If there's any place in the world that appears safe from a terrorist attack, it's a prosperous little town in Iowa called Pella. With a population of slightly more than 10,000, it was settled by Dutch immigrants in 1847 and this history is observed in the town's architecture, culture and festivals. A mixed economy of agriculture, manufacturing and tourism has allowed generations of its citizens to prosper. The median household income is over $58,000, approximately $6,000 more than the state average, and the cost of living is low.
Despite the fact that most of the people in the community have never met anyone of the Muslim faith, if you speak to a random person in a coffee shop, you might find that they are deeply afraid of them. This fear, of course, comes from media reports of terrorist attacks all over the world, made more profound by the fact that we are less than a month in front of the Iowa caucuses and Republican candidates are crisscrossing the state, making fear a campaign issue.
Most of the people in the community don't know that a person who has made the study of those who commit terrorist acts her life's work is their neighbor. Cynthia Mahmood is an anthropologist at Central College, and former professor of Anthropology and fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She's the author of many works, including "Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants," and directs a book series called "The Ethnography of Political Violence."
Mahmood wants to reframe how we view those who commit terrorist acts. I began with a simple question: "So you study terrorism?" Her shoulders sagged a little and she took a deep breath, then readied herself for a lesson she had probably delivered a thousand times. She told me that she doesn't often use the word "terrorism" because it lacks a rigorous academic definition, and isn't really very useful. She uses the word "militants," as it's neutral, and not an accusation like "terrorist" is, or biased in favor of a group, like the term "freedom fighters." She says she studies militants and especially religious militants, and her special area of expertise is South Asia and parts of the Middle East.
She finds it problematic that militants are called terrorists if they are Islamic, while, if the perpetrator of a violent act is Christian, that word isn’t used. She says the term is "slippery" and that the Departments of Defense, Justice and State each have their own definitions, and there isn't really an agreed-upon definition of what terrorism is.
Rather than using the words "terrorism" or "terrorist" as a kind of simple explanation that supplies meaning, she is more interested in finding out what the act was, who did it and why. To Mahmood, the important questions are: Was the act of violence politically motivated or not? Did it target civilians or not? Was it a performative act? In other words, did it demand an audience, and does it seek to achieve something through the inspiration of fear?
I shared that most people I know are fearful, in part driven by media reports and the words of many Republican presidential candidates, particularly those of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMichelle Obama featured in new Clinton ad Trump camp: Dean 'went straight to the gutter' Arizona newspaper endorses Dem for president for first time MORE. Mahmood agreed, and fears that both what Trump and other Republican candidates are saying and how the media are covering the acts is resulting in a rising tide of Islamophobia, which is exactly what the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda want, in that they can claim with authority that the West hates Muslims. Trump's proposed ban on letting Muslims, even American Muslims, fly into the country is perhaps the most powerful example. Mahmood calls that "a very dangerous idea." Trump gives ISIS and al Qaeda "a clash of civilizations" where they are the heroes and youthful Muslims who are alienated from our society will be more easily recruited.
While she says she understands why people are concerned about militant attacks, the mathematics of it don't make sense. Statistically, the chances of getting killed by a militant are much smaller than winning the lottery, getting struck by lightning or choking on a ham sandwich.
So why are so many afraid of Muslims, despite the fact that there have been Muslims in America before there was an America? A little over 100 miles from where I interviewed Mahmood is the oldest mosque in America. It's in Cedar Rapids, and has been there over 80 years. Mahmood says the fear ties to a general fear of the cultural "other." She says the West has a millennium-long history of an image of the Muslim enemy that bears little relationship to reality. She says demonizing Muslims as "evil" and "monstrous" serves no positive end. One consequence is the perception that since they are evil, and monstrous, we can't talk with them, and that we can only meet them with violence because violence is all they will understand. She says this is a myth, not reality.
I pressed her on this, saying that we can watch the beheadings on YouTube. She nodded, noting the reality of these atrocities and more. The trouble is generalizing that to all Muslims, and that there is a risk implying that the militants are somehow beyond the pale of humanity. Mahmood says that while she doesn't know anyone in ISIS, she knows others who are militants in different groups, and they are more "regular" human beings than we would like to admit, and that we purposefully isolate and exoticize them because we don't want to think they are anything like us — that we don't like to think we are capable of terrible behavior like that, so we push them to more and more exotic positions. In fact, we know that the suicide bombers in Paris were French or Belgian citizens; they were people's neighbors and schoolmates. Timothy McVeigh, to bring it closer to home, was just the boy next door, but he came to a position where he felt it was his duty in some way to do what he did. Another example is the Charleston, S.C. church murders. People who commit these kinds of atrocities aren't considered terrorists because they are Christians, even though their acts are of the same nature.
Mahmood says we need to recognize that part of the reason that militants do what they do is because of the asymmetrical power structure that differentiates us from them. We are powerful, they are not. Mahmood says we need to do more than label them as terrorists and conclude that is all we need to know. We need to ask the question, what brought them to the point where they think that they are so powerless that they need to amplify their voice through these atrocious acts, like beheadings, to get attention? It's an extreme alienation; an extreme sense of disadvantage. They have a way to get our attention and inspire fear in us.
Mahmood says that the Republican presidential candidates are playing into the hands of the militants. If we simplify complex issues by portraying them as simply hating us and freedom, and that we need to exterminate them by, in the words of Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Cruz: Clinton 'tired' and 'formulaic' during debate The Trail 2016: Fight night MORE (R-Texas), "carpet bombing" them, it will only lead to more converts and increased alienation by the vast majority of peaceful Muslims. She says this rhetoric feeds ISIS and al Qaeda.
Mahmood says a more productive way is to follow the example of the authorities in San Bernardino, Calif.. Mahmood said authorities there drew on the Muslim community to work with them against criminal violence, not quote "terrorism" in the abstract. We need to reach out to the large nonviolent Muslim community, make them our allies. Turning to them for help will make their youth feel less alienated and less disempowered.
I suggested some might say that is appeasing the terrorists. Mahmood sat forward in her chair, gripping the edge of the table. "That's not appeasement; that's normal civil dialogue."
I asked her how President Obama is doing, and Mahmood said he is doing a good job putting national security first, but also putting both international and national civic dialogue very high on the front burner.
I noted that this was seen as weak by the Republican candidates and much of America, and that many say we need boots on the ground and decisive action. Mahmood nodded and said that is because the Republican candidates are coming from a position of fear and ignorance, and cooler heads need to prevail. "We tried that after 9/11, and that was a failure. We played the game with al Qaeda when they attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, which was exactly what they wanted, and we all know how well that worked out. A better plan would have been to take it before an international criminal court."
Our interview was coming to an end. Mahmood stressed that we have to play the long game, and that a solution will only come when we engage the Muslim community in a positive way. We also need to realize that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, 23 percent of the world’s population, and the vast majority of them are peaceful, good people. "Muslims will help us solve this problem if we engage them," Mahmood said in closing. "They are speaking out, but we aren't listening. We need to educate ourselves. What are people in the greater world of Islam thinking — not just the militant extremists, but in the general world — because as many have pointed out, this is an Islamic problem; I mean, ultimately the Muslim world must decide their own future. Is it going to be one of extremism or is it going to be one of moderation?"
If Mahmood is right, the implications are profound. By shedding the concept of "terrorism," and looking at the driving forces behind specific militant acts, we can get at root causes and address them. Importantly, following her recommendations will make the Muslim community our ally and not our enemy as we work together to find solutions.
Leonard is an anthropologist who covers politics for KNIA/KRLS Radio in Knoxville and Pella, Iowa. He is the author of "Yellow Cab."