An army major at Fort Hood guns down fellow soldiers, five young men arrested after traveling to Pakistan to join radical elements, a coffee vendor charged in a New York terror plot and a terrorism suspect in North Carolina is arrested. Such headlines involving American Muslims ought to be a source of concern for the community. A recent scholarly report (PDF) by researchers at Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill asserts that the number of American Muslims vulnerable to radicalization is small but not negligible. Since 9-11, 139 American Muslims have committed terrorist acts or have been convicted or charged with terrorism. Less than one-third successfully executed their violent plots, with a majority of these violent acts being committed overseas.
The American Muslim community should not brush aside these facts by either taking a defensive posture or by being apologetic. Saying that only a handful of American Muslims are involved in terrorism while the vast majority of the community are productive citizens or asserting that America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the source of such radicalization, while true does not solve the problem at hand. The better path for the community will be to conduct honest soul searching and enact proactive measures that can avoid such attention grabbing headlines in the first place.
In an ideal world, the misguided action of a few individuals will not invite scrutiny on the broader community. But we live in a world where the fear and misunderstandings about the Muslim community is pervasive. A recent survey by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies found 53 percent of Americans view Islam unfavorably with 6 in 10 Americans reporting that they know little about Islam. While other religious extremists are portrayed as being outside the mainstream, terrorists who happen to be Muslims are characterized as representatives of their religion. Dalia Mogahed , executive director of the Gallup Center said to Bloomberg News, “Where a deranged person of a certain faith commits a crime in the name of their faith, we look at these incidents as someone misinterpreting faith. When a terrorist commits an act of violence in the name of Islam, it is often times framed as being devoted to the faith rather than being deviant.”
The Duke-UNC report (PDF), while raising concern, commends the American Muslim community for the steps it has taken thus far to limit radicalization of its youth. These steps such as public and private denunciation of terrorism, nipping extremist ideas at their bud, social networking, and political engagement have been helpful but need of further enhancement for better sustainability. Among the ideas (not necessarily new or radical) that the community can use to prevent future radicalization are:
1. Political Mobilization – Increased political mobilization will stunt domestic radicalization by providing, “an example to Muslims around the world that grievances can be resolved through peaceful democratic means.” American Muslims should use their social gatherings to mobilize politically. Merely demanding inclusion in the political process is not enough. No politician or political party will take the community seriously unless the community can demonstrate that they have the ability to deliver votes, money or both. Instead of presenting issues as “Muslim-centric” the community will be better served by making their advocacy “issue-centric.” This will allow the community to gather allies across faith-groups who also have similar concerns. A broader coalition will increase the chances of success and success will draw out more members of the community to rally behind common causes. Success will also remove the cynicism that often permeates the community.
2. Relationship with Law Enforcement – The community has made efforts to improve relationship with law enforcement. Such efforts need to be sustained and enhanced. The American Muslim community has legitimate concerns about law enforcement’s use of informants and agent provocateurs. However, these concerns cannot be addressed by cutting-off relations. If fact, the opposite needs to be done. Besides seeking regular dialogue with law enforcement, the American-Muslim community needs to encourage its youth to seek careers in law enforcement. Asking the FBI to include more members of the community in its Citizen’s Academy will also be a step in the right direction.
3. Access – Sections of the American Muslim community consist of people who are immigrants, who may struggle to provide their families with basic necessities due to poor English language skills or lack of higher education. Parents often work double or triple shifts to make ends meet with little time to spend with their children, particularly the youth. This makes them vulnerable to unsavory social networks. The American Muslim community, in partnership with public agencies, need to provide, “community-building resources such as youth centers, childcare facilities, public health clinics, and English as a Second Language courses (Duke-UNC report).” This can mitigate any propensity towards radicalization.
4. Religious Discourse – The Duke-UNC report asserts, “Muslim-Americans with a strong, traditional religious training are far less likely to radicalize than those without such training.” The community must invest in developing institutions that can teach Islam in a holistic way. In addition, there is an urgent need to review the types of lectures and khutbas being delivered at the local mosques. This is not to say that contemporary Islamic discourse in American Islamic centers is radicalizing Muslim youth. However, it is safe to say that the contemporary Islamic discourse in American Islamic centers is often too esoteric for the youth to find relevance to their day-to-day life. Religious consciousness is not possible without a social ethic. Thus religious discourse instead of being consumed with the trivial issues of halal (permissible) or hilal (moon crescent) should tackle issues that are contemporary to living in America. This will allow young people to appreciate that the solutions to their many problems can be found within their faith, creating a more positive attitude towards their faith and their country.
A recent publication titled, “Building Bridges to Strengthen America,” (PDF) produced by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, cites a study (PDF) by Quintan Wiktorowicz outlining a path to radicalization. Knowing these steps can help the community and families spot trouble before they become a nightmare.
