Terrorism almost destroyed my life before I was even born.
(AP Photo/Santiago Lyon)
Three months before I was born, my father was on his way home from a tennis game in Beirut when Muslim militants abducted him at gunpoint. As he was thrown in the back of a car and ripped from his life, one of the terrorists leaned down to comfort him.
"Don't worry," he said. "It's political."
After seven years of torture and humiliation in captivity, my dad was released in 1991, which is when I met him for the first time. What followed was a different kind of suffering for my family, as we struggled to recover from the trauma of our experience.
Like my parents, I will wear those emotional scars for the rest of my life.
These facts, taken out of context, fit neatly into America's most popular understanding of Islam. It's almost indisputable that global terrorism is on the rise, even if terrorists kill more Muslims than anyone else. And media coverage of the world's second-largest religion very often focuses on terrorism, drawing attention to the apparently violent nature of the ideology and its enmity toward Western culture. Which begs the question: Is the media portrayal of Islam as a backward, violent religion accurate?
And for that matter, why do Muslim terrorists despise America so much? Did fanatics like ISIS materialize out of nowhere, snarling with hatred at the West, as much of American commentary and news coverage seems to indicate? Did the people who kidnapped my father one day just wake up and decide to take away a man's freedom and dignity for seven years?
Does terrorism exist in a vacuum?
"All of a sudden, this guy came and started shouting at us, 'Are you Muslim? Are you Muslim?'"— Rabie Ayoub
I don't think it does, and believe it's important to provide some historical context for this kind of violence. Indeed, it's increasingly crucial that we find answers to these questions, not only so we can try to politically address the problem of "radical Islam" in a way that makes sense, but because American Muslims are paying a very tangible price. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who will soon begin receiving national security briefings, has outrageously suggested Muslim Americans be put in a database and forced to carry special IDs. More famously, he has promised a complete ban on Muslim immigration to the US. (Not to be outdone, erstwhile rival Ted Cruz recently maintained that Muslim neighborhoods should be regularly patrolled.)
Meanwhile, a college student was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight last month because a woman was terrified after hearing him speak Arabic. From mosque attacks to harassment of women in hijab, it's safe to say the laundry list of Islamophobic incidents reported since last year's terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino keeps growing.
Corey Saylor, director of the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says there is a direct correlation between Islamophobic political rhetoric, increased media coverage of Islamic terrorism, and violence against Muslims across America.
"In the latter part of last year, you had the second Paris attacks, then you had the San Bernardino attacks," Saylor tells me. "All of that gets endless media coverage... then when you add into that particular endless media cycle [Islamophobic] statements by very high-profile candidates, you get this poisonous mix... For instance, in November and December of last year, we tracked more mosque incidents [of attacks and vandalism] in a two-month period than we usually do in an entire year.
"To what degree I can't statistically say, but that sort of steady diet of negative information does contribute to the increased violence toward the Muslim community," Saylor continues. "I think that one of the great losses we've had in recent years is that there is not as much depth to media coverage as there used to be. You just sort of get the quick hit on the surface of any story without a lot of understanding of the context and the background to it. That's the information that's really needed to solve problems."
I just spent two and a half years investigating my father's kidnapping for a book due out this fall. While reporting on the act of violence that shaped my life, I learned some valuable things about how terrorists evolve.
For example, I've come to understand that the men who kidnapped my father developed their hatred for America in a very specific environment. In June 1982, Israel began the second and most destructive of its various invasions of Lebanon in an attempt to eradicate the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been using the country as a base from which to launch attacks against the Jewish state. It wasn't long before the Israelis wore out their welcome in the country. Besides running roughshod over the Shiite south—for the most part, invading armies aren't generally known for their consideration of the land they're occupying—Israeli troops angered the Lebanese by committing acts of destruction and violence, including indirectly participating in the massacre of hundreds of civilians at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps that September.
Negative attention soon turned to the United States, which was (and still is) perceived as Israel's sponsor and patron. In addition to providing billions of dollars in military aid to Israel, America also dedicated itself to supporting a Christian-led minority government in Lebanon by leading a multinational coalition of armed forces into Beirut. Terrorism against US assets in Lebanon soon commenced. Following a 1984 incident in which an American battleship fired upon some militias in a heavily populated area of south Beirut, Lebanese Shiites became thoroughly convinced that the United States was their implacable enemy.
That's when the kidnappings began in earnest.
