On July 10 the Union-Bulletin endangered the safety of the handful of Muslims living in Walla Walla when its editors decided to publish resident Craig Buchanan’s incitement-filled letter to the editor condemning all Muslims, especially American Muslims, and targeting Muslim foreign exchange students studying at Walla Walla High School in particular.
The statements in this letter need to be recognized for what they are — examples of incitement to violence. The First Amendment does not protect speech that encourages discrimination and/or violence against individual people or groups based on their religion.
It was truly heartening to see the letter condemned by the U-B readership, which speaks wonders for our accepting community. Still, it is important to correct widely-circulated misinformation contained in this letter that simply ignores facts reported by scholars of terrorism, legal advocacy groups, and even the FBI’s domestic terrorism database.
What most discussions of so-called “Islamic” terrorism fail to understand is that there is a general rise in extremism in all its forms, including the secular variety, in the U.S. Unfortunately, investigations on Capitol Hill have chosen to conduct witch hunts against Muslims rather than accept FBI statistics showing between the years 1980-2005 that 94 percent of the perpetrators of terrorism on American soil have been non-Muslims.
Terrorism scholar James Piazza of Penn State University, using a database at the START Center at the University of Maryland, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence (start.umd.edu/gtd/), has examined terrorist acts from 1970 to 2010 and found that the total number of attacks on U.S. soil was 2,362, out of which only 49 were perpetrated by Muslims, including Muslims affiliated with secular political organizations like the PLO.
Statistically, that places terrorist acts committed on U.S. soil by non-Muslims since 1970 at 97.9 percent. The numbers clearly show that Christians, Jews and secular groups are committing almost all of the terrorism in our nation. Yet this violence is invisible.
The facts also show that American Muslims are by and large upstanding, patriotic citizens. The Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found in its 2011 study that since 9/11, 40 percent of domestic terror plots were foiled by the FBI with Muslim-American assistance.
As a native of southeast Michigan, I saw many Arab and Muslim-Americans in my community join the FBI and various intelligence services to protect the US after 9/11. In addition, over 4,000 Muslims and many more non-Muslim Arabs serve in the US armed forces and many more are fire fighters, police officers, and medics saving fellow Americans’ lives every day. They deserve thanks for their service protecting our country, not misguided suspicion.
Terrorism is a complicated matter demanding nuance rather than reductive reasoning. The facts tell us that Muslims are the predominant victims of violent extremism worldwide as the attacks on mosques in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and now Syria show.
Referring to these groups as “jihadists,” as Buchanan’s letter does when referring to the 9/11 attackers, lends legitimacy to what is, in fact, the illegitimate use of violence by misguided fringe groups. We must remember that 60 Muslims perished among the estimated 3,000 who were murdered in the World Trade Center attack.
The 2011 Counter Terrorism Report issued by the FBI noted that statistically “Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.”
Much like their violent extremist Christian and Jewish counterparts, this brand of Muslim extremism presents all other Muslim viewpoints as illegitimate in order to justify their attacks. Arguing that extremists groups represent all Muslims ignores the violence they do to other Muslims.
By publishing this incitement-filled letter, the U-B has put Muslims in our community in fear of harassment and even violence. Third-party advocacy groups have found that speech matters a great deal when it comes to hate crime.
Hate speech has been on the rise, most notably during the 2010 controversy over an Islamic center in New York, generated by the same anti-Muslim extremists that produced most of Buchanan’s talking points. The SPLC has also noted a direct correlation between hate speech and hate crime; religiously-biased violence reached an all-time high in this country in 2012, a 50 percent jump in the same year that the media generated the specter of shari’a (Islamic jurisprudence) in America.
This is not surprising. The FBI reports that there was a 42 percent increase in crimes against Muslims, as well as a general rise in hate crimes in the U.S. in 2009-2010. More broadly, since 2000, hate groups have risen in the U.S. by 67 percent “patriot” and other anti-American-government groups have risen by a shocking 813 percent just since President Obama took office in 2008; they now number at 1,360 in the U.S. according to the SPLC.
Yet, empty rhetoric generated by bloggers and mainstream media about fantasies of “infiltration” by Muslims in a country where Muslims constitute only 0.6 percent of the population, resulted in attacks against not only Muslims, but also those perceived to be Muslim in 2012, while the shari’a scare was full steam.
We cannot forget the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting that was committed by a white supremacist, and neither can we forget the killing of a Hindu man shoved onto the tracks of a New York subway by a woman who thought he was Muslim!
I have great pride in being a decade-old Walla Walla resident, an educator who teaches Islamic and Middle East history, and a member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish who is doing her best to raise her child, who bears a Muslim-sounding name, to be an open-minded and generous human being.
I hope that we can all combat hate and preserve the safety of our children from every kind of violence, including hateful ignorance.
Elyse Semerdjian is associate professor of Islamic World/Middle Eastern history at Whitman College. Specializing in the history of Syria, Islamic law, and Muslim/Christian relations, she is the author of “Off the Straight Path: Illicit Sex, Law, and Community in Ottoman Aleppo" (Syracuse University Press: 2008).