Albin-Lohr Jones / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

We are all terrorists

The debate on terrorism forces Muslims to participate in an unwinnable argument

November 28, 2015 2:00AM ET

I arrived in Oslo, Norway, on Nov. 16 as Europe began its first workweek after deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. As I stood in line for passport control, a clipped voice over a public address system declared that it was time for a moment of silence in solidarity with Parisians. As the announcement ended, the two men ahead of me in line, clutching green Pakistani passports, exchanged a glance.

I understood their palpable anxiety. The horrors of Paris have bloated the weight of being brown and Muslim to grotesque proportions. Terrorism’s ravages dangle over the exchange that permits entry or can deny it. In the hush, I began to rehearse my responses to anticipated questions. I felt nervous and unprepared.

Europe was coming together to commemorate the 130 lives lost, the 350 people injured and the millions left traumatized in seven coordinated attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Despite condemnations by Muslim community leaders and ordinary Muslims alike, the post-Paris political climate was overtaken by a seductive Islamophobia that substantiates existing prejudice and rallies the terrified Westerner to support outright exclusion of Muslims from their countries or an abridgment of their rights. It did not matter that Muslims are the most frequent targets of terrorism and the vast majority of Muslims condemn ISIL. In the odd instance that Muslims were included in television debates or quoted in news reports, their remarks have been ineffectual, bouncing off the Teflon-coated belief in Muslim complicity and culpability.

Religious profiling and social and cultural exclusion often reach a fever pitch after a terrorist attack. Such profiling and the resultant mass surveillance place undue expectations on ordinary Muslims. During a radio interview I did a few days after the Paris attacks, my interviewer appeared baffled when I insisted that my power to stop terrorism was equivalent to his capacity to stop the next mass shooter.

The anti-Muslim bias also assumes that there is something inherently Islamic about terrorism, making all Muslims inherently suspect and tainted. Muslims try to counter this misconception with condemnations, disassociations and enumerations of Muslim lives lost. But they lose every time. More than a decade after 9/11, 56 percent of U.S. citizens think the values of Islam are at odds with American values.

The time has come for Western Muslims to act differently and to consider the consequences of ignoring an insidious debate meant to ensure their defeat. A dominant Western narrative has incorrectly labeled all Muslims as would-be terrorists, a premise that serves as the basis for laws and policies, war and inclusion and exclusion. No amount of Muslim condemnations will stop Western governments from treating every Muslim as a potential terrorist or sympathizer.

For much of the Western world, the Paris attacks appear to have lent credence to a judgment it made long ago: that terrorism is Islamic and Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

In fact, the current dynamic that forces Muslims to condemn terrorist attacks ensnares them in a game whose purpose is the maintenance of a façade of equality and representation in a system already convinced of their contamination. This game can change only if Muslims stop playing, stop countering the label imposed on them and refuse to accept the inequities of special cards and the xenophobia of proposed databases.

The prejudice of the dominant majority cannot be countered with facts; reminding people of the numbers of Muslim deaths from terrorism or the realities of ravaged Muslim ghettos does little to dislodge its entrenched status. Refusing to counter the narrative that views all Muslims as terrorists or potential terrorists defeats the dynamic by nonparticipation and exposure. It forces a revelation that Western Muslims are permitted to exist in societies ostensibly committed to equality only by participating in their own subjugation and marginalization.  

This may be the only way the powerful can be exposed as the hateful: to be confronted with the question of whether the objective of exclusion is simply to insist that all Muslims are terrorists or whether it marks a step to the destination of mass extermination, even annihilation. Some will recognize this tactic from World War II, when Germans of Jewish descent were forced to participate in their own marginalization. Similarly, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up and placed in internment camps in Arizona, California, Oregon and other states. The ongoing demonization of Muslims appears to be a regurgitation of these old xenophobic practices. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has suggested special identification cards for Muslims.

I answered all the questions at the airport in Norway, adding some offhand quips about the weather to underscore my benign, peace-loving intentions. I do not know if the Pakistani men made it into Norway, since they were directed to a different window. Four days later, on Nov. 20, as Muslims in France held countrywide prayers mourning the victims of the Paris attacks, emergency laws went into effect in Norway, tightening its asylum criteria. Norway’s staunchly anti-immigrant Progress Party led the measure, and polls showed that the party’s support surged over 10 percentage points from just the month before. The project of keeping out the hordes of asylees, mostly Muslims, it seems, was a good thing for the party.

Unfortunately, Norway is not alone. For the rest of the Western world, the Paris attacks appear to have lent credence to a judgment it made long ago: that terrorism is Islamic and Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter