Editor’s Note: Jonathan Russell is Head of Policy for the anti-radicalization think tank Quilliam. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
Donald Trump is wrong about the problem, but he is also wrong about the solution, writes Jonathan Russell
Trump will contribute to Islamist radicalization, he says
With his comments, Donald Trump has confirmed that he is not a serious presidential candidate. If he were serious, he would know that preventing radicalization, extremism and terrorism is more important than soundbites, more complex than profiling, and more in need of a human rights-based approach than he seems able to contemplate.
America is hurting following the worst terrorist attack on its soil since 9/11. Trump knows he can exploit this hurt politically, and his advisers will have told him that when he talks tough, he polls well. Perhaps, then, it is more apt to say Trump is serious about winning an election, even if he is not serious about being president.
The next U.S. President must consider radicalization of American Muslims an important issue for U.S. national security and must admit that it is more complex than Muslim immigration. The online communications strategy of ISIS means that American Muslims, once less vulnerable to jihadist recruitment than their European counterparts, are now part of that terrorist group’s target audience.
The recent paper by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, “ISIS in America,” reveals more than 250 Americans sought to join ISIS and 56 individuals have been arrested this year for ISIS-related activities – a vast increase on comparable terrorist activity in previous years.
Further inspection of “ISIS in America” shows why Trump is wrong not right. The former director of the FBI Robert S. Mueller III said that the biggest threat comes from “self-radicalized, homegrown extremists in the United States” and that is backed up with current statistics that shows the FBI currently has 900 ongoing investigations against homegrown violent Islamist extremists linked to ISIS.
In other words, the national security threat and the support for ISIS in America is not coming from immigration or from refugees, but from a disparate set of people who are willing to change their behavior because they buy into the Islamist worldview propagated by ISIS and other organizations.
Maajid Nawaz’s cursory look at perpetrators of terrorism on American soil shows that the San Bernardino terrorists were unknown to the authorities and one of them was female, the Boston bombers were white and of Caucasian heritage, and the 9/11 attackers purposefully shaved off their beards, attended strip clubs, and drank alcohol on practice flights. None of these people would be caught by the profiling proposed by Trump.
So Trump is wrong about the problem. But he is also wrong about the solution. He must know that counter-extremism policy is more complex than profiling, which would not only fail to make America safer (or indeed great again), it would likely exacerbate the extremist problem itself. The negative consequences of getting counter-extremism policy wrong can exacerbate radicalization in three main ways.
First, Trump has become a champion for the American far-right and their anti-Muslim rhetoric. He makes the mood music to which white supremacists dance. Those with a propensity to violence need an atmosphere in which their views have become normalized, and violence has become considered an appropriate option to action those views.
If Trump were to get elected, due to the fact that profiling and discrimination on the grounds of religion are completely unconstitutional and un-American, he would be unable to deliver this particular election promise. This will leave many of his anti-Muslim supporters unfulfilled, disenfranchised and motivated to act unilaterally in opposition to Muslims and Islam. He therefore won’t just increase anti-Muslim sentiment, his actions will also prompt more anti-Muslim violence.
Secondly, Trump will contribute to Islamist radicalization as his comments will make Muslims feel unwelcome in America. This grievance will fuel their identity crisis, which when combined are a potent combination for the vulnerability that ISIS is so adept at exploiting with their Islamist narrative. We must counter this narrative, but must avoid exacerbating this vulnerability too. ISIS thrives on the polarization of communities in Western countries and will be relishing a recruitment surge if Trump’s rhetoric continues.
Thirdly, Trump dominates conversations. While electorally, this may mean that he gets more airtime than his fellow Republican nominees, in counter-extremism conversations, it means that progressive evidence-based counter-extremism policy gets drowned out. It means these counter-extremists get smeared with accusations of wanting the same outcome as Trump and means that the whole domain gets dragged to the far-right.
We counter-extremism practitioners know that religious and anti-religious extremists feed off each other, and are both best countered from the centre, with a firm human rights basis, yet this is roundly ignored by this “presidential troll.”
Donald J Trump is not serious. But if we are serious about opposing ISIS, preventing radicalization of American Muslims, and making “America Great Again”, we should be serious about keeping Trump out of the White House.
Jonathan Russell is Head of Policy for the anti-radicalization think tank Quilliam. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.