Yesterday, a man opened fire in the visitors center of the US Capitol. He drew his weapon and pointed it at officers, one of whom fired and struck the suspect before he could go any further. The media would later learn that the same man had shouted “I am a Prophet of God” from the balcony of the House of Representatives in 2015.
Except the shooter’s name was Larry Dawson, and he’s not Muslim.
Now I know there’s always a difference between how you want to define a word and how society around you chooses to. A fair definition of terrorism might be one that describes violence against civilians by a non-state actor or actors, in the service of a political cause.
But most of our media has its own definition of terrorism: A Muslim did it.
Once we learned that Dawson wasn’t Muslim, reporters went out of their way to calm the American public. There was still almost no other information about the case, the suspect, or his motivations. “Don’t worry,” one outlet after another told us, “it’s not terrorism.”
But if a Muhammad Dawson had rushed in and opened fire, screaming “I am a Prophet of Allah,” what then? Today we’d be discussing a new and even more offensive policy proposed by Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Meanwhile Donald Trump would be making the rounds on TV, offering ever more outrageous, unconstitutional, and Geneva-noncompliant policy proposals.
I’m not arguing that Dawson was in fact a terrorist. I’m pointing, once again, to the double standard in how we treat Muslims. That we collectively breathed a sigh of relief when we found out there was no material connection to terrorism because the shooter was just a crazy guy screaming about God says a lot. More Americans die from this kind of violence than from terrorism. But so long as gun violence is not terrorism, the public is urged to go about business as usual.
Muslims in America are Muslims first, everything else second. Therefore if a Muslim commits a violent action, it must be because of Islam. After all, when was the last time you heard of a Muslim suffering mental illness?
We also fail to distinguish between different kinds of Islamic terrorism. See this tweet after Sunday’s Lahore Blast, by Subramanian Swamy, a member of India’s right-wing, ruling BJP.
Let’s stop for a moment and think about this.
A Muslim in Pakistan, allegedly affiliated with a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban (Jama’at al-Ahrar), blew himself up inside a Lahore park, while earlier ISIL claimed responsibility for the attacks in Brussels. This tweet assumes that the motivations of these different attackers, who come from different continents and cultures, must be the same. That’s like saying that because Ho Chi Minh and Tito were Communists, the Vietcong and Tito’s partisans all had the same motivations.
I’m not claiming that alienation is the only, primary or even a relevant cause in the Paris or Brussels attacks. I’m saying that just because the attackers share a religion doesn’t make their motivations the same, especially when they’re from wholly different contexts. Islamophobia is racism because it treats Muslims as a race in which all members can be reduced to the same motivations. But Islamophobia is not the only, or even the most pernicious, kind of racism. (As an aside, I’d add that, here in America, many Muslims are black.)
Talking about Islamophobia is like crossing the street. To understand why this prejudice is so dangerous, you have to look both ways.
If violence committed by Muslims is worse than violence committed by other people, then the victims of other kinds of violence also matter less. In December, a Trump supporter stood outside a mosque, threatened to kill everyone, and posted a picture of a bomb on his Facebook page. When police went to his home, they found a homemade explosive and detonated it. His punishment? Maybe 90 days in jail, at most.
Ninety days in jail for threatening to blow up a mosque? It’s not just that the hopeful anti-Muslim terrorist was white, but that his intended victims were Muslims. Remember the guy who tried to build a radioactive weapon to attack Americans? I didn’t think so, because the former Klan member was targeting Muslims.
This year, more Americans have died from gun violence in Chicago alone than in the San Bernardino or Brussels terror attacks. But the shooters aren’t Muslim, and the victims largely aren’t white. If it’s Muslims attacking, we are willing to discuss banning an entire religious group from the country (violating our secular politics) or carpet-bombing another country (that’s a war crime).
But keeping Americans safe from gun violence? We can summon almost no political will to do anything about this, even though it’s more dangerous, under our immediate circumstances, than terrorism. When you say that some kinds of violence matter more than other kinds of violence, you’re also saying that some victims matter more than other victims.
So Islamophobia isn’t just unfair to Muslims. It’s one part of a broader double standard that ends up dismissing the very real pain, suffering and fear of many other people from many other backgrounds, all of whom have the misfortune of being born the wrong color–or into the wrong religion.