Combatting extremism: Saving our youth from the disease of radicalism

The latest to go astray

Words cannot describe the sadness and horror so many Muslims felt over Thanksgiving weekend – a weekend when they, like other Americans, gathered with their families to give thanks – when they heard the news that a 19 year-old Muslim from Oregon tried to detonate a van filled with explosives among a crowd of innocent Americans celebrating the holidays.

As an American Muslim educator who has been actively working against violent extremism in the Muslim community, I am thankful that it was someone from the Muslim community who initially alerted law enforcement to this individual when they saw signs of concern. This follows an excellent pattern of cooperation between Muslim congregations in the US and law enforcement officials wherein at least one-third of potential incidents were averted through active Muslim vigilance and self-patrol.

At the same time, this incident demonstrates that we have more work to do in the Muslim community to root out the attraction to the violent extremist ideology among some Muslims. Although, it would be impossible to root it out 100%, I believe we have to do more both locally and in the online world to destroy the roots of this disease of extremist radicalism.

I wish to address those young Muslims out there who are either sympathizers or supporters of radical extremist Muslim figures. Of course, such individuals would disagree with this characterization and instead imagine these people to somehow be freedom fighters or courageous heroes who stand up to the oppressors of today.

I fully intend to show you that you are wrong in this belief.

The scholar Ibn Taymiyyah has correctly said, “One of the fundamental principles of Islam is to bring benefit (maslahah) to society, or at least to increase it if it cannot be complete – and to reduce harm to the greatest degree possible.”   We also see the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) considering the consequences of his decisions such as in the treaty of al-Hudaybiyyah that he made with idol-worshippers in his time. Despite his being upon the truth and despite his capability to fight them for blocking his path to worship, he still entered into a cease-fire with them – an act seen by some of his Companions as accepting humiliation. Some of the Companions asked why they should accept the humiliation of some of the conditions of the treaty, yet Allah called this treaty a “manifest victory” because of its far reaching consequences; for indeed we can all accomplish more in peace than in war.
Yet we can clearly see that the consequences of the extremist plots of today are far from bringing any benefit or goodness either to the Muslim society, or the general human society as a whole. On the contrary, they bring far greater evils than the oppressions they claim to fight.  
Let us consider just some of the consequences of each and every plot since 9-11. They have led to 2 destructive wars, the enactment of several governmental policies that have created both civil and legal hardships upon Muslim and non-Muslim alike, the imprisonment of countless young men and women and a general rise in anti-Islamic sentiment in this country, and in other Western nations. This increasing “islamophobia” has even led to the abuse and burning of the Quran as well as various acts of vandalism to mosques around the country.  Someone even attempted to burn down the Islamic center in Oregon where the alleged young Somali extremist sometimes prayed. 
Can anyone in their right mind consider this to be for the good of anyone? How many people have left Islam or come to doubt it as a result of these acts?
Is America at War with Islam?

To characterize the conflicts of today – or the statements of their leaders – as a war against Islam is not a fair accusation.  Firstly, though some of their leaders have made statements against the Islamic religion, others have not, and in fact some have gone out of their way to say they are not against Islam. This is the heterogeneous reality of many governments around the world where one idea is not shared by all elements. President George Bush may have made several questionable remarks in his time, and many Muslims view him with disdain because of the wars that have killed countless Iraqis and Afghanis, but he was also the first president to go to a mosque to deliver a speech in which he praised Islam. Does that erase the damage of the wars he started? No, but it only demonstrates the complicated nature of this question. President Obama has followed suit by speaking to entire Muslim societies when he delivered speeches in Egypt and Indonesia, an attempt to placate that disdain created by the previous administration, but he too has met resistance because of the predator drone program. Furthermore, leaders in both the FBI and DHS have worked cooperatively with Muslims in this country to address concerns and sensitivities, something that some Islamic leaders and I have witnessed ourselves.
Secondly, these countries that are sometimes characterized as warring against Islam see themselves only as helping one group of Muslims against another group of Muslims, but not fighting all Muslims in total.  For example, how could we characterize the US as fighting Islam itself when they were the ones that helped the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion in the late twentieth century and helped to liberate Kosovo from Serbian henchmen at the turn of the millennium? Hence, at times they fight some Muslim countries and in other cases they help to defend others. Clearly, the fighting is about more than the religion.
Thirdly, America has not made religious hardships in the actual practice of Islam upon Muslims living within its boundaries, nor the Muslims in lands in which they have a dominant military presence. Examples include the acceptance of Islam by large numbers of servicemen in the Iraq wars (illustrating the open policy they have with the preaching of Islam even to their military servicemen), the sensitivity courses run by American agencies to educate their personnel on Islam, and that over half of US foreign aid goes to Muslim nations. Many Muslim preachers have rightly said that one can practice Islam more freely in the US than you can in a number of “Muslim” countries.