The first step towards radicalization is usually socio-economic-political discontent often precipitating a personal crisis that Wiktorowicz describes as, “…shakes certainty in previously accepted beliefs and renders an individual more receptive to the possibility of alternative views and perspectives.” The identity crisis leads to seeking answers. People may find comfort in religion using a variety of methods such as personal social networks or the internet. If the seeker consciously or inadvertently were to engage with members of any extremist movement then the chances of radicalization increases as the, “[extremist] movement members attempt to convince seekers that the movement ideology provides logical solutions to pressing concerns.” Successful recruitment occurs because individuals are ignorant of or lack access to mainstream religious knowledge. Empirical studies show that most terrorists lack religious knowledge and were secular individuals until just before joining an extremist group (see Marc Sageman’s, Leaderless Jihad).
In the final phase, the recruit internalizes the ideology of the extremist group. Sustaining this state of mind requires isolating the individual from mainstream society. Radicals are often aloof, angry and excessively critical of society. Instead of seeking solutions to problem, they engage in the blame game, often making simplistic and stereotyping accusations that they themselves loathe when directed at their faith or community. An important caveat – not all people who are aloof, angry or excessively critical are necessarily radicals.
In a study (PDF) by the Dutch Clingendael Centre for Strategic Studies, the author provides a way to measure social integration (arguing that better social integration can reduce chances of being radicalized). The study asserts that there are ten social factors, which are necessary for social integration. The factors are:
1. Acceptance – an individual’s perception for being accepted in society.
2. Welcome – an individual’s feeling of being welcomed or warmly greeted by society.
3. Integration – an individual’s involvement in activities outside of their own ethnic or religious groups.
4. Entitlement – an individual’s feelings about their citizenship rights.
5. Equal Opportunity – an individual’s perception of fairness in their professional life.
6. Social Access – an individual’s feeling about being accepted in or have easy access to local clubs, sporting groups etc.
7. Loyalty – an individual’s loyalty or allegiance towards their country of residence.
8. Citizenship Pride – an individual’s satisfaction in being a member of the national community.
9. Social Values – an individual’s attitude towards social values, such as freedom, human rights, etc., of the broader society.
10. Language – an individual’s fluency in the local language of the country they reside in.
Scoring low on these factors increases the risk of radicalization. As is seen from these factors, the propensity to radicalize is a multifaceted and complex process. Community members need to proactively institute programs that allow young American Muslims to develop positive attitude towards their society. Some of these factors are outside the control of the community. And yet, if and when a problem surfaces, members of the community should engage with relevant agencies that can provide relief. For example, if a person feels that they are being discriminated in their jobs or badly treated when they go to the local gym, the community should seek immediate redress, understanding that the law is on their side. Brushing aside these grievances only makes the problem worse. Redressing grievances can engender positive feelings towards citizenship and foster loyalty.
Throughout his life, before and after the Prophetic mission, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) participated in many just causes without regard to who initiated that good action. To Prophet Muhammad, the principles were more important than who initiated a good action. He did want to establish a tribal order. He wanted to establish a system of governance based on justice and a social order based on compassion. Here are three examples of Prophet Muhammad’s inclusive and egalitarian vision:
1. The Fujjar War (this was before Muhammad was a prophet): This war was waged against some Arab tribes who violated the sacredness of Makkah in the sacred months. The sanctity of Kaabah was a tradition the Makkans had inherited from the upright religion of Prophet Abraham. This fight lasted for four years, and the Prophet’s age at that time was around 15-19 years. He participated in this war side by side with his uncles. He defended his community from danger and he did so out of his sense that he should share in defending his homeland and fight off aggression and injustice.
2. Hilf Al-Fudul (The Pact of the Virtuous): A pact was reached in the house of Abdullah bin Jud`an. One of the principles outlined in this pact was that all the tribes who signed on to this pact will come to the defense of any person in Makkah who is oppressed or subjected to injustices. And they will do so regardless of the social status or ethnic origin of the victim. Later in his life, when Muhammad became a prophet he said (i.e. while referring to this alliance): “If I am invited to join a similar (alliance) now (after the spread of Islam), I will, surely, join it.” The Prophet’s participation in Al-Fudul Alliance reveals the positive attitude he took, for he considered himself part and parcel of the Makkan society, the community where he lived, where he earned his living from and expected die. He was eager to participate in good causes that benefited the society regardless of who initiated the action.
3. The Prophet’s Response to SOS Calls: It is reported that during the time of Al-Hudaibiyah peace treaty, the Prophet was informed that a famine had afflicted the Makkan people, the same people who had driven him out of his home and killed members of his family. But upon hearing the humanitarian disaster that befell even his enemies, he sent Hatib bin Abi Balta’a with 500 dinars to buy foods for the poor and the needy among the Makkans.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) remembered God Almighty by engaging in the service of God’s creations. He served God, by serving his fellow human beings.
Despite the many setbacks on civil liberties, America remains a land of the free. Muslims must use this freedom to effectively respond to the vigorous challenges to some of their deeply held beliefs. While speaking out against perceived affront to their religion or way of life they must uphold the right of others to offend without backing down from seeking ways to defend their own rights. This, of course, entails an unequivocal commitment to the rule of law. Citizens have the right to protest unfair treatment; and when they believe the law is unjust, they should work to change such laws. Promising integration lies in civic participation and political mobilization. Random violence targeting innocent civilians is immoral and ineffective. It can never be justified no matter how severe the underlying grievance. This message needs to be reinforced from the mosque pulpit to the kitchen table.
Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D., is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the American Muslim experience. This article was originally written for Message International.