The recent arrests of five American Muslim youth in Pakistan on suspicion of attempting to join militant groups there has provoked deep concern about the existence of homegrown extremism among Muslim American youth. Until recently, it was believed that this was a problem confined to other Western countries such as the UK. The fact that several Muslim Americans have recently surfaced in Somalia and Pakistan among militant groups demands immediate action by the Muslim American community.
The good news is that those Muslims who espouse militant ideologies no longer find a physical home in mainstream Muslim America. For example, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born imam who cheered on the Fort Hood shootings, became ever more radical in his ideology and teaching after leaving the United States and colluding with Yemeni extremists. Similarly, the New York-based al-Qaeda supporting extremist duo that calls itself “Revolution Muslim” has been reduced to heckling mosque-goers from the sidewalk.
The bad news is that after being chased out of the Muslim mainstream, those Muslims leaning towards extremism have found sanctuary on the Internet. There, militants have been able to exploit visitors’ religious illiteracy and social alienation better than their moderate brethren and recruit people to join their cause.
Those Muslims who have found themselves immersed in radicalism have two primary traits in common: a strong aversion to U.S. policy in Muslim countries (which, it must be stressed, is in and of itself not extremist) combined with a profound “identity complex” with respect to what it means to be a Muslim American. The combination of the two creates susceptibility to extremist interpretations that both provide both an identity and a means (albeit violent) to push back.
The best possible antidote then, to Muslims falling prey to extremist thought is to craft and propagate a compelling Muslim American narrative that instills pride and purpose among susceptible minds, and to connect them to mainstream efforts to address U.S. policy in Muslim countries.
Those Muslims exploring violent tactics need to be convinced that it is more effective, moral, and Islamic to defend Muslims overseas through lawful means, and this education needs to happen where they spend the most time searching for answers – namely, the Internet. While Muslim Americans should be commended for moving towards a zero-tolerance policy towards extremist rhetoric in their mosques, they have unfortunately not fought these ideologues on Internet forums where anti-radicalization efforts are most needed.
It is understandable why mainstream Muslims haven’t engaged extremists on the Web. For one, it is distasteful and difficult work, and it is easy to fall prey to the notion of “out of sight, out of mind.” Second, there remains widespread fear that ordinary Muslims who participate in dialogue on extremist websites may themselves be targeted by authorities on suspicion of terror-related activities. I have discussed this dilemma with the highest levels at the Department of Homeland Security, and while there is consensus that this perception is a problem, little has been done to date to address it.
However, there are also other ways to confront aggressive ideologies online. First, we can cultivate an online Muslim presence that is far more sophisticated and engaging to those Muslims who are exploring their identities. Second, we must create online venues where those Muslims troubled by U.S. policies in the Muslim world can join together and engage constructively with lawmakers to help bring about the changes they seek. Third, we must shake any fear of being somehow “less Islamic” than extremists and turn the tables on them through sound scholarship and articulation of principles that speak to the heart of Muslim youth.
It does seem unfair at times that mainstream Muslims are called upon to lead the fight against extremism in our midst. After all, similar injunctions are not made on African-American or Latino communities regarding criminal elements that operate from within their communities. But those of us who believe that Islamic tradition is a noble, life-affirming one need to exhibit the same (or greater) energy as those who see it as a constant vehicle for confrontation, and take the struggle to the Internet where they now find sanctuary.
Shahed Amanullah is Editor-in-Chief of altmuslim.com