When Aliou Niasse, a Muslim immigrant from Senegal, noticed and reported smoke coming from a car parked in Times Square in May 2010, he prevented a terrorist attack and saved lives. Police were able to disarm a car bomb before it caused any casualties. Niasse was working as a street vendor, not an unusual job for a new immigrant in our country. “If I see a terrorist,” he said then, “I am going to catch him before he runs away.”
Six years later, on September 16, 2016, a homemade bomb was detonated in New York’s Chelsea district, and was soon linked to other devices found in Manhattan and New Jersey. Afghan immigrant Mohammad Rahami, the father of the suspect, said he had called authorities to report his son’s erratic behavior. “Two years ago, I called the FBI,” Rahami said. “My son he’s doing really bad, OK?”
During Sunday’s debate, Donald Trump called on Muslims who come into the United States to “report when they see something going on.” As Niasse and Rahami illustrate, and as the FBI has attested, Muslim immigrants have already stepped up as allies to law enforcement. Newcomers to this country from the Middle East and South Asia, many of whom fled violence and tyranny when they came here, are especially aware of the threat posed to America and to Islam by terrorism.
Yet paradoxically, even as immigrants and refugees are invaluable in the fight against terrorism, they are subject to anti-Muslim bias and stereotypes that see all Muslims as potential terrorists. That image is projected on refugee and immigrant communities by violent extremists in the Middle East and xenophobes in the United States, and it is based on a false narrative — that Islam and the West are at war, and always will be.
Muslim immigrants and refugees — as well as native-born Muslims — shouldn’t be viewed as a security risk. The Koran, like biblical scriptures, tells us to protect life, not to destroy it. Like every good American and person of faith, when we see criminal activity, we report it to the authorities. Everyone appreciates the effectiveness of neighborhood watch programs; they aren’t about spying on each other but collective protection.
What threatens America isn’t the arrival of more Muslim immigrants or refugees from Syria but rather the alienation of immigrant communities. Marginalization and stigmatization of particular populations endangers us all, not only because we lose invaluable allies in the fight against homegrown terrorism, but also because these very factors create disaffection and exacerbate anti-social behavior.
Stigmatizing Muslim immigrants and refugees — and those of other religions and national origins — fractures society and gives our enemies an edge. It threatens the stability and the resilience of the United States. Resisting marginalization makes us more united against terrorist threats; it enriches society and makes us safer.
Last week, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report examining immigration, national security and public safety. The “best inoculation” against immediate and future security threats comes from “cooperation and building trust with immigrant and other communities,” it concluded. Rather than seeking security by blocking immigrants with border walls and restrictive policies, the report suggested that rationalizing the immigration system with comprehensive reform will make America’s immigrant culture into a strong national security asset.
The election season has conflated terrorism, immigration and refugee resettlement in ugly ways. But it has also sparked a productive dialogue about the need for reforming immigration policies and creating stronger systems to welcome and resettle newcomers as neighbors, colleagues and contributors to our communities, and as partners with — not suspects of — law enforcement.
ISIS spreads the lie that Muslims do not belong in the West, especially in America. And yet Muslim citizens, refugees and immigrants know that the United States can be for them what it has been for so many others: the last best hope. The narrative that we as a country choose will not only demonstrate this nation’s values, it will determine the trajectory of our national security and our struggle against terrorism.
Salam Al-Marayati is president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.