How Right-Wing Scapegoating Hurts The Fight Against Terrorism

O'Reilly/Murdoch/BreamA few years ago, a Latina friend confided in me that while she of course abhors all acts of violence no matter what the skin color or nationality of anyone involved, when news of a violent incident breaks, she quietly hopes the assailant isn't black or brown. I know that pang of sadness, it's the potential that the news coverage will reinforce negative stereotypes about the ethnic groups she and I are part of and a feeling of responsibility to try and be a positive example -- particularly given that so few positive examples get anywhere near the same attention in American media. A Canadian Muslim man put it this way after the terrorist attack at Ottawa's Parliament Hill last year: “We're doing our best to show the best of us.”

Last week, Fox News anchor and Supreme Court correspondent Shannon Bream reinforced the source of that pang. During a discussion of the terrorist attacks on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, Bream responded to a colleague's comment that “sometimes bad guys don't look like bad guys” by saying:

That's my question about these guys. If we know they were speaking unaccented French and they had ski masks on, do we even know what color they were, what the tone of their skin was? I mean, what if they didn't look like typical bad guys? As we define them when we think about terror groups.

No one on the panel challenged her divisive stereotyping or spoke up to disagree. Nor did anyone note that terrorists and “bad guys” come in all colors and cultural backgrounds; that Islam is a religion not a skin tone. Or that those who actually know something about the Islamic faith consider these terrorists to be extremist perversions of their religion -- the same way most Americans don't consider the Ku Klux Klan as a Christian organization despite what they may call themselves.  

Two days later on Twitter, Bream's boss piled on the stereotyping. News Corp. and 21st Century Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch essentially asserted that the young man in Canada is right to be concerned. Even if you are a Muslim trying to do your best to “show the best” the leader of one of the world's largest media conglomerates views you one of the bad guys, responsible for the behavior of extremist Muslims, aka “their” people. 

Mr. Murdoch's rhetoric divisively alienates rather than engages Muslims who both regularly denounce and are often the victims of Islamic terrorism. 

The insinuation that peaceful Muslims are ignoring the issue is one often promoted by Murdoch's employees. Sounding just short of an accusation of indifference or tacit endorsement of the vicious attack, Fox News host Bob Beckel complained last week that Muslim organizations were “being quiet” ; at that very moment, an interview with a spokesperson from just such a group denouncing the barbarism in Paris was available to view on FoxNews.com. Globally, organizations ranging from the Arab League to Al-Azhar to the French and British Muslim Councils were actually quick to condemn the violence and those who perpetrated it; and they continue to speak out.  

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Europe's right wing, anti-migrant, anti-Muslim political parties are using the attacks in Paris last week to gain support for policies aimed at halting immigration to Europe from “specific” countries. The nativist groups are scapegoating Muslim immigrants, blaming the violence on migration policies, multiculturalism, and a failure to “assimilate,” as well as the broader rise of Islamic extremism throughout Europe and an overall decline in society.

Sounding a bit like American conservatives' “order at the border” rhetoric, the fanatically anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders said, “We have to close our borders, reinstate border controls, get rid of political correctness, introduce administrative detention, and stop immigration from Islamic countries.”

America's right wing media was quick to join in the fear-mongering, promoting similar anti-migration, anti-multiculturalism rhetoric, and the message that they can never be like us. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly asserted on his show that by allowing Muslims to immigrate to France, “France brought a lot of this terrorism on themselves.” ABC and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham opined on her radio show that France “reap[s] what they sow” with its migration policies, adding:

When you tolerate what France has tolerated - well, they have, of course, the history of colonization of Africa, Algeria and so forth -- meant that in the elite French eyes we were going to bring in all of these Muslims, they were going to live in French society, all was going to be well, we were going to believe in and live by this creed of multiculturalism, and all of this was going to work out fine, anyone who questioned that, they would be vilified.   

On Fox and Friends, co-host Tucker Carlson suggested that the United States should also consider that it may not be   “a good idea to let a lot of people from countries where violent Islamism is rife come to this country... what do we get out of it?”  

It's not only reprehensible to paint a whole group of people with such a broad brush, crank up anti-Muslim sentiment, and ignore that native born citizens like Colleen LaRose (aka Jihad Jane), are also vulnerable to following extremist Islamic ideology. Doing so also has security implications.

Academic research into the causes of terrorism directly contradicts the idea that multiculturalism is part of the problem, pointing instead to the powerful tool inclusion and engagement can be in preventing radicalization, increasing integration into a set of values and broader counterterrorism strategies. One such study, authored in 2010 by the Center for European Reform's Rem Korteweg and colleagues, examined the radicalization process and found that factors like racism and bigotry as well as economic factors like high unemployment “reinforce the sensation of disenfranchisement and contribute to radicalization. Extremist Islamism offers these people new meaning.”

Another study examined the correlation between feeling excluded and support for or a “sympathetic” view of extremist Islam. Among the findings: young Muslims ages 18-25 in Montreal were less likely than their counterparts in Berlin and Copenhagen to feel excluded from society, and they were much less likely to identify with Islamic extremism. Results like these are why engagement and inclusion are among the strategies America's National Counterterrorism Center utilizes in preventing radicalization.

The tragedy in Paris last week was nothing short of barbarism, and Islamic extremists around the world pose a threat we obviously can't ignore. But winning this war will require smarter strategies than scapegoating Muslims, alienating people who look different and share our values, or closing borders. Our media has one of the most important roles in supporting those strategies rather than undermining them with racist stereotypes and we have to hold them accountable.