Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam

04/28/2015 12:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE via Getty Images

A version of this article first appeared in the May/June issue of Islamic Horizons.

The Fort Hood killings, the Times Square terror plot and the Boston marathon bombing were all ostensibly carried out in the name of Islam.

All terrorists are not Muslims and nor are all Muslims terrorists. Yet, a disproportionate number of perpetrators of violent attacks claim doing so in the name of Islam and defense of Muslims. University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database (GTD) shows that from 2000 to 2013, ISIS or ISIL, Boko Haram, Taliban and al-Qaida, all claiming to act in the name of Islam, killed 23,899 people and injured 31,140. In 2013, these four groups were responsible for seven out of 10 people killed in terrorist incidents worldwide.

Terrorism is indeed a threat whose impact far exceeds any body count. It elicits strong security response by national governments including, but not limited to, the U.S. Many of the security measures have curtailed civil liberties and often have disproportionately targeted Muslims. In addition, according to RAND Corporation, terrorism's economic cost surpasses the direct loss of life and property from the incident. Increases to security costs, additional insurance premiums, and added military expenditure often outweigh the original attack's direct economic impact. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz states that the loss of life and property from the September 11, 2001 attacks totaled $55 billion in New York alone. However, increased security ($589 billion), decreased economic activity ($123 billion) and other costs have totaled approximately $3.3 trillion.

Boko Haram, ISIS, al-Qaeda and Taliban have killed more Muslims than others. Thus, their claims that they are using "prophetic methodology" is absurd. The idea of killing Muslims to "save" Islam is not only irrational, but indeed poses an existential threat to Muslims, not only where these groups holds sway, but also where Muslims live as minorities, such as the United States. Each beheading spectacle overseas triggers a backlash. In addition, children, radicalized over the social media, are fleeing their homes to join up such groups overseas. Their parents' anguish cannot be understated.

Radicalization of Muslim Youth

A 2014 report from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, shows that 25 Muslim Americans were associated with violent terrorism in 2014, bringing the total to 250 since 9/11. Of these, 109 were alleged to have plotted against targets in the United States. The number of Muslim Americans plotting to harm their homeland may be small, but certainly not negligible. In the rare instance when such miscreants are successful, the harm caused is widespread and devastating. The Boston Marathon bombing killed three spectators and injured 264 others. At least 14 people required amputations. A major American city was on virtual lockdown during the manhunt that followed.

Much of the recent spike in terrorism cases involving Muslim Americans is related to individuals seeking to join overseas terrorist groups, mainly the Nusra Front (an al-Qaeda affiliate) and ISIS in Syria. A March 22, 2015 article by the New York Times reported that, "Since 2013, 29 people in the United States have been charged or detained as juveniles on allegations of supporting the Islamic State."

The demographics of these 29 defy easy description. While 11 are teenagers, the rest are between 20 and 47 years old. Eight are women and six are converts. However, according to the FBI, these individuals are a fraction of the suspects being tracked or surveilled by the U.S. government. In 2014, FBI Director James Comey said that the figure will be many times more than hundred, but could not give a precise estimate, because they are "so hard to track."

Only nine of 35 people returning from serving with terrorist groups abroad engaged in plots aimed at targets in the United States, two of them succeeded -- in 2013 the Boston Marathon bombers, the Tsarnov brothers who allegedly trained in Dagestan, and in 2010 Faisal Shahzad, who trained with militants in Pakistan, unsuccessfully attempted to detonate a car bomb in New York City's Times Square.

Despite the increase in terrorist activity in the name of Islam abroad, very few Muslim Americans are joining and fewer are returning from terrorist training camps. In addition, financial support from Muslim Americans for such so-called jihad abroad remains very low, leading the Triangle Center report to conclude, "Muslim Americans have little contact with terrorist activities in the United States or overseas." Another report by University of Maryland's START Center found that there has been more individual radicalization from the American far right than from among Muslims in the United States.

A 2010 study titled, "Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans," jointly produced by the Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concluded that American mosques deter the spread of extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring anti-violence forums and often placing renewed scrutiny on the curriculum being taught. It was a Muslim street vendor who thwarted the Times Square bomber, and Muslims in Irvine, California, concerned about incitement of violence by a fellow Muslim, reported him to the police, only to later learn that he was an FBI informant.

