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Faith column: Muslims addressing radicalization in their communities

February 9, 2010
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My latest column on Muslims confronting violent extremism here in the U.S. Some Muslims, especially young men who feel angry and voiceless, are drawn to radicalism. And I couldn’t help but think of my own fascination with a cause as a young person. I was never at risk for taking up arms for the I.R.A. I had a stable home life and too much to lose. And certainly no one was recruiting Irish Catholic teenagers in Western Massachusetts. But I do kind of get the allure. Anyway, here’s the full text:

Many Muslims quietly working to head off radicalism

In 2008, a New York woman feared her brother, a troubled young Muslim man living in New York, might be getting involved in a violent radical group in Pakistan. So she called a cleric in Houston for advice. The cleric in turn called Mohamed Elibiary, head of the Plano-based nonprofit Freedom and Justice Foundation.

Elibiary, who has quietly emerged as the country’s leading Muslim deradicalization expert, devised an intervention that played on the young man’s familial duties and got him to return to the United States where counselors and mentors steered him away from militant extremism.

That case is detailed in a new report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that has compiled stories of other would-be terrorists who abandoned their violent plans.

And it’s a reminder that in the aftermath of last year’s Fort Hood shootings and the recent terrorism-related arrests of young Muslim Americans, we need people like Elibiary working with government and law enforcement.

Before we delve into the problem of Muslim radicalism, though, let’s be clear about something: This isn’t an exclusively Muslim problem. The path to violent extremism can originate anywhere — in a church, on a military base, in a cabin in the woods.

We’ve seen Christian radicalization (the anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder who killed a Kansas doctor — in a church, no less) and the secular variety (anti-government murderer Tim McVeigh).

And as I hear experts talk about the allure of radicalism among disaffected young Muslims, I can’t help but think of my own youthful attraction to a revolutionary cause. Growing up Irish Catholic, I held a romanticized vision of the Irish Republican Army. They were Catholic heroes attempting to overthrow Northern Ireland’s Protestant British oppressors. Never mind that their guerilla tactics included blowing up civilians in night clubs or using kneecapping to punish and intimidate their own people.

A noble cause can be especially intoxicating to young people who do not appreciate the cost of violence.

Over the past year, militant groups such as al-Shabab and the Taliban have attracted young men from the United States with the idea that they should take up arms on behalf of their fellow Muslims even if that means becoming a suicide bomber or fighting against the United States in Afghanistan.

Elibiary said experts are calling this wave of extremism “jihadi cool.” Some of these young recruits, he said, have a proclivity toward violence and a shallow understanding of Islam. Some are naive children of immigrants with bright futures who get swept up by their desire to defend civilians overseas.

“They’re kind of idealists who don’t understand that geopolitics is all about interests and power dynamics,” he said.

This fervor can grip others, too. Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused in the shooting rampage at Fort Hood that killed 13 and wounded many others, reportedly had ties to a radical imam in Yemen.

As alarming as these cases are, the violent extremists who have emerged from American Muslim communities represent a tiny minority among the millions of Muslims living and working peacefully in the United States, according to a report released last month by researchers at Duke University and University of North Carolina.

The report found that Muslim communities have helped stem radicalization by reporting potential violent extremists, publicly and privately denouncing terrorism and building strong social networks.

But these extremists are an enormous concern to Muslims still struggling to restore their reputation almost a decade after 9/11.

Here in Austin, leaders aren’t afraid to address the threat of radicalism. There’s been talk of organizing a conference on the topic. And Amanda Quraishi, founder of the nonprofit Central Texas Muslimaat, said she would like to see Muslims team up with professionals who have successfully worked with violent youths, such as street gangs.

The challenge, experts say, is that radicalization often takes place in Internet chat rooms, away from the watchful eyes of community leaders.

So what can a Muslim leader do? How do you spot someone who may have terrorist ambitions?

Sheik Mohamed-Umer Esmail, a former Austin imam now living in Canada, said he takes notice when an individual suddenly becomes intensely religious.

“I try to as politely as possible inquire about his motivation and what sources he refers to for his guidance,” Esmail said. “Then I give him advice on the importance of moderation and how easily one can be misled through the Internet.”

He urges people to channel their anger over the wars or U.S. foreign policy through nonviolent civic engagement.

Imam Islam Mossaad of the North Austin Muslim Community Center stressed the importance of providing relevant sermons that acknowledge the injustices of the world but don’t encourage a violent response.

“Imagine a young person who is fully aware of — and sometimes directly affected by tyranny — going to the mosque and waiting from some guidance from the appointed imam about current realities, and all he hears is a pre-packaged sermon that lacks any courage or true insight,” Mossaad said. “Such disappointed youths may become disaffected and will gravitate elsewhere.”

Elibiary said mainstream Muslim communities can’t realistically counter violent extremism simply by setting a “moderate” example. But, he said, “What the mainstream Muslim community-based groups … can do is strengthen family-based programs, so that the marketplace of potentially vulnerable at-risk youth who could be pulled by a recruiter’s message would shrink and therefore limit the growth of the violent extremism movement.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2010 2:39 am

    Thank you for your well balanced piece. As one of the nearly 10 million Muslims in America I agree with you completely.

  2. February 13, 2010 2:00 pm

    I was stunned and shocked at Ms. Flynn’s perfunctory and superficial understanding of Catholicism and her impression that her childhood sympathies with the IRA and its campaign of violence could have in any way been supported by Catholic doctrine or scripture as represented by the central authority of Catholicism, the Vatican. Equally astonishing is her woefully deficient knowledge of Islam and the clear positions it takes – in numerous unabrogated verses of the Koran – on the question of when and under what circumstances violence is acceptable and even mandatory for faithful Muslims. Such articles – which focus on aspects of the behavior of individual believers without further analysis of how that behavior is supported (or not supported) theologically by the texts and doctrines of the religion in question – are extremely unhelpful.

    This is because there is no basis in fact for their basic assumption, i.e. the fundamental equivalence of the moral doctrines of all religions, something which in a way is implied by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but which is certainly not substantiated by empirical observation today. Why is it supposed that violence must be considered a priori “radical” behavior by all religions? The truth is that certain religions provide copious rationalization and justification for violence while others do not.

    But this is, fortunately one might add, (still) a problem, at least in our society.

    While people like Scott Roeder may claim that they are Christians and even feel that their actions may somehow be sanctioned by Christianity, there is nothing to support their views in the Christian texts themselves – neither in the Bible nor in any of the texts, for example, of the Catholic Church (which, as any Catholic knows, do not leave much open for personal interpretation). However, there is far more room for argument about whether Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheik Mohammed or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi follow faithfully the teachings of Islam. While some Muslims feel they do not, many feel they do and are able to find without any difficulty at all very solid textual support for this point of view in the Koran and the Hadith.

    Sugar-coating this problem with pseudo even-handedness will never make it go away. Perhaps more people should consider submitting their religion to a cold, hard, and very brutal critical analysis. After all, isn’t that what real Enlightenment calls us to do? If the results are sobering, there is always the noble path of apostasy – even if, for a Muslim, that could mean not only the eternal damnation in the afterworld a Catholic would presumably face if he or she were to make this decision, but death at the hands of his or her Muslim co-religionists in this world as well.

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