Midwest and Terrorism

Posted on Posted in Rise to Peace blog

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Turkey Run State Park, Indiana

Everyone always says write about what you know, and I know the Midwest – especially Indiana.  The Midwest remains an amazing and welcoming place, but, like any region, there remain a few things that are dissatisfying.  The Midwest’s cultural understanding of terrorism endures as its most perplexing and unfortunate characteristic.

I have spent most of my life in Indiana and I can attest to the friendly, humble people who appreciate hard work, hospitality and honesty. The Midwest, or maybe just Indiana, is a place where, if your car broke down on the side of the road, two or three people may pull over to ask if you are okay and whether there is anything they could do to help. They may even offer to take you to the nearest service station or wait with you until a tow truck shows up.

That earnest, amicable culture can hide some dark truths, though.  Unfortunately, since 9/11, the narrative regarding terrorism has led to a stigma about the Muslim community and its disposition towards terrorism.  The characterization of Muslims as terrorists often epitomizes many Midwesterners’ understanding of what is and is not a terrorist.  

Whenever an Islamic extremist is behind an attack in the U.S. the narrative quickly and inexorably ties the terrorist and the Islamic faith together. This narrative, thus, labels all Muslims as terrorists rather than a small subset who twist religious faith to fit a hateful ideology.  I would be lying if I were to say that I have not heard, “We should just kill them all,” or “Muslims just hate us,” in response to each new attack.  Ask a Midwesterner to identify notable acts of terrorism in the U.S. and I can tell you which ones will come to their minds: 9/11, the Boston Marathon Bombing, San Bernardino and the Pulse Nightclub.

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Boston Strong Memorial before the 2014 marathon

However, those are not the only acts of terrorism in the U.S. and they are not the only attacks attached to a hateful ideology.  America has a history of activists killing abortion doctors in the name of religious faith. White nationalists have increasingly engaged in attacks, murderous or otherwise, in the U.S.  In 2012, Wade Michael Page shot and killed six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  In 2015, Dylann Roof hoped to start a race war when he murdered nine African American churchgoers in South Carolina.  In 2017, a white nationalist drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others in Virginia.

While these events are equally horrific as any terrorist attack, these do not carry the same stigma as acts perpetrated by Islamic extremists.  Frequently, the discussion centers on mental illness or guns and their availability.  Unlike the Muslim community, few blame the entire white American population for the actions of select individuals.  Few question whether the religious or moral ideology to which these actors adhered was inherently incompatible with American culture and society’s well-being.

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First responders address the wounded following a white nationalist’s vehicular attack on counter protestors at the “Unite the Right rally” in Charlottesville, VA.

I believe that two narratives are woven for the American people in the Midwest when it comes to U.S. terrorism. Terrorism is either Islamic extremism or just random acts of violence.  I believe the former (intentional or not) can be explained in two manners: an unfamiliar religion is easier to spurn when fewer people have a significant understanding of its practices or, alternatively, that the frequency of Islamic extremist attacks makes it seem like Islamic extremists are worse than other types of terrorists.

I believe that the average Midwesterner does not have a comprehensive grasp of Islam.  Growing up in a post-9/11 world, I recall that my primary and secondary education touched upon Islam only briefly and only in history courses.  I do not recall any substantial exploration of the teachings of Islam and I do not believe many of the educators would feel comfortable teaching something so unfamiliar to them.  Unless the curriculum has changed – it has been several years – I imagine that the academic courses remain similar today. For many, their understanding of the Islamic world is filtered through their education and copious TV viewing. Indiana, like much of the Midwest, remains a predominately manufacturing state wherein you needn’t have a theological education to make a living supporting yourself and a family.  

Alternatively, the media narrative with respect to Islamic terrorism frequently overshadows the regularity of other terrorist events.  It is true that Islamic extremists have engaged in some of the recent deadly attacks on American soil.  However, as noted, these attacks do not encompass all terrorist attacks in the U.S.  The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that from September 12, 2001, to December 31, 2017, far right groups have engaged in 62 extremist attacks resulting in 106 dead. In the same period, Islamic extremist groups engaged in 23 incidents resulting in 119 casualties. Notably, San Bernardino and the Pulse Nightclub resulted in 63 of the 119 fatalities.

This misunderstanding can be resolved with one simple change: education.  Education is key to helping bridge the divide that separates communities and creates radicalism.  Radicalism can develop not only in the Islamic world but also in our quiet communities across America.  The more we foster an “Us vs. Them” mentality, the more we radicalize our own society. In our communities, we must develop a better understanding of Islam and other religions. We must push back against hateful scapegoating based on religion, race or political views.

Terrorism is not tied to a single ideology.  Hate is its own ideology regardless of religion, race, or political system. Hate prevents us from engaging in open discussion to try to resolve our differences. Some people may be compelled to commit evil acts of revenge and chaos. Some, however, may simply be misguided individuals who followed a trusted family member or friend down a dark path or trusted a religious leader to teach them right from wrong. Some simply felt they finally found a group to belong to.

My cultural understanding from living in the Midwest leads me to believe that the Midwest is made of good people who want to raise families as best they can without living in fear, the same goal as a majority of people across the world.  To eliminate that fear we need to review how we discuss all types of terrorism and the many ideologies that compel terrorists to act.  The solution cannot be found in violence but in education.

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Indiana Covered Bridge Festival

Sources:

“Boston Strong: Communal Healing After Tragedy.”, accessed Jan 25, 2018, 

Countering Violent Extremism: Actions Needed to Define Strategy and Assess Progress of Federal Efforts. 2017: US Government Accountability Office.

Peter Bergen. 2017. “Charlottesville Killing was an Act of Domestic Terrorism.” Cnn, Aug 13,. 

Wilson, Nick and Writer, Staff. “Covered Bridge Festival upon Us.” Greencastle Banner Graphic., last modified 2016-10-14T00:00-0400, accessed Jan 25, 2018, 

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