Trump's rhetoric plays into ISIS's hands

Story highlights

  • Robert Klitzman: ISIS has been open about its goal in these outrageous assaults
  • Klitzman: Rhetoric from Donald Trump only fuels anger and plays into ISIS's hands

Robert Klitzman is a professor of psychiatry and director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University. He is author of "The Ethics Police?: The Struggle to Make Human Research Safe." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Fifteen years ago next month, terrorists killed my sister at the World Trade Center. She was working at her desk when an airplane annihilated her and thousands of others.

My nephew, a toddler, had difficulty understanding what happened. We told him that "bad guys" had killed his aunt.
    "Why?" he asked.
    We had trouble explaining.
    Since then, despite global efforts, terrorism has only mushroomed around the world. And we still have difficulty understanding why.
    Robert Klitzman
    The recent terrorist killings of an elderly priest in France and of innocent civilians in Belgium, Nice, Munich and elsewhere stun us all because of the seeming senselessness of the attacks. These victims are innocent and don't threaten Islam in the least. So why are terrorists killing them?
    Some pundits have argued that these terrorists are simply being "irrational." But the logic behind many of these attacks is increasingly clear. Unfortunately, Western governments, citizens and media have been slow to recognize it. And Donald Trump and his followers in particular are falling into our enemy's trap.
    The truth is that ISIS has been quite open about its goal in these outrageous assaults: to trigger anti-Muslim sentiment in these Western countries, so that these nations' citizens and governments come to distrust, suspect and lash out against their Muslim citizens. These terrorists seek to "eliminate the gray zone" -- the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims in Western countries -- to compel Muslims in these countries to either abandon their faith or join ISIS as their only protector.
    Osama Bin Laden himself described and employed this tactic of "divide and conquer" in Iraq, attacking major Shiite mosques to incite reprisals against that country's Sunni majority, who would then welcome al Qaeda as their defenders. The plan seemed to work. The country erupted in a civil war that continues today.
    Fortunately, this strategy faces significant obstacles in the West, where Muslim communities and leaders have swiftly condemned these attacks, which have killed Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Yet many Westerners still seem unfamiliar with Islam, seeing it as "the other," as something strange; and terrorists are relying on our ongoing ignorance.
    Too many in the West have tended to believe that these relatively few terrorists -- these extreme fundamentalists -- somehow reflect the views of all Muslims. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Believing this to be the case would be akin to believing that Evangelical Christians who kill abortion doctors are no different from the vast majority of Christians.
    Instead, we need to reverse such ignorance by educating ourselves, and we need to avoid taking this tempting but poisonous bait. Khzir Khan's stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention about his patriotic Muslim son sought to demonstrate this difference. And the media has given attention to Trump's criticism of the Khans, highlighting again the Republican candidate's apparent Islamophobia in the process.
    But all this goes well beyond a single spat.
    Strikingly, although ISIS has revealed its plan, Westerns have generally ignored it. The strategy seems too perverse. Granted, it does not explain every attack -- not all have been directed by ISIS itself, and some attackers appear also to have had mental illnesses. But it best makes sense of the ongoing violence.
    Yet our refusal to recognize what ISIS is trying to do is only aiding the organization. Even worse, Trump and his supporters, issuing verbal attacks against Muslims and urging restrictions against them, are doing ISIS's work by encouraging Muslims in the West to fear us. The result is that some Muslims born and raised in the United States and other Western countries are becoming radicalized.
    How can and should we respond?
    Humans have evolved to seek and eliminate the causes of our problems. But when we can't readily solve a crisis -- a host of disasters are ultimately out of our control -- we often seek out people we can blame for our misfortune. It can be an understandable temptation, but one we must avoid.
    When my sister died on September 11, my family and countless others prayed that terrorism would soon disappear. Alas, it has only proliferated. We need to respond better, by trying to understand, as my nephew did, "why?"
    I hate terrorists as much as anyone. But we will stop them not by feeding their ideology, but by understanding their strategies -- that is how we will learn how best to defeat them.
    After my sister died, for example, I read the Koran for the first time. Trying to better understand Islam -- its culture, history and past glories -- can also help us better understand how terrorism perverts and erroneously interprets the religion. And if we can appreciate that, then we will be less likely to respond in ways that are counterproductive.
    Ultimately, recent terrorist attacks should inspire us not to restrict or reject our loyal Muslim citizens, as Trump urges, but to become wiser, savvier, and more prudent.
    If we don't do this, then there is a real danger that terror victims like my sister -- and scores of other more recent ones -- will have all died in vain. We cannot let this occur.