Security in an Era of Uncertainty (by Chris Milburn)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

The United States has new leadership. Among many notable changes made immediately by the new administration, the president has authorized religion-based immigration restrictions and has taken action to focus solely on Islam as a source of violent extremism within the United States. These early actions indicate a newly institutionalized “Islamophobia” that could prove to be disastrous for national security efforts if not addressed correctly by security practitioners.

Islam is the second largest religion in the world, and is as vast and complex as any of the world’s other faiths. As with all religions, understandings of its holy texts and traditions range from liberal to conservative on a spectrum with an infinite number of points in between. Muslims range from the intensely practical to mystical, from socially active to intensely private. Among this diverse group of Muslims, a branch known as Islamism has emerged from chaotic social conditions in the Middle East.

Islamism generally refers to a particular activist ideology with specific territorial, political, and social aspirations, and represents only a small fraction of the religion of Islam. Islamist extremists have threatened to upset global efforts toward peace and human rights by suppressing other Muslim groups and focusing some of their efforts toward western nations such as the U.S. and her allies. One of their most important ideas is the claim that the U.S. is at war with all Muslims, and they consistently produce evidence that they use to support their claim.

Islamist groups – such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State – specifically attempt to inflate their appearance by claiming to represent the true face of Islam. In falsely adopting the whole identity of Islam, these violent extremists aspire to appear larger and more threatening than they really are. The symbolic violence associated with terrorism functions in precisely the same way. Disproportionate fear of the terrorist often causes the target group to sacrifice its own freedoms for the sake of increasing security. The promise of improved security, of course, cannot be quantified, but is used to justify austere authoritarian measures when promised to a group living in fear.

In terms of Muslim beliefs, it is the violent Islamist ideology that is of most concern to the homeland security enterprise. But in treating all Muslims with suspicion, Americans play directly into the hands of those very few extremists seeking ownership of the Muslim identity. Suspicion leads to scapegoating, and the suppression of group rights is rarely far behind. Muslims seem to make easy targets for suspicious Americans, and this impulse to scapegoat “others” is often difficult to suppress in times of uncertainty.

It is fundamentally important to accurately identify sources of violent extremism. Homeland security efforts are most effective when approached with analytical precision and a constitutional foundation. Painting the adversary with a broad brush is the easy approach – one that is rarely effective and usually counterproductive. The American homeland security enterprise must painstakingly distinguish between peaceful religious practitioners and those seeking to commit violence using the false cover of an entire religion. American efforts should undoubtedly focus on violent ideologies and take measures to prevent their proliferation. Violent Islamism is one of these, but it is not by any means the sole producer of terrorist violence within the U.S.

By all indications, the years ahead could pose significant challenges for national security and counterterrorism efforts. Security experts in western nations will be expected to perform increasingly complex tasks in an amorphous and ambiguous environment. Consistency will be maintained when security efforts remain analytical and evidence-driven, while applying rigorous frameworks to understand social conflicts. Security practitioners should bear in mind that rigorous threat analysis will always outperform both hysteria and generalities in national security efforts.

U.S. security efforts must maintain an essential American character in which violence is not tolerated while constitutional protections remain intact. It is of the utmost importance that security efforts support the free expression of religion while seeking to disrupt violent ideologies that threaten the United States. Homeland security actions that interfere with Muslims’ abilities to exist as ordinary Americans will be devastating to American values. In this way, the battle for the identity of Islam is a battle for the identity of the United States. The success of homeland security efforts over the coming few years will depend on practitioners’ firm individual commitments to measured, precise strategies that resist the tendency to generalize the nature of the threat.