Following the terrorist attacks in Paris and the rising threat of ISIS, the United States has experienced a significant and disturbing increase in Islamophobia. Fueled in part by divisive, irresponsible and misleading political rhetoric, anti-Muslim sentiment is, by some measures, higher than it was in the days following 9/11. This racist sentiment has been translated into overt acts of domestic terrorism, hate crimes ranging from attacks on mosques to physical violence directed against the Muslim community. In Philadelphia, a pig’s head was thrown at a mosque; in Austin, torn pages of the Quran smeared with feces were left for worshipers at a mosque; and in Connecticut gunmen opened fire on a mosque. Even more disturbingly, two thirds of New Hampshire Republican primary voters expressed their desire to ban Muslims from entering the US, and Congress recently tried to pass the SAFE Act, which would essentially ban Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the US.

Many have aptly noted that this dangerous prejudice is a direct affront to religious tolerance, the very foundation of the American Constitution. Just as importantly, Islamophobia and the resulting policy decisions made as a result of fear and short term thinking, directly contribute to the rise of Islamic extremism. In short, not only does Islamophobia betray our national values, it betrays our national interests and our national security.

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Our partners at The Alliance for Peacebuilding, have conducted groundbreaking research in the field of Countering Violent Extremism.  This research concludes that the most consistent drivers of violence include perceptions of marginalization and injustice, exposure to violence, feelings of isolation, and the belief that joining a violent movement holds the best prospects of achieving justice or purpose. Aggression toward or systemic exclusion of specific communities often fuels grievances and increases propensity towards violence. Marginalization, discrimination, alienation and rejection are some key social drivers of violent extremism. Islamophobia – which leads to marginalization and discrimination –therefore doesn’t defeat violent extremism, it helps grow it.  

Sadly, as we struggle to reject Islamophobia and reclaim our national identity as an open, tolerant society, terrorist groups such as ISIS rejoice, growing ever more powerful as a result. To divide Americans, pitting Muslim against non-Muslim, is the professed international strategy of these terrorist groups. In their propaganda magazine Dabiq, ISIS wrote, “there is no gray zone in this crusade against the Islamic State…the world has split into two encampments, one for the people of faith, the other for the people of [disbelief], all in preparation for the final [great war]”. An America where Muslims are not welcome is exactly what ISIS wants. Failure to effectively engage religious minorities and promote an environment that values tolerance and difference creates the perfect breeding ground for these grievances.   

The argument against Islamophobia is powerful when based solely on enshrined American values of religious freedom and tolerance. It is even more powerful if Americans recognize the role that misguided and hateful anti-Islamic sentiment plays in promoting violent extremism. To prevent violent extremism and address the grievances that cause it at home and abroad, it is the responsibility of all Americans to resist fear tactics by political leaders and speak out against extremist elements within our own society that promote the exact kind of intolerance endorsed by ISIS.

Greenberg is president and CEO of Alliance for Peacebuilding.