After Boston

Boston Is Not 9/11 Redux for America’s Muslims

After 9/11, America directed its anger toward Muslims—and then tried to remake the greater Middle East. Eleven years later, let’s try not to make the same mistake, writes Peter Beinart.

04.22.13 2:33 PM ET

At times last week, it felt like the days after 9/11: the endless TV coverage, the heroic first responders, the ghastly images, the interfaith prayer services. But something was missing. It took me a few days to realize it: this time, America isn’t going to remake the Muslim world.

After 9/11, that missionary impulse took different forms. For Ann Coulter, who proposed that “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” the post-9/11 “crusade” was literally that. Others were more ecumenical. In his address to Congress a week after the attacks, George W. Bush declared “freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us.” And many who loathed Bush—myself included—cheered, believing that the best way to prevent another 9/11 was to wage a generational struggle for democracy in the Muslim world, as we had in Europe when its species of totalitarianism threatened our safety.

No one’s saying that anymore. To the contrary, all the Boston-related policy debates have been internal: should the police have read Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights, should he be tried before a military tribunal, does the attack weaken the case for immigration reform, or would a background check have helped? In part, this inward gaze stems from the particularities of attack. The suspects have not been linked to al Qaeda central, and al Qaeda central—which on 9/11 was basically running Afghanistan—is not what it once was. Unlike their 9/11 predecessors, these suspected killers are Americans—they were immigrants before they became terrorists. And unlike 9/11, where most of the suspects came from Saudi Arabia, a seething corner of America’s empire, the Tsarnaevs hail from the Caucuses, a seething corner of Russia’s.

But it’s not only that. Since 9/11, America has gotten out of the business of trying to redesign the greater Middle East. After a brief period in which missionary militarism enjoyed support on both sides of the aisle, the left has lost faith in military force and the right has lost faith in Middle Eastern democracy. This time, the debate’s not about them. It’s about us.

On the American right sit people like Long Island Rep. Peter King, enraged by America’s “politically correct” refusal to treat Muslims differently from other Americans. Since Muslims represent the chief threat, they argue, the government should focus its attention on them and stop bothering the rest of us. People like King recognize that religious profiling may spark resentment among Muslims, just like racial profiling (which conservatives once loudly championed) has among African-Americans. But they’re less interested in making sure Muslims feel welcome in the United States than in making sure other Americans feel safe from them.

The problem with this strategy is that it breeds the very alienation from the United States on which violent jihadists feed. Many immigrants wonder if they’ll be accepted as fully American. With Muslim immigrants the stakes are particularly high because jihadists seek to politicize their cultural discomfort by linking it to America’s policies in the Middle East. From a national security perspective, in other words, it’s even more important that Muslim newcomers feel welcome in America than do other immigrants. And the conservative strategy—heightened surveillance, “frank” talk about how Islam is more violence-prone than other religions, even restrictions on the building of mosques—is likely to do the opposite.

The big debate post-Boston is whether the United States will treat its Muslim immigrants more like potential terrorists or more like potential Americans. After 9/11, many Americans vowed to help Muslims strengthen democracy in the greater Middle East. Now the key question is whether our treatment of Muslims will strengthen democracy in the United States.