Don't play into hands of terrorists

Story highlights

  • Arjun Sethi: The U.S. cannot mimic other countries' policies that stigmatize and isolate Muslims
  • Targeting American Muslims will play into the hands of ISIS, Sethi says

Arjun Singh Sethi is a writer, lawyer and director of law and policy at The Sikh Coalition. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he specializes in counterterrorism and law enforcement. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Principles aren't tested during times of prosperity; they're tested during times of uncertainty.

In the wake of the tragic attacks in Paris, U.S. lawmakers have been quick to propose policy reforms to prevent similar incidents on U.S. soil.
More than half of American governors want to ban Syrian refugees from their states. Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want a religious test for Syrian refugees, while candidate Rand Paul wants to ban refugees from countries with jihadist movements.
    Some have turned their gaze more inward. They are looking to Edward Snowden, claiming his revelations enabled terrorists to escape detection. Others are thinking larger, arguing that encryption provided by companies like Apple is enabling terrorists to "go dark" and escape surveillance entirely.
    Arjun Sethi
    Finally, there are those championing more aggressive policing. Rep.Peter King, R-New York, for example, has called for greater surveillance of American Muslim communities, measures that closely resemble the now disbanded New York Police Department mapping program under which the NYPD monitored and tracked the daily movements of American Muslims absent any connection to wrongdoing.
    Terrorism inspires fear, inflicts loss of life, and causes decision makers to abandon principle and embrace exigency.
    In the coming days and weeks, many will seek to fortify the United States at all costs without regard to principle or right. The victims of such policies will be disproportionately law abiding American Muslims.
    We've already seen this in France. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, Muslims were arrested and prosecuted for nonviolent political speech. Just earlier this month, France's highest court conclusively criminalized advocating sanctions and a boycott against Israel. Now, President François Hollande wants to amend the French Constitution to allow for even greater surveillance and police overreach.
    Of course, these policies only further the already entrenched isolation and stigmatization of French Muslims. Hijabs cannot be worn in many public places, the niqab is banned, and Muslim dominant areas, many of which are terribly poor, are sometimes openly ignored by the government.
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    The United States must not fall into the same trap of prejudice, isolation and marginalization.
    For example, those who wish to ban refugees from our shores ignore the fact that since 9/11, more than 750,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States and not one has been convicted of plotting terrorism here at home. In fact, Muslims make up the largest proportion of terror victims worldwide. Casting a wide net of suspicion over refugees will lead to xenophobia and stigmatization of American Muslims.
    In the aftermath of Paris, the United States will likely also accelerate "countering violent extremism" programs, which ask teachers, community leaders and religious officials to identify youth at risk of turning to violent extremism.
    These programs almost exclusively target American Muslims and encourage a hypersensitivity to innocuous activity, like wearing a hijab, attending political rallies or critiquing U.S. foreign policy. It's no wonder that 14-year-old Ahmed Mohammed was suspended for bringing a homemade clock to school earlier this year in Texas.
    Similarly, mapping of Muslim American communities, what Peter King and others have recommended, may soon follow as well. Guidelines released by the Justice Department last December explicitly permit intelligence data gathering operations on the basis of race or religion, similar to the now disbanded NYPD program. In fact, the U.S. government could map the entire American Muslim community nationwide. It's unclear whether anyone would bat an eye that the NYPD mapping program didn't lead to a single criminal conviction.
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    Calls on technology companies to abandon encryption are similarly misguided and should fall on deaf ears. If companies like Apple permit a backdoor loophole for the government, then why can't hackers, cybercriminals or ISIS use the same loophole? Encryption is the best way to protect privacy in the digital age, and is acutely important for American Muslims.
    Documents provided by Edward Snowden, for example, show that the National Security Agency and FBI covertly monitored the emails of at least several prominent American Muslims, including civil rights leaders, professors and a one-time candidate for public office, despite them having no connection to terrorism or criminal wrongdoing.
    When the United States overreaches, it plays into the hands of ISIS. A recent study found that ISIS inspires more terrorist attacks than they commandeer. That's because ISIS preys on isolation and marginalization of Muslims. The uptick in hate crimes and bias-related incidents against American Muslims since 9/11 and after Friday's attack in Paris play into their hands. Their goal is a Manichean world, where all Muslims are at war with the West. They want exclusion rather than inclusion. Fear rather than principle. We must not give it to them.