The real issue here is that America – as other countries and empires have done from time immemorial – is acting internationally upon its strategic interests and not on religious preferences. Regardless of whatever injustice happens to Muslims in this pursuit of interests, our religion demands that we act with righteousness and piety.

Understanding the Prohibition of Warring Against Your Fellow Citizens and Joining Foreign Armies

As far as America, or Europe, is concerned, some are confused as to whether or not they are bound by the laws of the land. Yet there is no doubt that the Islamic religion commands believers to obey the laws of the land they live in, even if it be one ruled by non-Muslims.  Muslim scholars consider citizenship, or an entry visa, to be a covenant (‘aqd) held between the citizen, or visa holder, and the state; an agreement which guarantees security (amaan) in exchange for certain obligations such as obeying the laws of the land. We must remember that covenants are considered sacredly binding in Islam, for as Allah commands us in the Qur’an: “O you who believe! Fulfill your obligations!” [5:1]
And later in the same surah, Allah states: “And let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to do wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do.” [5:8]
This issue is of critical importance in two predominant circumstances today: 1) when someone considers terrorizing or making war against their fellow citizens, and 2) when an American citizen or legal resident attempts to go overseas to join a foreign army.  This second case has happened in three distinct places in the most recent past; Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan, where some Muslims have been deluded into thinking that they “need” to join these conflicts in order to “help” their fellow Muslims. Consider the following hadith:

It has been reported on the authority of Hudhaifa ibnul-Yaman who said: Nothing prevented me from being present at the Battle of Badr except this incident. I came out with my father Husail (to participate in the Battle), but we were caught by the pagans of Quraish. They said: “(Do) you intend to go to Muhammad?”  We said: “We do not intend to go to him, but we wish to go (back) to Medina.”  So they took from us a covenant in the name of God that we would turn back to Medina and would not fight on the side of Muhammad (saas). So, we came to the Messenger of Allah (saas) and related the incident to him. He said: “Both, of you proceed (to Medina); we will fulfill the covenant made with them and seek God’s help against them.” (Muslim)

Here the Prophet (peace be upon him) prevented Hudhaifa and his father from participating in a battle with him so that they wouldn’t violate their promise that they gave to the idol-worshippers of Quraish. How much more are we then obligated to fulfill our trusts in the convoluted times of today?

Returning to the first case, some young people have become deceived into believing that it is jihad to kill their fellow countrymen. Yet if they survive this period of youthful ignorance without killing themselves in the process, they often repent as did many of the leaders of jihadi movements overseas. One such leader is Sayyid Imam al-Sharif of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad group, previously a partner with al-Qaeda. In his now famous refutation of al-Qaeda and its methodology, al-Sharif warns:

“Oh, you young people, do not be deceived by the heroes of the internet, the leaders of the microphones, who are launching statements inciting the youth while living under the protection of intelligence services, or of a tribe, or in a distant cave or under political asylum in an infidel country. They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves, and prisons.”

To Muslims living in non-Islamic countries eager to wage “jihad,” he advises:

“I say it is not honorable to reside with people – even if they were non-believers and not part of a covenant, if they gave you permission to enter their homes and live with them, and if they gave you security for yourself and your money, and if they gave you the opportunity to work or study, or they granted you political asylum with a decent life and other acts of kindness – and then betray them, through killing and destruction. This was not in the manners and practices of the Prophet (saas)…

He further said:

“[Many] people hate America, and the Islamist movements feel their hatred and their impotence. Ramming America has become the shortest road to fame and leadership among the Arabs and Muslims. But what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy’s buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours?”

