Earlier this month, a U.S. congressional committee heard Melvin Bledsoe share the story of his son's conversion ("brainwashing," he called it) to Islamic extremism, before allegedly killing an American soldier outside an army recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark.
"One thing for sure: it will happen again," the Memphis, Tenn. father said of the 2009 tragedy.
The hearing was called by Congressman Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, to discover "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response."
In all, seven people testified, and several were American Muslims -- a population of roughly 2.6 million. But none were mosque leaders. None represented major Muslim groups. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country's largest Muslim advocacy group, was not invited.
But Bledsoe's story was heard, a father's personal tragedy was exploited, and Islam was equated with "brainwashing" and violence.
If King wants to examine responses to radicalization from the Muslim community -- not, as his opponents have said, stage a public witch-hunt targeting one religious group -- we'll introduce him to someone who could save him some trouble.
Rizwan Mohammad has been on a fact-finding mission in Canada. The 30-year-old McGill grad student of Islamic philosophy has been an anti-racism activist since age 15. He's just wrapped up his biggest undertaking. With a group of 64 volunteers, Mohammad spent 22 months talking to 1,300 youth across the country, delving into the roots of isolation and radicalization in the Muslim community.
He arrived at a conclusion: "The less identity, the more violence," he said, quoting Marshall McLuhan.
The Muslim Youth Canada project, as it's called, was an initiative from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. It set out to promote religious and cultural understanding, both within the Muslim community, and between Muslim and non-Muslim youth, with forums held in schools and community centres across Canada.
That meant sharing stories. Mohammad and his team interviewed young Muslims who felt isolated, socially and culturally. Some felt unfairly targeted by police officers. One girl spoke about what it was like to have non-Muslim women ask her about her hijab.
"Some people don't want us here," one participant said.
Talk of radicalization led to a discussion of how youth define themselves -- as Muslims, as local citizens, as Canadians. A proactive stance against violence, says Mohammad, is to foster a stronger sense of identity, and civic engagement.
Muslims are one of the least likely faith groups to vote in Canadian federal elections, particularly Muslim women. But there's more to civic engagement than party politics, Mohammad points out. Civic engagement is a citizen's moral connection with their community. A stronger commitment to civic and social groups leaves youth less vulnerable to radicals preaching attacks on those communities.
Toronto lawyer Abdul-Basit Khan, who for eight years sat on the board of directors at the Council of American-Islamic Relations Canada, said civic engagement can arm young people with social and political tools to defeat those arguments, an important part of the solution. But rejecting religious violence should involve religious leaders, especially mosque leaders, says Khan: "Someone to say, 'no, God doesn't want you to do that.'"
Mohammad suspects the government launched Muslim Youth Canada in search of "anti-radicalization," after the arrests of the Toronto 18. They wanted an antidote to whatever drove a diverse group of 18 individuals (a bus driver, a wealthy computer engineer, a high school drop-out) to conspire to plant car bombs in Ottawa and Toronto.
It's not just a matter of reacting to extremes, says Mohammad. The project, which produced a documentary film capturing interviews with youth, and written toolkit with discussion questions, tips on media literacy and volunteerism, is "a vehicle," he says," not just an end goal."
It shouldn't stop here.
Peter King's intention, he's said, is to "put aside political correctness and define who our enemy truly is." He's using a public platform and the ensuing media circus to target one community, and the results are divisive, evoking a backlash of criticism instead of conversation.
Meanwhile, Canadian volunteers were sent to gauge the feelings of 1,300 Muslim youth. The project hasn't generated media frenzy. In fact, it's received no mainstream media coverage. If it's a response to radicalization we're after, Melvin Bledsoe's story shouldn't be the only one we hear.
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