"There is a very high correlation between being occupied and terrorism," an ex-State Department official who was high up in the counterterrorism apparatus at the time of my father's captivity told me while I was writing the book. "Probably that's the highest correlation. It's higher than a poverty correlation, certainly higher than a religious correlation. In the case of Lebanon, there was Israeli occupation. That tends to make people far more militant and desperate... the occupation aspect is very interesting and says a lot about Lebanon, which has been occupied by someone almost continuously... and what you will sometimes do if you can't actually get at your immediate occupier is to go for their outside supporter."
All of this is not to excuse the men who treated my father like an animal for the better part of a decade. No amount of political oppression justifies terrorism. Kidnapping and brutalizing someone for years is just evil, as is beheading innocent people to make a political statement, the way ISIS does. But it is valuable to understand how American policies helped shape an environment in which evil men found opportunities to exploit anti-American sentiment, so that we can try to make it harder for them to do so in the future.
In other words, unpacking the sociopolitical context for terrorism helps political actors make better decisions by learning from the mistakes of the past. Here's another important, and timely, example: There is a significant likelihood that key ISIS leaders met in a US prison camp during the disastrous, ill-fated war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—a man who once enjoyed a favored position as an American ally. The Islamic Revolution in Iran was sparked by outrage at the Shah's ruthless repression of his people—which the US indirectly participated in by politically supporting his regime, even engineering a coup against the country's only democratically elected leader when he wanted to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. American support of the Shah's brutal dictatorship led many Iranians to turn against the West and toward the repressive Islamic government its leaders spend so much rhetoric condemning. A faction of that regime created the terrorist group in Lebanon that kidnapped my father and sent him home to me seven years later, psychologically devastated in ways my little mind couldn't possibly make sense of.
Context is essential when it comes to making sense of anti-American sentiment in the region, and clarifying representations of Islam in the media. There are plenty more examples, but we draw none of the attendant complexity from media outlets showing us little more than frightening scenes of beheadings, black flags, and burning buildings.
This leads many people to believe Islam is the problem.
One of those people is Leonard Debello of St. Louis County, Missouri. In February, the 71-year-old allegedly brandished a gun and threatened to shoot Rabie Ayoub, a Palestinian-American who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon when he was 16. (Coincidentally, Ayoub happens to have been raised in the desperately impoverished and dangerous Ain el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, where I have spent considerable time. It's a heartbreaking place, full of wide-eyed children in rags and thuggish youths brandishing machine guns—needless to say, not an easy environment in which to grow up.)
According to Ayoub, he, his wife, and their four children were not far from their home when Debello approached the car.
"All of a sudden, this guy came and started shouting at us, 'Are you Muslim? Are you Muslim?'" Ayoub recalls over the phone. "My wife had her hair covered. I told him, 'Yes, what's going on?" I didn't think twice about it. He came toward the car and said, 'You know, all of you Muslims should die.' I said, 'Why would you say that? I haven't done anything to you. I don't even know you.' He said, 'I'm going right now to get my gun, and I'm going to shoot you, your wife, and your kids.' He went back inside his house—and I just froze, you know, in some situations you don't know what to do, you don't know what to say, because it was just insane. He came back with a gun. I asked him, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'The state issues guns to people like me so that we can kill people like you. We have to clear this country from people like you.'"
... it's not always easy to publicly point out the inaccuracy of media depictions of Islam, especially in the modern American environment.
Ayoub adds that he pulled out his phone and took a photo of Debello holding a gun. He then drove a short distance away, called 911, and waited for the police to arrive.
"When the police came, this guy was sitting outside on his porch like nothing had happened. They didn't even force him to stand up. He stayed sitting in his rocking chair, and they were talking. So I called the police over and told them I had a picture of him holding a gun. They went inside, and he had three guns—a machine gun and two handguns by the door. They talked to him and took the guns and handcuffed him, but they sat him in the front seat of the police car. I asked them, 'What is this, a five-star police car?'
"They released him the next day," Ayoub continues. "No bail, no nothing. He lives down the street from me. I saw him the next day. When my kids were getting on the bus, he passed by on the street. When I saw that, I told myself, 'No, I'm not going to let this go.' He scarred my kids for life... So I went to the news and called the FBI."
Following media coverage and, according to Ayoub, FBI involvement, Debello was eventually charged with unlawful use of a weapon motivated by discrimination. The case is still pending, and a spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department wrote in response to an email asking for comment on the incident, "The officers responded to the scene, conducted an investigation of the incident, and placed the suspect under arrest. The case was then taken to the prosecuting attorney's office for review for charges."
