The latest poster boy for ISIS recruitment is not Middle Eastern. In fact, he's not even Muslim. He's a burly, bearded, tatted-up white dude.
He showed up at a community meeting last week that was called to discuss a proposed mosque in Spotsylvania. Samer Shalaby, a trustee with the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg, was giving a presentation when the big guy stood up and interrupted.
"Nobody—nobody—NOBODY—wants your evil cult" in the area, he fumed. "And I'll tell you what. I will do everything in my power to make sure that does not happen. Because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists… Every Muslim is a terrorist. Period." When Shalaby tried to respond, the guy told him, "Shut your mouth. I don't want to hear your mouth. I'm done with you."
Some in attendance took offense at the outburst. But others applauded. "We don't want it!" chimed in one of them. "This is evil. Muslims is evil. We all saying it," said another.
More people got torqued up. A deputy tried to restore order, but it was no use. When the big man opened his mouth, he shut the meeting down. The deputy had to tell everyone to disperse.
To paraphrase Jeb Bush, the folks at ISIS headquarters must have been high-fiving. This is precisely what they want.
Harleen Gambheer, a counterterrorism analyst, explained why shortly after the Paris attacks. "The Islamic State's strategy is to polarize Western society," he wrote in the Washington Post. It wants "to 'destroy the gray zone,' as it says in its publications. The group hopes frequent, devastating attacks in its name will provoke overreactions… against innocent Muslims, thereby alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities…
"The strategy is explicit. The Islamic State explained after the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine that such attacks 'compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the gray zone themselves… Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize' [renounce their faith] 'or they (emigrate) to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.'"
ISIS, Gambheer says, "calculates that a small number of attackers can profoundly shift the way that European society views its 44 million Muslim members and, as a result, the way European Muslims view themselves. Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West. Unfortunately, elements of European society are reacting as the Islamic State desires."
Elements of American society, too. The big man at the Fredericksburg meeting isn't the only one with a small mind. The mayor of Roanoke made national news last week when he cited the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII as a justification for rejecting refugees from the Syrian conflict. Ben Carson has compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. Donald Trump thinks maybe Muslims should be tracked by the government and forced to carry special ID.
House Republicans have passed legislation to tighten the already stringent scrutiny the U.S. applies to refugees, apparently oblivious to the fact that any terrorists wishing to enter the U.S. can do so far more easily as students, tourists, or through the federal visa waiver program, which allows visitors from 38 countries to come for up to 90 days without a visa. As Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D) pointed out recently, such individuals "come here with virtually no screening."
It's ironic to see conservatives trying to impose blanket restrictions on millions of innocent people out of the fear that a tiny handful of them might commit a violent act at some point in the future. After all, that is precisely the logic behind gun control: Security must come before everything else, including the inalienable rights of law-abiding individuals who have done nothing wrong. Some Democrat proposes gun registration, and conservatives scream bloody murder. Donald Trump proposes Muslim registration, and except for a few mild demurrals from GOP rivals, you can hear crickets chirping.
Here's another irony: Conservatives as a rule disdain identity politics and prefer individualism to the notion that members of a demographic cohort are indistinguishable, interchangeable units of a greater whole. Yet now all of a sudden every Muslim looks alike and the line separating an arthritic widow in a shawl from an athletic man in a suicide vest is too fine to discern.
And some of us are old enough to remember the spring of 2015—when conservatives across the country were tripping over one another to stand up for religious freedom. Religious-freedom legislation has been introduced in 17 states this year; a Kentucky clerk became a cause célèbre for exercising hers, or at least what she thought was hers. Apparently that was all just empty talk.
The Fredericksburg story has a happy ending. The Free Lance-Star reports that since the mosque meeting, Shalaby says he has been receiving "overwhelming support. Local friends, strangers, people I have never met call me and text me. It's very humbling and very nice."
America 1, ISIS 0. For now.
This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.