What else can besieged American Muslims do?

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  • Haroon Moghul: Besieged American Muslims hoped for Obama speech to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry, outline how to defeat terror
  • He defended U.S. Muslims, challenged them to root extremism, giving them agency in their own narrative. He was weaker on foiling ISIS

Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is an author, essayist and public speaker. Follow him @hsmoghul. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)American Muslims had the same questions as most Americans, ahead of President Obama's Sunday night speech to the nation about terror. What tone would he take? What new policies would he lay out? Would he take a position on gun control?

But we had even more specific concerns, too.
Haroon Moghul
Why? I cannot remember American Muslims feeling so anxious, unsettled, or scared for their future. Like many, I hoped President Obama would take a clear stand against anti-Muslim bigotry. More importantly, though, I expected an outline of how America might defeat the terrorist movement that has declared war on so much of the world.
    You see, for Muslims, this year has been a painful one. Today, for example, Donald Trump called for all Muslims to be blocked from entering the United States.
    In April, a former candidate for U.S. Congress from Tennessee, Robert Doggart, was arrested for plotting to attack a Muslim community with guns, bombs, even a machete. In August, Ku Klux Klan member Glendon Crawford was arrested for plotting to build and use a weapon of mass destruction against Muslim targets. And politicians' rhetoric has all but declared open season on American Muslims.
    There's GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson's proposal of a religious test for high office, and Donald Trump's suggestion that Muslims carry special IDs. Some 76% percent of Republicans now believe Islam and American values are at odds, while 30% of Iowa Republicans believe Islam should be illegal in America
    An irony here is that even as some Americans believe Muslims can't be loyal to America, the Islamic State's brutal attacks continue to attack people regardless of their faith.
    ISIS' self-styled confederates have bombed Kuwaiti and Saudi mosques, reportedly taken down a Russian airliner, attacked Turkey, Lebanon and France. This week has seen a massacre in San Bernardino, by a married couple who at least claimed ISIS affiliation, and attempted murder on the London metro by a knife wielding man who reportedly shouted "this is for Syria." The world's first social media war has gone global, and most of the world's Muslims fear being caught in the crossfire.
    So American Muslims watched Obama speak Sunday night with great interest.
    On American pluralism and democracy, he spoke forcefully: "Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes -- and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country." He insisted "We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam." He's right about that. But he also acknowledged some of the concerns of Republican candidates.
    "That does not mean denying," Obama added, that we are fighting "an extremist ideology." Nor that "Muslims must confront, without excuse," that very "hateful ideology."
    President Obama insisted "Muslims around the world" must "root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization," though he did not say how. But Wajahat Ali, an Al Jazeera journalist and author of a groundbreaking study of American Islamophobia, "Fear Inc.," thinks that's a good thing.
    Ali told me Obama's call was "an opportunity for Muslim-Americans to emerge as the protagonists of their own narrative." Rather than being stuck in a cycle of fruitless condemnation, which leaves us feeling defensive even as it traps us in reaction, Ali believes Obama's urging opens the door to a narrative of empowerment. To define ourselves as more than a national security threat.
    "By recognizing Muslims as our allies, friends and neighbors," Ali said, "Obama is challenging the absolutist worldview of extremists on both sides."
    But last night's speech, though strong on foiling Islamophobia, was weaker on the campaign against ISIS. Obama recounted past follies and current policies, but offered little in the way of future directions. The President wants America to continue its campaign of airstrikes, he urged the world to form a stronger coalition to defeat ISIS, but he ruled out large numbers of American ground troops: "If we occupy foreign lands, [ISIS] can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits."
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    But what Obama did not say is that the allies have their own priorities. Or that Russia's more aggressive posture has at times threatened to push American efforts to the sidelines. He didn't ask whether Americans at large must root out our own misguided ideas, either, such as, for example, that we stand for democracy, though we support dictatorships, occupations and wars we have no business fighting. There are few good options, and while Republicans have offered little beyond tougher-talking bluster, bluster at least sounds stronger.
    And people who are scared go for strength. Donald Trump has already advocated killing the families of terrorists. Beyond his open support for terrorism (isn't attacking civilians for political purposes the definition of terror), is the Republican frontrunner arguing that the families of San Bernardino shooters Farouk and Malik should be killed?
    American Muslims are often asked to condemn extremism, though we already do. Obama asked Muslims to "root out misguided ideas," though there are already many such efforts. But as we face radicals who have gone so far underground, who hide their plans from even family and evade detection of law enforcement, the first option feels like it doesn't do nearly enough, while the second works very slowly at best.
    The longer this war drags on, the more Muslims will be held responsible for a movement that, mind you, kills more Muslims than anyone else. That is what it feels like to be an American Muslim these days. To be under siege.
    Terrorists try to recruit from our communities, blow up our mosques, imperil our coexistence and empower our enemies, while at the same time we are assumed to be complicit in their violence. Perhaps that was why Obama insisted that we must not allow ourselves to be turned against each other. "We have always met challenges," the President said, "by coming together around our common ideals as one nation, as one people."