Recently, the House of Representatives narrowly voted down an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that targeted the Islamic faith. Sponsored by Arizona Republican Trent Franks, the amendment instructed Defense Secretary James Mattis to conduct a strategic assessment of the use of “violent or unorthodox Islamic religious doctrine to support extremist or terrorist messaging and justification.” The Defense Department would have been required to identify “Islamic religious doctrines, concepts, or schools of thought” used by various extremist groups, and provide recommendations for identifying “key thought leaders or proponents” of these doctrines. The amendment failed in the face of strenuous opposition by every House Democrat as well as 27 Republicans and numerous advocacy organizations.
It is, of course, sensible for the government to study the motivations of terrorist groups that seek to harm us. Indeed, the U.S. government has been studying the belief systems of terrorists for years. The Franks amendment is fundamentally flawed, however, in that it assumes that “unorthodox Islamic religious doctrine” is the motive, to the exclusion of all others. It’s not unique in this regard. Government officials from both parties have long sought to frame political violence in the Muslim world as primarily one of religious “extremism” or “radicalization,” to avoid a broader evaluation of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. support for autocratic, and often brutally suppressive, regimes in the region as sources of instability and anti-American sentiment.
Coming on the heels of President Donald Trump’s speech in Warsaw, which described terrorism carried out in the name of Islam and the refugee crisis as an assault on “Western values,” and combined with the overall anti-Muslim tenor of the current administration, the Franks amendment simply continues the narrative of counterterrorism as a civilizational struggle—a narrative that Franks himself has long embraced—laying the blame for the violence of a relative few at the doorstep of a faith practiced by almost two billion people around the world. As Rep. Ruben Gallego (a former Marine infantryman), speaking against the Franks amendment on the House floor, said, “By singling out a faith tradition…we are sending a dangerous message and signal that America is at war with Islam.”
Moreover, as Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison argued, the amendment violates the principles of religious liberty fundamental to our national identity. It imagines the government as a legitimate authority on what is and isn’t an “orthodox” interpretation of a religious faith, a nasty practice almost certainly forbidden by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause.
The Franks amendment’s demand to focus research only on terrorism committed by Muslims as opposed to other types of political violence didn’t come out of nowhere. While both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama were careful to avoid conflating Islam and terrorism in their rhetoric, their policies told a different story. Surveillance programs run by the FBI and local police (most famously the New York Police Department) have long targeted American Muslim communities as hotbeds of terrorism, while downplaying the risks from other types of ideologically motivated violence. The Obama administration’s countering violent extremism (CVE) programs too were implicitly based on the disproven hypothesis that extremist beliefs lead to violent action so that a preemptive approach to terrorism required the suppression of ideas. In fact, evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people who hold “radical” beliefs do not engage in, nor support, violence. CVE’s focus on Muslim communities – which has become an even bigger focus under the Trump administration – reinforces the stereotype that Islam is uniquely violent, stigmatizing Muslim-American communities as inherently suspect, or more sympathetically, “vulnerable” to terrorist recruitment. Separating out “good” Muslims (e.g., those who support Western foreign policy) from “bad” Muslims (e.g., those who object to our ventures in the Middle East) has long been a cornerstone of U.S. policy.
These implicit biases have now become explicit. The Trump administration did not invent Islamophobia, but it has normalized the expression of anti-Muslim sentiment in our political discourse, and attempted to cement it in government policy. In doing so, it has sanctioned mistrust of and animosity toward Muslim-Americans, emboldening lawmakers like Trent Franks to boldly take up the anti-Muslim crusade in the name of national security. That the Franks amendment actually offers no legitimately effective method to combat terrorism is almost beside the point. Its true threat lies in the explicit line it draws in the sand, dividing people by faith. Thankfully, the amendment was rejected, sending a strong reminder that regardless of who occupies the presidency, policies like this have no place in our society.
Image: Getty/Brendan Hoffman