Why Shutting Down 'Radical' Mosques May Do More Bad Than Good

January 4th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

Calls to shutter Mosques have often cropped up in the wake of terrorist attacks with extreme Islamist underpinnings; it happened in the U.S. after September 11, 2001, and more recently, after the deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. It happens in other countries, too; French authorities called for sweeping closures and crack downs after militants linked to the Islamic State killed 130 people in string of attacks across the capital there.

But the tactic is an ineffective remedy to violent strikes, and a moot strategy in combating fanatic Islamic terrorism. So why are elected officials calling for closures?

Related:This Muslim American Isn't Afraid Of Donald Trump or Terrorism

In December, French officials announced that they would target mosques that promote radical views. Now, between 100 and 160 mosques could face closure in the coming months, according to news reports. These targeted facilities are allegedly largely unlicensed, espouse hate speech, and accuse other Muslims of apostasy. Their closure is considered a safe, reasonable course of action, according to one of the country's chief imams.

But some experts warn that closing mosques — even dubious ones — might not be as effective a tool as proponents seem to think. Some of the attackers who carried out the Paris attacks were not even regular mosque-goers, and western recruits to the Islamic State are often radicalized online, not in places of worship. On the flip side, if a person interested in extreme interpretations of Islam sought guidance from a mosque or its imam, fewer mosques would only narrow the potential to spot burgeoning extremists. 

President Barack Obama spoke about some of the misconceptions surrounding Islam earlier this month:

Pres. Obama just clarified several misconceptions about Islam.1. ISIL does not represent Islam.2. The overwhelming majority victims of terrorism are themselves Muslims.3. Muslims are our neighbors, our sports heroes, and our men and women in uniform.Read his whole speech here: http://attn.link/1TuNdzB

Posted by ATTN: on Sunday, December 6, 2015

The answer isn't that simple.

"We have a desire to find a silver bullet and say radical imams are the reason that foreign fighters are going to Syria," Daniel Milton, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, told Bloomberg in November. "The research just doesn’t hold it up. They are part of the environment, but they are not in any way the key factor."

Related:Florida Officials Fear Potential Hate Crimes Against Muslim Women

Other rhetoric that champions closures can be less specific, playing more into misplaced cultural fears that prop up dangerous misconceptions than standing as reasonable solutions. Following the Paris attacks in November, GOP front-runner Donald Trump said that the U.S. had "absolutely no choice" around closing certain mosques where "some bad things are happening." But after the mass shooting in California, the candidate proposed a much more sweeping solution: a "total and complete shutdown" of all Muslims coming into the U.S. — even current citizens.

Trump and other public figures with such sweeping, knee-jerk responses to tragedies are often criticized for taking advantage of broad-based fears held by some voters. Just last week, President Obama said the businessman was "exploiting" anxieties in certain demographics. Other politicians, Mother Jones reports, have used similar phrases or speech in previous election campaigns to win over votes as well (with little success).

Related:After San Bernardino Attacks, Mosques Are Being Targeted and Threatened

The fears that politicians can often play off are sometimes unfounded, and Islam is no exception. The idea that mosques breed terrorists, or that all Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S. because they might harbor terrorist sympathies is, if anything, hyperbole. The millions of Muslim citizens living in the U.S.,if not the world's Muslim population, which Pew estimates make up nearly a quarter of the global population, should prove the opposite.

But these strategies, whether presented as policy proposals or outright bigotry, fans fears that are already having dangerous consequences. Since the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings, hate crimes against Muslims have risen sharply, the New York Times reported, and Islamophobia is at its highest levels since just after terrorists brought down the World Trade Centers in New York in 2001. But according to another New York Times report, this lashing out could represent just a small portion of people who share thosesentiments. Hateful Google searches directed towards Muslims spiked after the Paris attacks, and have risen ever since. But by analyzing Google searches and anti-Muslim crime, the paper found a direct correlation between spikes in online searches and actual hate crimes.


The Times notes:

The frightening thing is this: If our model is right, Islamophobia and thus anti-Muslim hate crimes are currently higher than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.