There were many issues raised in the recent Peter King hearings purportedly about “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response,” but few were relevant to the topic. Elsewhere I have discussed some of the problems with the premise and agenda of the hearings, so I will not repeat those concerns here. Watching the hearings today, I heard claims and allegations that “Muslim organizations” and “Muslim leaders” have not taken seriously the threat from terrorism committed in the name of Islam or the problem of al-Qaeda trying to recruit Muslim Americans to their terrorist cult. This is patently untrue.
I would have loved to have testified at the hearings to describe how an urgent desire to understand the threat and effective responses to it overwhelmed my attention when I was vice-president, then president of the Islamic Society of North America from 2001-2010. I spent hundreds of hours in meetings discussing this, not only with other Muslim leaders in the United States and internationally, but with members of the US Congress, officials in the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Department of Justice — and most of this during the Republican administration of George W. Bush.
For someone trained as a scholar of pre-modern, classical Islam at the University of Chicago, I often felt unprepared to deal with these issues. Given my responsibility to serve the Muslim community in this time of crisis, I worked hard to get my head around the social science and intelligence discussions. I combed the library and the internet for articles about radicalization, the methods of cults, modern political theories of religious violence and terrorism like Robert Pape’s Dying to Win. There seems to be an assumption by some committee members that all Muslims, by virtue of their faith, have special insight about al-Qaeda; there is no basis for this assumption. I had to turn to non-Muslim intelligence experts and historians, like Lawrence Wright who wrote The Looming Towers, to understand something about this shadowy and marginalized, but extremely dangerous terrorist cult.
If US Attorney General Eric Holder loses sleep at night worrying about the next terrorist attack, I can tell him he is in good company. I have lost sleep, neglected my family (they don’t call it neglect because they are generous and sweet, but I know that my husband and kids deserved a lot more of my time), put off academic research and book projects, all because of an urgent sense that I had to do something about this threat. But when I tossed and turned in my bed, I not only worried about the harm the attacks could inflict upon any of us — including my family — but also about how the terrorists’ interpretation of Islam was being identified by many Americans with Islam itself — another crime of the terrorists. As a mother, I was deeply worried that my children were feeling more and more stigmatized as Muslims.
So other than meeting with government officials and policy specialists, I worked individually as a scholar to write about the sources in Islamic ethics and history that refute the terrorists’ message. I wrote that American Muslims have a special obligation to address crimes and violence in the name of Islam; immediately after 9/11 and many times thereafter, I have drawn attention to the ethical responses of many American Christians and Jews to anti-Muslim rhetoric, to refute the idea that Americans are at war with Islam; in the wake of the UK terrorist attacks of 7/7, I wrote another piece in which I argued that we have to find ways to unravel the deluded heroic narrative the terrorists spin for themselves; and in my book The Story of the Qur’an, I traced the origins of literalist and decontextualized readings of the Quran among the earliest Muslim militant extremists. I have not counted the speeches I gave to Muslim and general audiences about these topics, but there were certainly over a hundred.
My message to Peter King and to the witnesses who have been called to testify is this: why don’t you ask us what we have done? But more helpful for all of us — let’s get together and see whether our efforts and yours have made any positive impact, or if there are other things we can do to be more effective in our messaging. The reality is that all of the recommendations Peter King’s witness Zuhdi Jasser made today have already been done by Muslim American organizations. But despite our best efforts, we will never be experts in counter-terrorism and we need partners and support to extend our reach.
There is great emphasis in American institutions on outcomes, and I worry about that when I think about our efforts over the past decade. Would it have been more effective to put less time into refuting the terrorists’ message and more time building our youth programs and services on the local levels? Would the Somali kids from Minnesota have been deterred from the extremists’ message more by a stirring sermon about patriotism, or by participating in youth programs run by responsible and dynamic counselors? These are serious questions that deserve serious examination. Let’s get serious.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT. She is the past president of the Islamic Society of North America. This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post.