Debating the Roots and Consequences of Islamic Terror

Not long ago, Dalia Fahmy and her two children visited a large supermarket in suburban New Jersey in order to buy supplies for a food bank. While they were loading their car with grocery bags, a nearby driver began shouting racial epithets toward the Egyptian-American Fahmy and her children. Then, he backed his truck into their shopping carts and car, pinning Fahmy and missing her son by inches, before parking and storming off toward the store.

The near-death experience served as a chilling reminder to Fahmy of the tense climate for Muslim-Americans in the contemporary United States.

“It was my first experience of someone telling me I don’t belong,” she said.

Fahmy, an assistant professor of political science at Long Island University and author of three books about the Middle East, recounted this story during an in-depth panel discussion at Asia Society on Thursday night. More than 15 years after the United States vowed to eradicate terrorism in response to the September 11 attacks, violent extremism in the Muslim world remains a persistent problem — even though terrorism overall has declined since the 1970s, and that, in the United States, the FBI considers domestic terrorism a greater threat than Islamic terrorism. The number of American militia groups has grown markedly since Barack Obama was elected president of the U.S. in 2008.

But Fahmy’s co-panelist Shadi Hamid argued that the comparison between Islamic and domestic terrorism is flawed.

“Terrorism is different when it’s done by a transnational group with territorial ambitions,” he said. “It may not be politically correct to say this, but I’m more worried about ISIS than I am about militias.”

Hamid, an author and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, lamented the widespread expectation that prominent Muslim-Americans denounce every terrorist attack committed by a fellow member of their faith. But, he added, this doesn’t mean that the connection to Islam is merely incidental.

“I think that everyone knows intuitively that terrorism committed by Muslims is more of an issue than terrorism committed by Christians,” he said. “I wish it were otherwise, but we have to be aware of the reality we live in.”

During the conversation, which also featured the scholar and author Mengia Hong Tschalaer and was moderated by Asia Society Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski, the panelists also considered the causes for Islamic terrorism’s persistence. Populist movements — based in large part on identity politics — have become increasingly prevalent across the world, while economic inequality has prevented large numbers of the poor from improving their lot. Throughout the Middle East, the hope and optimism that imbued the Arab Spring protests eventually dissolved into disappointment, apathy, and rage as legitimate democracies failed to take hold. And in the West, politicians once considered too extreme for inclusion in the mainstream — such as France’s Marine Le Pen — are now contenders for their countries' highest office.

For Dalia Fahmy, the way to tackle Islamic terrorism — and its side-effects — is straightforward.

“How do you eradicate it?” she asked. “Eradicate the conditions that led to it.” 

Watch the full video below:

About the Author

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.