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Abdulrahman El-Sayed Headshot

Muslim Community Leaders and American Politicians: Moving Forward

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A growing rash of headlines addressing American-born violent Muslim extremism has simultaneously shocked Muslim America and United States counter-terrorism officials.

Citing evidence that there has rarely been an American-born violent Muslim extremist, the American Muslim community and American politicians have until now, trusted compelling sociologic arguments that Muslims in America, were fundamentally different from their counterparts in the Middle East or western Europe. American Muslims would never want to hurt other Americans; the community was too well-integrated, too well-educated, and too well-to-do for that.

But these headlines have made what was previously unthinkable, undeniable: there are extremist Muslims in America. While these radical elements represent a very small minority among Muslims in America, their actions are potent and often speak louder than the voices of the peace-loving majority.

Given this new reality, we're confronted with the following question. Were past arguments against American Muslim extremism simply wishful thinking? Or, though once true, are they now giving way to a more recent arrival of violent extremism in Muslim America?

Let's consider the evidence. The story of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan who slaughtered 13 American men and women at Ft. Hood, and the story of five young men apprehended in Pakistan allegedly attempting to join the Afghan insurgency share similar themes. All six of these men were raised in the United States and experienced 9/11 and its domestic and international fallout as Americans. All six of them grew restless with countless atrocities and rising civilian death tolls in the wake of the continued US military occupation of majority-Muslim countries. They were all increasingly alienated by media coverage suspicious of Islam and Muslims. They all found sympathetic outlets on Internet social networking sites and through video posts shared among international extremists with similar views. And all six of these men eventually acted on the violent extremist ideologies that they had developed.

In the direct aftermath of 9/11, when Muslim leaders trumpeted differences between Muslims in America and abroad and stressed that American Muslims were peace-loving and well-integrated, were they right? Has the increasingly anti-Muslim sentiment that has characterized the aftermath of 9/11 and framed media coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq promoted the radicalization of Muslims in America? Nidal Hasan, Waqar Khan, Ramy Zamzam, Umer Farooq, Ahmed Minni, and Aman Yemer seem to suggest so.

Perhaps most disturbing is the feed-forward nature of this process. Sensationalized media commentary on stories like Ft. Hood feed the flame of anti-Muslim sentiment, a sentiment, which along with increasing FBI scrutiny of American mosques, further alienates disenchanted Muslim-American youth. This, in turn, potentially pushes them closer to a radical fate, only to become headlines that attract more media sensationalism, and justify increased FBI scrutiny.

Alarmingly, this cycle may gain momentum unless focused effort on the part of Muslim community leaders and American politicians are directed against it. Ultimately, it is in each stakeholder's best interests to assure that the cycle of anti-Muslim suspicion and the development of violent Muslim-American youth comes to a halt.

Neither Muslim America nor American government officials can afford another terrorist attack on US soil. For Muslims in America, pressure has been mounting since 9/11. Another attack would make an already strained social existence among neighbors and coworkers almost unbearable. For American politicians, another attack in the collective memory of 9/11 and the recent Christmas day attempt, following countless billions of dollars spent fighting two increasingly unpopular wars with direct aims against terrorism, and increasingly heightened domestic security measures, would represent an indefensible failure to protect America, and would surely not go unpunished at the ballot box. Finally, preventing the loss of life and pain associated with such an attack is in the best interest of all Americans, including media pundits who have fed anti-Muslim sentiment and contributed to this cycle.

Rather than continue as mutually ineffectual adversaries, it is time that Muslim community leaders and American governmental officials ally to take the lead in uprooting the seedlings of post-9/11 extremism in Muslim America. Neither can accomplish this aim alone, as both have botched past efforts. By funneling domestic counter-terrorism resources toward bolstering surveillance efforts in American mosques, rather than building open, honest, and lasting ties with the Muslim community, American officials continue to sully the trust of Muslim America and cast a strongly anti-Muslim shadow on alienated Muslim youth. On the other hand, disparate efforts by Muslim community leaders to develop strong, civically informed, and organically American Muslim communities have often been poorly organized and ineffective.

Moving forward, Muslim community leaders and American politicians might take a lesson from abroad. With a much larger and more segregated immigrant Muslim population, the British government and Muslim community leaders in the UK have been forced to think creatively about how to deal with the threat of extremism within their country. One fruit of this honest creativity has been the "Radical Middle Way", a grassroots initiative promoting a "mainstream understanding of Islam that is dynamic, proactive and relevant to young British Muslims." Innovative, well-organized, and increasingly influential, this organization has hosted some of the world's most influential Muslim leaders, scholars, and activists. It emphasizes the inherently Islamic message of "wasat," or balance and middle-thinking. The organization has proven a successful counterbalance to extremist propaganda on the Internet and in some UK mosques. Perhaps most compelling is that the UK's Department of Communities and Local Government funds the effort. Ironically, it is, perhaps, the UK's most successful counterterrorism investment. American politicians and Muslim community leaders would do well to emulate such a thriving symbol of hope and interdependent progress, and American media pundits might consider highlighting shared projects such as this as examples of mutual understanding and future peace.

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