When Adam Yahiye Gadahn was kicked out of an Orange County mosque in 2004, it was for good reason. He was a troublemaker who only meant more trouble for that mosque. Gadahn was kicked out for creating firestorms of controversies for his actions and was remembered as being “angry, rigidly pious, and hypercritical of any Muslim who adopted Western clothes or manners,” according to the Washington Post.
Then there is Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He was kicked out of a Boston mosque after verbal altercations with Muslim leaders there. Tsarnaev didn’t believe talks about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his civil rights work belonged in mosques.
Sadly, both Gadahn and Tsarnaev later became involved in terrorism: Gadahn became al-Qaeda’s spokesman, and Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police after being implicated for the Boston Marathon bombing.
What Gadahn and Tsarnaev exemplified through their actions in their local mosques weren’t necessarily indicators of pre-operational terrorist planning. And, actions of mosque leaders were understandable, especially when federal authorities place extra scrutiny on Muslim institutions in America. However, the reflexive action to kick both young men out of the mosque wasn’t the answer either. The lessons learned in hindsight are a clarion call to all of us to adjust our approach toward young people who express themselves in a troubling manner. Rather than kicking them out, we need to intervene.
We aim to prevent violent ideology with a dose of good theology and healthy, honest conversations in our mosques. We then try to intervene with anyone who exemplifies troubling behavior. Finally, we resort to ejection from our mosques when all other measures are exhausted. In all cases of violent activity, we remind our constituents to call law enforcement. The precise mechanisms for these steps can be found in the community toolkit.
The toolkit is a practical set of options to empower communities against violence and extremism through education and rehabilitation not just incarceration. These are actual steps communities can take to create crisis intervention teams to prevent violent extremism.
Safe spaces are created for everyone entering our mosques to be able to have difficult conversations. People need to feel comfortable discussing politics or persecution of Muslims in places such as Palestine or Kashmir or drone attacks that harm the innocent in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Safe spaces are needed so that government informants and extremist recruiters are prevented from violating the sanctity of the mosque. In essence, we want to enhance both a spiritual safety and public safety.
The next Gadahn or Tsarnaev may be rehabilitated — or maybe not. However, it is our civic and religious responsibility to try to help any person who demonstrates troubling signs.
Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) has a famous tradition attributed to him: Help your brother if he is oppressed or is the oppressor. His companions replied that they understood how to help if he is oppressed but confused on how to help if he an oppressor. The Prophet replied, “By preventing him from oppressing others.” [Bukhari, Book of 46, Hadith 5]
Terrorism is a form of oppression, and it is distorting and defiling the message of Islam more than anything else in our era. We need to take control of our own narrative in the United States our own mosques and in the public arena.