By Junaid M. Afeef
President Obama’s remarks at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast — particularly that those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam are in fact betraying it — are timely if not overdue. Muslims in America, particularly youth, deserve to hear the president speaking accurately about Islam at a time when Islam is being maligned by terrorists like ISIS and by Islamophobes like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). Terrorists and Islamophobes are seemingly bound together by their loathing of Islam, a religion practiced by nearly 1.4 billion peaceful, law-abiding Muslims around the world.
Obama has been assailed for his comments by many on the right for having the courage to speak about Islam accurately. And, given that on February 18 President Obama convenes a long overdue summit in Washington, DC to discuss strategies to counter violent extremism, the unwarranted criticism will likely intensify. Those who criticized the president for his prayer breakfast comments will likely excoriate him for not calling it a summit to counter Islamic extremism. It has already begun.
Those who wish to frame the fight against domestic terrorism as “Islamic extremism” pre-empted the White House summit with their own “Defeat Jihad Summit” last week. It was organized by Frank Gaffney and featured well known Islamophobes, including Geerts Wilder, Nonie Darwish and Zuhdi Jasser. The “Defeat Jihad Summit” also included politicians such as Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rep. Steve King, and Sen. Ted Cruz. At its core, this “shadow summit” continued to advance the irresponsible notion that Islam and Muslims are the problem.
Muslims are Not the Enemy
Critics say that what we call the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the beheadings and immolations by ISIS matters — and they are right. These are acts of violence committed by individuals following an extremist ideology that is related to Islam only because the perpetrators claim it is. But that does not make it Islamic extremism — not when nearly 1.4 billion Muslims around the world reject the perverted interpretations espoused by Al Qaeda, ISIS and their ilk. The terrorists are the exception, not the rule.
That being said, there is a battle raging within Islam pitting the masses of peaceful, law-abiding people against violent, brutal and barbaric killers. Historically, terrorism committed by Muslims has been less frequent than other faith groups, but from 9/11 onward the threat of terrorism committed by Muslims is on the rise (with the largest number of victims coming from the Muslim community). This is why the fight against violent extremism has to include Muslims rather than painting them as the enemy. Muslims are the first victims of Al Qaeda and ISIS, and Muslims are the first to condemn them.
Ignoring or alienating the vast majority of Muslims who are peaceful and who are the natural enemies of ISIS and Al Qaeda is shortsighted. Calling any of the atrocities committed by terrorists “Islamic” fuels Islamophobia. And cherry-picking which people who commit violent acts are then called terrorist makes it worse. Social media is already rampant with unbridled anti-Muslim hate. The recent murder of three young Muslims at UNC Chapel Hill may have been motivated by an anti-Muslim animus. Mainstream Christian religious leaders like Franklin Graham openly speak of Islam in stunningly ignorant and false terms. To conflate the terrorism committed by Muslims as Islamic only diverts attention from the real issues.
Countering violent extremism within the Muslim community in America does not lend itself to simple solutions. Muslims in America are not becoming radicalized as much as they appear to be in Europe, though our problem at home is undeniably growing. Within the last week six individuals were indicted in St. Louis (two of whom reside in suburban Chicago) for allegedly providing material support to extremist groups in Syria. The FBI is engaging would-be terrorists in undercover operations across the country on an on-going basis.
The Muslim community needs to be fully engaged as an equal partner in developing strategies to counter the radicalization narratives, in formulating guidelines around what the warning signs of radicalization may be and in implementing programs that divert at-risk youth from the dangers of radicalization. The overarching goal must be to create a more resilient Muslim community in America — one that has a mutually trusting relationship with law enforcement so that when individuals become threats, people who see the danger signs can report them to the authorities without fear.
Criticisms of the White House’s CVE Summit
There are valid criticisms of the upcoming White House summit on countering violent extremism specifically, and the administration’s efforts more broadly in this vein. It is troubling that a summit that should have convened long ago has been hastily put together. It’s troublesome that the agenda is shrouded in secrecy. There are a number of questions raised by the White House summit. For example, to the extent that the countering violent extremism relates to the domestic Muslim community, what role did these communities play in formulating these strategies?
Also, on what is the U.S. strategy on countering violent extremism based? Are there evidenced-based practices previously used in American communities, which are being applied? What, if any, lessons were derived from law enforcement efforts to fight gangs? Crisis intervention teams within local police departments are showing promising results in re-directing people with mental health issues away from the criminal justice system and into treatment or into other community interventions. Have these strategies been considered when developing the strategies to be discussed at the summit?
Who is charged with the responsibility of conveying the strategy to the grassroots where the buy-in and the understanding is most critical? How will the White House countering violent extremism strategy be deployed? What training will be provided? What resources will be made available?
These are some of the questions that remain to be answered.
There is good reason to be concerned about domestic violent extremism, and we know that some of those concerns are emanating from the Muslim community. By now the question is not whether, but to what extent this is a problem for the Muslim community. Solutions for this national security issue will be most effective when common sense is used to work with and empower Muslim communities to become trusted partners. Extremists — including Islamophobes — should be on notice that we are committed to working towards these smart solutions as a united community.
Junaid M. Afeef is an attorney specializing in criminal justice policy, a former executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and a Truman National Security Project Political Partner. Views expressed are his own.