The debate on Islamic extremism in the US is often like watching a tennis match, with government officials and Muslim representatives volleying accusations back and forth. On one side, the government (and many in the media) sees a Muslim community with a dismissive or lackluster (at best) response to the threat of homegrown extremism. On the other side, Muslims view government actions through the prism of foreign policy and a broad-brush approach to counter-terrorism that makes them only want to lay low and live the rather uneventful lives they’d always lived. Observers in the middle clamor for the very same Muslims to do something – anything – to counter an Islamist threat that is often invoked, though one that hardly anyone can quantify (witness the spate of downgraded charges and releases in the Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi cases). As a result, in the five years since 9/11, precious little has been accomplished in the way of meaningful counter-terrorism efforts on either side.
But however hackneyed the occasional domestic terror attempt may be (the hapless Fort Dix and “Sears Tower” seven groups come to mind), Muslims need to realize that they do have a stake in the extremism debate, and that making the prevention of homegrown extremism a priority is in the interest of all. We have been lucky – America has largely avoided the tensions in Britain and Europe that have contributed to extremism (both the violent kind and still-detrimental non-violent kind), mainly due to America’s comparatively multicultural society and the relative ease with which Muslim immigrants have been absorbed. However, more extremism could still result if both sides in the debate exacerbate tensions and drive US Muslims into isolation.
Politics aside, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and American Muslim communities share the goal of keeping America safe from homegrown extremism. However, the tactics that have been suggested and/or employed since 9/11 have prevented a true partnership between Muslims and the US government from taking shape. Government officials have put an emphasis on wide surveillance, even going so far as to drive by random Muslim households with listening devices. Muslims, however, have mainly argued that there is no substitute for good detective work, and that there is no way that Muslims can effectively be partners in the fight against extremism and suspects at the same time. Perhaps government officials, burdened by the responsibility of keeping 300 million Americans safe, may feel that Muslim communities are not working fast or hard enough on internal anti-extremism programs. This might be true, but however slow or awkward Muslims might be in creating preventative measures and actively combating extremist ideology, a solution imposed from the outside will never be as effective as one spearheaded by Muslims themselves.
Somewhere in all this mess is a middle ground (albeit small) where Muslims can be freed up to combat extremism from within its ranks, and a role for government that does not exacerbate the problem. Here are a few suggestions that we think can begin to bring about a true anti-extremism partnership:
- Create a proper and effective role for government. A direct and visible government role in anti-extremism efforts involving Muslims (funding lectures, creating a presence in Muslim institutions, directly addressing Muslim youth) will almost certainly backfire, as it feeds the impression that Muslims in general are on the “wrong side” of the war on terror. There are ways, however, to contribute constructively to existing grassroots Muslim efforts against extremism and work towards building a partnership. One such example is for the government to provide comprehensive training to Muslim community members in identifying and counseling “at-risk” Muslims who may be susceptible to falling through the cracks if the Muslim community doesn’t reach out to them. The relationship should never be – or be characterized as – paternal, coerced, or otherwise manipulated; otherwise, the credibility of Muslim participants would suffer irrevocably.
- Ensure transparency and accountability on both ends. Nobody expects the US government to simply take the word of Muslim institutions and community leaders when they say they will take the necessary steps to prevent extremism from taking root. Nor does anyone expect Muslims in the US to blindly trust the US government to not intrude on innocent activities given the history of “fishing expeditions” that catch lawful citizens in the dragnet. What is needed are regular, frank, and open discussions where leaders on both sides work on minimizing the obstacles to effective counter-terrorism efforts, providing each other with regular updates on programs and efforts being implemented, and asking for proper resources and assistance where applicable.
- Give Muslims the freedom to fight extremism on the front lines. The main place that extremism thrives is not your local mosque, but on the Internet. There are bulletin boards and websites where anger, hatred, and conspiracy – left unchecked by voices of reason – provide the fuel for extremist thought and action. It would be wonderful if moderate Muslims confronted this ideology directly, but few would risk being targeted by the government as a visitor to extremist websites under the current climate of assumed guilt. Without assurances that law-abiding Muslims wishing to confront extremists on the Internet won’t get swept up in the anti-terror dragnet, few will take the risk. One way to get around this obstacle would be to create a mechanism through which Muslims seeking to debate extremists can provide advance notice of their intent so as to provide a degree of “immunity” for visiting these sites. This, however, would require a great deal of trust-building between the US government and its Muslim citizens, but it is not impossible.
Creating a mutually respectful partnership between DHS and the Muslim community would go a long way towards reaching the common goal of insulating the US from homegrown extremism of the type that currently afflicts the UK and Europe. It would also help combat the mistaken impression that American Muslims are not willing participants in fighting extremism. For those who are skeptical of any Muslim cooperation with the DHS, especially those who allege a bait-and-switch Islamist agenda, the unwillingness to let Muslims entrap themselves by showing their cards in such dealings is telling. Successful cooperation – and documented progress – would have scores of conspiracy theorists looking for new hobbies and embolden even more Muslims against those who undermine their communities from within.
Incidentally, I had the opportunity last week to personally convey some of these thoughts to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who seemed receptive to many of these assessments. I’m also confident that Muslim leaders in this country would have little problem with these suggestions. So, the way forward is clear – all that is needed now is the political will on both sides to make such a partnership a reality.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.