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In addition to helping Americans avoid making the same political mistakes, a grasp of the bigger picture behind global terrorism can also serve as a vaccine against ignorance and bigotry. Religious scholar and author Reza Aslan has spent much of his career trying to dispel commonly held misconceptions about Islam. He explains that the question of context seems to be completely ignored in media coverage of terrorism committed by Muslims, as opposed to acts of violence carried out by people from other backgrounds.
"When the faith at hand is not Islam, people are much more willing to actually think about all the other factors that go into a person's actions," says Aslan. "For instance, when Robert Dear shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic because he saw himself as a devoted, faithful follower of Christ who was saving, in his words, 'unborn babies,' people talked at length about his background, his childhood, his mental condition, his relationship with his parents. They talked about all those factors, which are important, but they rarely or if at all talked about his faith. On the flip side, when you have a Muslim acting violently in the name of Islam, every other factor that could possibly be involved in those actions is just completely subsumed by a single factor: their religion.
"Sventy-four percent of law enforcement agencies in the United States as well as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security say that the number one threat to Americans is right-wing terrorism," Aslan continues. "The San Bernardino shooting, as horrific as it was, was the three hundred fifty-fifth mass shooting in 2015. The threat [of Islamic terrorism] is absolutely dwarfed by the reality of the terror that is being rained upon us by white right-wing extremists. Yet I'd say ninety-eight percent of the media focus is about Muslim terrorism. This is an absurdly exaggerated threat. It's not that there is no threat from Islamic extremism. It's just that right-wing terrorism has killed far, far more Americans."
But it's not always easy to publicly point out the inaccuracy of media depictions of Islam, especially in the modern American environment. Aslan has been attacked for his efforts by everyone from Pamela Geller to YouTuber David Pakman, who has dedicated several episodes of his show to questioning Aslan's credentials and trying to poke holes in his arguments. For instance, Aslan maintained on CNN that female genital mutilation (FGM) is a central African problem, not a Muslim problem as is commonly believed—an explanation that has been rated "mostly true" by Politifact. Pakman, who stopped responding* to my requests for comment, presents his own stats on his show, which would seem to contradict Aslan's. But how would a viewer distinguish between the two perspectives? And since 80 percent of Muslims do not practice FGM, isn't it important to clarify that the brutal mutilation of a woman's genitals is not a mainstream Muslim custom, so as not to add to the general environment of ignorance and bigotry?
"Anyone can just get on YouTube and say whatever the hell they want to, ignoring the fact that there is documented evidence, statistics, facts, and independent analyses supporting these statements," Aslan says. "That's the magic of the internet. It turns everybody into an authority... and the echo chamber of this fear of Muslims provides an enormous amount of revenue to cable news channels, which feeds into the rhetoric of politicians who then use this kind of fear mongering to get votes. It's incredibly profitable, both politically and economically."
Islamophobia may be profitable, but it's having increasingly dangerous consequences for American Muslims. Ayoub, for one, says the incident traumatized his family and that although they are American citizens, they now feel unsafe in their own country.
"What I saw in Lebanon, I don't want my kids to see that," he says. "I saw two people killed in Ain el-Hilweh. One of them was sixteen; the other one was twenty-one. They had nothing to do with anything. They were just students, and they were killed... The news went to interview [Debello], and he said he was a veteran and had PTSD and all this stuff. I told them, 'Let him go to my country and be there for two days. Lets see how much PTSD he has.' We're born with those conditions. They come with us when we leave."
So imagine it's the year 2050. A schoolchild in another country picks up a history book and reads about the United States circa 2016—during the era when presidential candidates said Muslims should be forced to carry special IDs and their neighborhoods singled out for surveillance. This child learns that in America, Muslims were once removed from airplanes simply for speaking their native language and threatened with death at gunpoint for no reason other than their faith.
How do you think he or she will view America?
"They're giving the wrong picture of Muslims in the news," Ayoub tells me with bitterness in his voice. "They're not showing what real Muslims are like, and they're not showing how many of us are being killed.
"If it was me pulling a gun on someone, or if I even just threatened someone, maybe they would shoot me first and ask questions later," he says. "If a white family called 911 and said, 'There's an Arab with a gun threatening us,' it would be completely different."
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*Correction 5/10: An earlier version of this article said Pakman did not respond to requests for comment.