When armed and masked demonstrators marched on mosques in Irving and South Dallas in recent months, their leaders said they were motivated by a rumored sharia court in one mosque, a spate of deadly terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, and fears of terrorists sneaking into the country amid a flood of refugees from Syria. They didn't explain why their display of firearms and flags might help.
The demonstrations were part of a deepening anti-Muslim mood among some Americans. The demonstrators in Texas and elsewhere said they were motivated by fear, but such displays of anti-Muslim sentiment will not make America safer. In fact they could have the opposite effect, by complicating efforts to combat terrorism. They also exaggerate the threat and perpetuate overblown fears. And they punish innocents who may be on America's side.
Sure, right now, Americans are nervous. Terrorism is violence calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm, which can cause people to exaggerate the strength of the terrorists. It often works. The 9/11 terrorist attacks cast a long shadow. For the last several decades, terrorists in the Middle East have hijacked and sabotaged airliners, bombed U.S. embassies, kidnapped and murdered U.S. citizens and called for more attacks on American soil.
Those now seeking to incite violence in the name of jihad come on top of a long history of religious-inspired warfare. It is easy to view the recent attacks in Paris, Brussels or San Bernardino as the latest expressions of a continuing conflict that centuries ago saw Muslim armies in southern Spain or at the gates of Vienna. The leaders of al Qaeda and the Islamic State see their campaigns as part of a broader conflict between Islam and the unbelievers.
But despite continued exhortations for homegrown terrorists to carry out attacks here, jihadist ideology has gained no traction among America's Muslim population. Jihadist salesmen are simply not selling a lot of cars here. Out of several million American Muslims, during the last 15 years, only a few hundred people — many of them converts — have been arrested for providing material support to terrorists, attempting to go abroad to join jihadist fronts or plotting to carry out terrorist attacks here. It is a tiny turnout. Unhappy lives rather than ideology seem to be a major motive.
Intelligence efforts have improved. U.S. authorities are batting around .900, uncovering and thwarting nearly 90 percent of the jihadist terrorist plots. This is not to say that every single plot, if not interrupted, would have led to deadly terrorist attacks, but some would have. Since 9/11, jihadist terrorists have killed several dozen people, three quarters of them in two bloody assaults. Any deaths are tragic to be sure, but Americans are not in great danger.
Some U.S. intelligence efforts are controversial, arousing concerns in the Muslim community. One can readily understand the sensitivity of Muslim Americans who argue that their religion ought not make them targets of greater scrutiny. While discrimination is contrary to American values and law, the nature of the threat dictates the social geography of intelligence collection. Religion alone should not make any community a target of intelligence inquiries. However, neither should it provide immunity.
In fact, many of the terrorist investigations begin with tips coming from the Muslim community itself. Turning all American Muslims into enemies of the state could turn off that source of information.
U.S. intelligence also benefits from information provided by foreign services, including those of Muslim countries. Hostility to Muslims in the United States could impede that flow of intelligence, and not just from Muslim countries. Protecting against terrorism is not best served by needlessly alienating allies.
Americans are not in great danger. And Americans are braver than the shaky voices of fear, who for their own reasons play upon heightened anxieties. Above all, Americans are smart enough to know the difference between being tough on terrorism and picking on a religious minority.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of numerous books, reports and articles on terrorism-related topics.
This commentary originally appeared on Dallas Morning News on April 22, 2016. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.