San Francisco, 8 December 1941. Following the Pearl Harbor attacks, the Chairman of the American National Shinto Council issues a response to the horrific assault on the American naval base by Imperial Japanese forces:
“These recent incidents highlight the fact that current strategies to deal with the threat of Japanese ultra-nationalism are not working. It is therefore imperative that all causative factors such as racism, anti-Japanese sentiment, curtailing freedoms through militarization, duplicitous foreign policies and military intervention must be comprehensively addressed.”
Imagine the backlash that Japanese-Americans would have faced in the mid-1940s if a prominent member of that community laid the blame on Pearl Harbor at the feet of the American people. Now imagine if the Attorney-General announced shortly thereafter that her “greatest fear” is the “incredibly disturbing rise of anti-Japanese rhetoric.”
Horrific as was the internment of Japanese-Americans, we cannot conceive of how viciously elements of the greater American public might have struck out against countrymen of Japanese origin or extraction. If the Japanese-American community’s leaders had issued statements along the lines of the Grand Mufti’s response to the Paris massacre, the model for the panel-beaten quote above, ordinary Americans would have felt that neither Japanese-Americans nor their own government was doing anything to keep the country safe.
So, too, with Islamist terrorism. All sensible, right-thinking people are concerned about backlash against innocent Muslims in the wake of terrorist attacks. But all sensible, right-thinking people also know that the best way to prevent that backlash is to stop terrorist attacks from occurring in the first place.
We learned a great deal from the persecution of Japanese-Americans in World War II, which included that abominable policy of internment. Today, with the anniversary of Pearl Harbor just two days in the past, we should be thankful that such barbaric practices are well and truly behind us in the West. But we might also take a moment to reflect on how such barbarity might come to pass by other means. If certain Western Muslims and governments continue to tip-toe around the threat of Islamism at home, there is no chance of avoiding the abuse of moderate Muslims—not by the government, but by individuals acting emotionally and mistakenly in what they perceive to be the immediate interests of their own safety.
We don’t like to think of ourselves this way. We like to pretend that, somewhere between the Enlightenment and 2015, we shed our fight-or-flight instinct in favour of calm and balanced rationality. Well, we didn’t, and we never will. Human nature is immutable. And while we might be less superstitious and prejudiced in our ‘fight’ reflex, we would be deluding ourselves to say that (for instance) non-Muslim Parisians, in the wake of the latest attacks, can look at their government’s weak border- and homeland-security policies and allow reason alone to allay the suspicion that, judged as a group, the 20% Muslim population of their city cannot be trusted. Would that the inclination to embrace a sweeping, generalised contempt and loathing were otherwise, but it isn’t.
Any government seriously committed to multiculturalism and inter-religious tolerance needs to set counter-terrorism as its highest priority. Only when the threat of Islamist extremism is completely eradicated from Western countries will Islamophobia be stamped out. The latter is absolutely dependent on the former. If our governments don’t come to terms with this fact, and soon, the blood of innocent Muslims and non-Muslims alike will be on their hands.