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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Trump's plan to ban Muslims won't make us safer

When GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump wildly suggested closing America’s borders to all Muslims (later modified somewhat, but still aimed primarily at Muslims), the subject of radical Islamic terrorism has been the subject of numerous media stories. A lot of people seem to buy into this idea, almost as much as the equally idiotic idea of building a wall on our southern border. I’m willing to bet that most of those who most loudly support the proposal of banning entry to the U.S. to a group of people solely because of their religion, have never even met a Muslim, and know nothing about Islam.
To subscribe to the belief that all Muslims are terrorists is about as rational as saying that every white person from the Deep South is a member of the KKK, or is a Klan sympathizer. Anyone familiar with the Civil Rights movement knows this not to be true. Of course, back in the day, it might have been difficult to convince a young black student being attacked by a police dog or pummeled by a fire hose of this, but there were southerners who were not bigoted, rabid racists. Few had the courage to identify themselves publicly or too vocally, but they had to live in a society that was by and large controlled by those who were racist, and who didn’t take too kindly to anyone who didn’t share their views. Remember Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white civil rights activists, who were killed along with James Chaney, a black activist in Philadelphia, MS in 1964. Not all that different from what radical groups like the Islamic State (IS) does to Muslims who don’t toe their hard line these days.
I give that little piece of historical background in order to make a point; be careful about painting everyone with the same brush. Get to know the individual before making such a decision.
During a 30-year career as an American diplomat, I spent time in a number of countries with significant Muslim populations. What I saw and experienced contradicts the belief of many Americans that Islam is a religion of violence, and all Muslims are prone to radical violence.
When I worked in Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s, roughly 40% of the population was Muslim. Christians and Muslims lived in the same villages, intermarried, and basically, got along well. The first democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, a retired UN diplomat, was a Muslim married to a Catholic. One of my closest contacts in the military was a Muslim captain married to a Baptist woman. Such unions were common, as was seeing churches and mosques in close proximity to each other in upcountry villages.
In Thailand from 1988 to 1991, I worked in the north. There was a small Muslim population there, which was totally unlike the radical southern Muslim population. Many of the northern Muslims I knew worked with or for the government, and got along quite well with their Buddhist neighbors. I worked closely with a Muslim doctor who had more Buddhist than Muslim patients.
Fast forward to Cambodia in 2002, one year after the 9/11 attacks. That country has a small Muslim population, less than five percent of the population. The ethnic Cham originally came from Vietnam (where a few still reside). Among the most peaceful people in the country, they’re also among the poorest. After 2001, there were efforts by Jemah Islamiyah (JI), a radical Indonesian Muslim group, to radicalize the Cham. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh had a modest English scholarship program for Cham students—spending less than a tenth of what the Saudi Wahabbi-funded JI was spending. What was the outcome? A French anthropologist doing research among the Cham found that the U.S. popularity rating among Cham was over 80%. The validity and credibility of that survey has to be respected since the anthropologist in question was somewhat anti-American.
What am I trying to say here? Simple; in any population you will find a diversity of opinions and beliefs. Muslims are no exception. I have no doubt that some Cambodian Muslims dislike America; after all, during the 1969 incursion into Cambodia from Vietnam, Cham villages took the brunt of U.S. bombing raids. Actually, I was surprised that only something under 20% viewed us negatively. In Thailand, I had dinner frequently with my Muslim doctor friend; who was not averse to the occasional cocktail. And, in Sierra Leone, roughly half the people I dealt with on a daily basis were Muslim, and never did I get a sense that they were any more violent or anti-West than the Christians. As a matter of fact, the rebel army that was laying waste to much of the countryside during my time there was mainly Christians, but with Christians and Muslims fighting side by side on both sides of the war.
So, let’s stop the labeling, and try to get to know people as individuals. Going after Muslims just for being Muslims will not make us safer. It will blind us to the dangerous people who are non-Muslim (let’s not forget Timothy McVeigh). And, it’s likely to serve as a handy recruiting tool for the radical terrorist groups.

Some people are violent and some are not, and their religion doesn’t really have that much to do with it.