The suicide bombing in Manchester on Monday was a sickening reminder that the West still lives under the threat of terrorism. And the claim of responsibility that followed was chilling confirmation that Islamic State has ordered adherents outside the Middle East to carry out attacks in their own countries.
The United States hasn’t been immune. The Pakistani American couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino in 2015 and the Afghan American who killed 49 in Orlando, Fla., in 2016 all claimed allegiance to Islamic State. And yet, despite those incidents, the United States has still suffered less Islamist terrorism than Britain or France.
One reason is straightforward: We are farther from the Middle East. A second is more subtle: The United States has done a better job of integrating Muslim immigrants and making clear that they are full-fledged citizens.
“They’re much better integrated,” Bernard Haykel, a terrorism expert at Princeton University, said recently. “They’re fully part of this country.”
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That fact comes across in opinion polls. A Pew Research Center study found that 56 percent of Muslim Americans said most Muslims who come to the United States want to adopt American ways of life; only 20 percent said they want to remain distinct from U.S. society. Most Muslim Americans said they are worried by the rise of extremism in their communities. Almost all considered terrorism unjustified.
These attitudes have led many to cooperate actively with the FBI and local police forces to identify potential terrorists in their midst and pre-empt any attacks.
“Some of our most productive relationships are with people who see things and tell us things who happen to be Muslim,” James B. Comey, then director of the FBI, said after the Orlando shooting. “They do not want people committing violence, either in their community or in the name of their faith.”
Hostility toward Muslim Americans isn’t helpful, Comey added at a later congressional hearing. “It chills their openness to talk to us and tell us what they see,” he said.
During the presidential campaign, that lesson seemed lost on Donald Trump.
“I would want to engage the Muslim community, but the Muslim community has to help us,” he said after the San Bernardino shooting. “They’re not helping us.”
In his excoriations of “radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump rarely made a clear distinction between extremists and ordinary Muslims.
“I think Islam hates us,” he said. “There’s a tremendous hatred there.”
“They want to change your religion,” he told his followers at a rally.
“This all happened because, frankly, there’s no assimilation. They are not assimilating,” he said, inaccurately, in a television interview. “They want sharia law. They don’t want the laws that we have.”
Candidate Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and said he would consider creating an official registry of Muslims and ordering mosques to close.
The message wasn’t subtle: Muslims – even Muslims who have taken the time to embrace American citizenship – can’t be fully trusted.
So it was striking, during his visit to Saudi Arabia, to hear Trump describe Muslims not only as key allies in the global fight against terrorism, but as fellow believers, too.
“This is not a battle between different faiths,” the president said in Riyadh. “This is a battle between good and evil.”
“Every time a terrorist murders an innocent person, and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith,” he said, implicitly placing Islam on an equal footing with Christianity or Judaism.
“The Middle East has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews living side by side,” he added. “We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again.”
Some asked whether Trump’s conversion on the road to Riyadh was real, or merely transactional. Was he saying nice things about Islam merely to enlist its leaders in his fight?
Muslim Americans noticed something else: Trump didn’t mention them at all.
But even if Trump’s newfound sentiments were more strategic than deeply felt, he can apply them usefully at home, too. He should want to enlist Muslim Americans in a fight many of them have already joined, and affirm that he values their citizenship.
If the president wants to minimize the chances of a Manchester bombing on American soil, he should bring his message home from Riyadh. He should tell his own supporters that in the fight against terrorism, American Muslims are an asset, not a liability; that they, too, deserve “tolerance and respect”; and that Christians, Muslims and Jews can live side by side in America – more easily, even, than in Saudi Arabia.
The writer is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.