel” Americans. But it said in a statement that the attack was carried out by “supporters” and had not been not ordered by the group’s central command in Ramadi or Raqqa, Syria.

Unlike the terrorists who took part in the Paris attack, Farouk and his wife had no history of travelling to war zones such as Syria or Iraq, and were not on any watch list. They were simply the classic “Do it yourself” terrorists, or lone wolfs.

They were probably inspired by IS’s well-crafted propaganda on the Internet and social media, while living thousands of miles away in a very American setting where they could easily buy thousands of rounds of bullets and machine guns to prepare for and carry out their attacks.

In a US presidential election cycle, with 400 days left for Obama in the White House, San Bernardino quickly topped the debate agenda in both the Republican and Democratic camps. Obama delivered a rare address on Sunday from the Oval Office. He called for a calculated reaction and the need not to give in to IS propaganda (either by getting dragged into a long ground war in Syria and Iraq, or by discriminating against Muslims on the basis of their religion).

This was not the reaction of the leading candidate who aims to win the Republican Party’s nomination for president, Donald Trump. He called for a “total and complete shutdown” of US borders to Muslims from all over the world, including for visits and tourism.

“Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victim of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” Trump said in a statement released by his presidential campaign team.

Trump said that recent polls in the US indicate that the majority believes that Muslims carry “violent hatred” towards Americans. “Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine,” the statement said.

“Sharia authorises such atrocities as murder against non-believers who won’t convert, beheadings and more unthinkable acts that pose great harm to Americans, especially women,” Trump’s “policy statement” added.

In sharp contrast, Obama maintained in his speech Sunday his conviction that discriminating against Muslims would only make the problem worse by providing more recruits for terrorist groups such as IS.

“It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country,” Obama said. “It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim-Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like [IS],” Obama added.

“We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like [IS] want. [IS] does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world — including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology,” Obama said.

He added: “That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.”

However, while Obama’s stance on Muslim-Americans and Islam was understood among the majority of Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, most commentators criticised Obama’s insistence on sticking to his same strategy in fighting IS in Syria and Iraq.

Depending on air strikes, or even intensifying them in cooperation with European allies such as France and Britain, is not going to remove the threat of Daesh, as the experience of the past year has proven, most analysts agreed.

In his speech, Obama said America should not be drawn into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. He added: “That’s what groups like [IS] want. They also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.”

The US president, who reached office on a promise to end predecessor George W Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, insisted he would not change his strategy in fighting IS. “The strategy that we are using now — air strikes, Special Forces and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country — is how we’ll achieve a more sustainable victory,” Obama said.

US military experts, including those who worked as advisers for Obama in his early years in office, said they understood his concerns about getting involved in a costly, unpopular war overseas. But they also noted that the US and Europe need to do more to end the “safe havens” IS enjoys in many Middle East nations, in cooperation with local governments and armies.

But that’s easier said than done, considering the conflicting interests in the region, mainly between Iran and Saudi Arabia who deal with the war in Syria as part of a wider competition for regional influence, mainly on sectarian, Sunni versus Shia, grounds.

Meanwhile, Muslim Americans have to prepare themselves for a wave of suspicion and increased surveillance — an experience they have periodically undergone following every major terrorist attack on American ground or across the Atlantic in Europe.

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