His age cooled many of his raging emotions – a madness that many of our youth suffer from today. It also allowed him to apply wisdom in evaluating the consequences of actions as he did in the quote above. This is what we are saying now: agree or disagree about the evidences from Quran and Sunnah, you cannot ignore the consequences of your actions.
It is true that our condition today as an Ummah is deplorable – we have abandoned tawhid (monotheism) on the greater societal scale, we are politically impotent, morally corrupt, devoid of manners, backward in the fields of science and technology – and this is the fault of each and every one of us. We have no other road to salvation except to turn back in repentance to Allah and strive harder to be on the character of our beloved Messenger (saas). Killing innocent people and espousing extremist ideology is only distancing us further from Our Lord and from His Mercy.

Advice for Anwar al-Awlaki

As for Anwar al-Awlaki and those who spread his ideology of terror and extremism, I call them sincerely back to the path of cooperation upon good and piety. I ask you by Allah to remember all the good that you did while you were here in America – your lectures on the Prophets, the Companions and the Hereafter resulted in the repentance and rectification of many people. You met many good people here in America – some who accepted Islam, and others who supported our causes even though they may not have followed our beliefs. How can you justify killing such innocent people who have done no wrong? 
I implore you by Allah to consider what you had accomplished in the past and compare it to the record of death, destruction, humiliation and misery you have led people to since you have gone on the path you are currently on. We believe that you are a person of intelligence and that if you consider this you will certainly repent for what you have been saying and return to the true path of moderation and righteousness.
If you will not heed this advice, then you shall be guilty on the Day of Judgment for grievous sins and for misleading many by your words. Furthermore, I warn people from listening to your words and being influenced by you until you repent and declare this repentance openly.

Remembering Our Purpose and Our Ultimate Goal

I close by reminding all my brothers and sisters of some words that are worth their weight in diamonds, words that one cannot ignore and ideas that must be considered carefully. I begin with the words of our beloved Messenger (peace be upon him):

Narrated Tareef Abi Tamima: I saw Safwan and Jundub and his companions when Jundab was advising them. They said, “Did you hear something from Allah’s Messenger (saas)?” He said, “I heard him saying, ‘Whoever does a good deed in order to show off, Allah will expose his intentions on the Day of Resurrection (before the people), and whoever puts the people into difficulties, Allah will put him into difficulties on the Day of Resurrection.‘” The people said (to Jundab), “Advise us.” He said, “… he who does as much as he can that nothing intervene between him and Paradise by not shedding even a handful of blood, (murdering) should do so.” (Bukhari)

Do you really expect that Allah will reward you for creating so many difficulties for so many people? Are you safe from the Hellfire when you have not only attempted to shed a handful of blood, but indeed barrels of blood? Consider the wise words of the great Tabi’ee Mutarrif ibn Abdillah who was asked by the Khawarij – a group of extremists who fought the Companions of the Prophet – why he didn’t join them in their battle and he replied:

“For Allah to ask me on the Day of Judgment, why didn’t you kill someone is far more beloved to me than for Him to ask me why I killed someone.”

Let us learn from these wise words and remember that success in this life and the next will never come through disobedience to Allah and distorting His beautiful religion with rage and killing. In these difficult and challenging moments, let us follow the advice of our beloved Prophet and step back away from the trials around us, calling upon Allah seeking His Mercy and guidance, and not to throw ourselves headlong into the chaos whereby we further injure those we intended to help, and moreover, we run the greater risk of losing our Hereafter.
And Allah knows best.

Dr. Ali Shehata is a board certified family physician, who has also a taken a traditional path to studying Islam under various scholars for the past 12 years. He is also an instructor with al-Maghrib Institute and a youth mentor in his community of Orlando, Florida and a writer for He is the author of the best selling book Demystifying Islam: Your Guide to the Most Misunderstood Religion of the 21st Century. An extended 2-part version of this article, complete with citations from the Qur’an and hadith, appears at (Part 1, Part 2).

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