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Polarize and conquer? How ISIS inflames anti-Muslim hostility

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David Guralnick/Detroit News/AP

(Read caption) People gather for a vigil at the University of Michigan-Dearborn on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015 in Dearborn, Mich.

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When it targeted scores of Parisians in a concert hall last Friday, the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) didn't just set out to kill more than 100 civilians enjoying an evening out. Its goal, according to experts and in ISIS's own words, was also to sow discord, ultimately polarizing the world into two sharply opposing camps.

It was a goal that was almost immediately achieved as Muslims, mosques, and Muslim-owned businesses across Paris, and in some cases, the US, were harassed and vandalized in the days following the brutal attacks.

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“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for – to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists, told The Washington Post. “Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.’ ”

It's a popular weapon for extremist groups, and one that ISIS in particular has practiced, as numerous reports have recently observed: Commit atrocities that will create a backlash against Muslims living in the West, to provoke feelings of alienation that will ultimately drive a fraction of marginalized Muslims into extremism, and thus into the hands of ISIS.

In fact, it's a strategy ISIS itself has promoted.

In "From Hypocrisy to Apostasy: The Extinction of the Grayzone," the February issue of its magazine Dabiq, the group wrote about the progress it has made in polarizing the world.

“As the world progresses towards al-Malhamah al-Kubra (the “Great Battle”), the option to stand on the sidelines as a mere observer is being lost,” claimed the cover story, praising “the withering of the grayzone,” the grayzone being a place where one can be both a Muslim and a citizen of a Western country. It also warned Muslims in the West that they will soon be forced to make “one of two choices” – become an "apostate" (a Muslim who does not support ISIS) or migrate to ISIS-controlled lands.

According to the article, ISIS said it would achieve this by carrying out savage attacks that would "further bring division to the world and destroy the grayzone everywhere."

In other issues of the magazine, ISIS announced plans to "drag the masses into battle ... such that each individual will go to the side which he supports."

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Chillingly, the article even praised the divisive rhetoric of President George W. Bush: “Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ ”

Dividing the world into ideological groups has long been a tactic of extremists, says Randall Law, associate professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College, and the author of "Terrorism: A History."

"Terrorism as a strategy rests on the use of symbolic violence, particularly violence that provokes," Professor Law says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "And one of the most effective ways to do this is by using provocative violence that destroys the middle ground, that destroys the possibility of compromise, condominium, and negotiated settlement – the very backbone of life in a modern, multiethnic, multifaith liberal democracy."

He added, "This has become the essence of modern terrorism. And it has become a staple of radical Islamist and jihadist violence."

The Paris attacks fit that model, he says. "The attacks against civilian targets in Paris, if they were indeed carried out by ISIS, would represent a doubling down on that strategy."

The strategy appears to be working.

For starters, Muslim communities in France and the US have reported hate incidents, including a Texas mosque that was vandalized with feces and torn pages of the Quran. More than half of US governors have now issued statements saying they would reject Syrian refugees. And US Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have made strident calls to monitor, and possibly shut down mosques, and to accept only Christian, not Muslim, refugees, respectively.

There's precedent for such a backlash. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France in January, anti-Muslim violence more than quadrupled in the following six months, compared to the same period in 2014, according to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, a watchdog group.

And there is evidence that such retribution may alienate some Muslims, as ISIS proposes.

The spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes after 9/11 led to a decline in assimilation rates in American Muslim communities, a study published last year in The Economic Journal found. In places where hate crimes increased the most, Muslim immigrants in subsequent years spoke English less fluently, were less likely to marry non-Muslims, and, if female, were less likely to work outside the home, reported the Washington Post.

The results “suggest that terror groups may try to provoke a backlash against their own ethnic or religious group in the targeted country, in order to halt the assimilation of Muslim adherents into Western society," the study's authors concluded. 

Terror groups prey on those feelings of loneliness and rejection, offering marginalized Muslims a sense of power and importance by joining an extremist group.

And in fact, four of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks have been identified as French or Belgian nationals who were recruited in the West.

Nonetheless, ISIS's strategy is not a fait accompli. What can nations and their citizens – both Western and Muslim, alike – do to combat it?

"In most instances, those who use terrorism utterly fail to achieve their longterm goals," says Professor Law. "Responsible governments have to communicate that terrorism, while horrible, does not present an existential threat. The most successful responses to terrorism emphasize the use of diplomacy, education, the existing judicial systems, and, yes, very targeted violence. But moderation is a hard policy to pursue, particularly in democracies, where governments have to react robustly or risk losing support."

Still, Randall Rogan sees proof of progress in interfaith rallies against ISIS and social media campaigns.

"I’d like to think since 9/11, there’s been more awareness and even tolerance – and even intolerance for intolerance – in the West in regards to Islamophobia," says Professor Rogan, who teaches communication at Wake Forest University. "For the most part, we as Western societies are pretty sensitive to that."