It was the leadership of the Islamic Center in Jacksonville, Florida that reported to the FBI a person who was attempting to recruit youth to join jihad in the Middle East. The so-called underwear bomber's father, worried that his son posed a threat, reported him to the authorities. This father placed the safety of others over his own paternal instincts. The largest single source of initial information involved tips from the Muslim American community. A 2011 study by the Muslim Public Affairs Council reported that Muslim communities helped foil 14 out of 41 terrorist plots since 9/11, four of them prior to operational stage.

Responding to Muslim Radicalization

A 2011 report titled, "Rethinking Radicalization" by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University asserts:

Radicalization is complex. Yet a thinly-sourced, reductionist view of how people become terrorists has gained unwarranted legitimacy in some counterterrorism circles...

Only by analyzing what we know about radicalization and the government's response to it can we be sure that these reactions are grounded in fact rather than stereotypes and truly advance our efforts to combat terrorism.

Some within law enforcement agencies and much of the mainstream media have developed simplistic theories of how Muslim Americans may become radicalized. These theories suggest that the path to terrorism has a fixed trajectory with identifiable markers. They posit the existence of a "religious conveyor belt" that leads from grievance or personal crisis to religiosity to the adoption of radical beliefs to finally terrorism. Little empirical evidence supports such a theory. However, actual connections to terrorist activity may be discernible, if community members and its leadership remain alert. For example, Sheldon Bell from Jacksonville, Florida was reported to law enforcement, not because he dressed conservatively or followed religious rituals meticulously. Rather, he came to the authorities' attention because a parent, concerned that his son was being encouraged to join violent jihad in Syria, reported Bell. The assumed link between religiosity and terrorism alienates the very community whose cooperation will be crucial to defend against terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam. The Brennan report asks, "Can a community simultaneously be treated as suspect and also be expected to function as a partner?"

Marc Sageman's book Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press; 2008) asserts that most terrorists lack religious knowledge and were secular individuals until just before joining an extremist group. He concludes, "A well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization." Sageman, who analyzed more than 500 cases to understand how people "evolve into terrorists," describes the radicalization process as having several stages, but emphasizes that there was no linear progression from one stage to the next. Muslim Americans should understand these stages and act to limit radicalization of their youth, no matter how small the number might seem. Steps such as public and private denunciation of terrorism, nipping extremist ideas at their bud, social networking and political engagement, have been helpful but need of further enhancement for better sustainability. While Muslim leaders and imams have issued general condemnations of terrorism, they have often not been specific in naming groups, and more importantly, have not directly refuted the claims about Quranic or Prophetic justifications for violent actions.

What Muslim Communities Can Do Now?

Groups such as ISIS proclaim a messianic vision that portends an apocalyptic end-of-time battle between Muslims and the kuffar (many Muslims have been labelled kafir after fatwas proclaiming them as murtads, i.e. those who renounce Islam by their actions). Those joining their ranks believe that they are doing so for the cause of Allah. In the aforementioned article in New York Times, one of the people who left the U.S. to join ISIS described his mission as, "The Words of Allah, The Quran, that's what brain washed me." This person ignored pleas from his sister to come back saying that, "I want jannah (paradise) for all of us." Growing up, this person seemed like a normal kid who loved playing basketball. How do otherwise normal kids get brainwashed into joining a cult like ISIS?

ISIS uses social media and the internet to attract disenfranchised youth searching for meaning. Their assertion that they are giving believers a chance to earn Jannah is tantalizing to some. Mere condemnation of the ISIS ideology is not enough. Imams and scholars need to refute the dangers that come from the lack of contextualization of the sacred texts that ISIS uses to propagate their dark vision. One of the hadiths frequently used by ISIS is the following:

The Last Hour would not come until the Romans land at al-A'maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them).

-- Narrated by Abu Hurrairah and reported in Sahih Muslim Vol. 41, Chapter 9, Hadith# 6924

ISIS uses this hadith to imply that the great battle between the "Roman West" and "Islam" is imminent, and the believers should join ISIS given that only they claim to be the one khilafa (caliphate) on Earth today. They invoke hadiths that suggest pledging allegiance to the khalifa is a sacred duty of every Muslim. Not coincidentally, Dabiq (the name of the place mentioned in the hadith cited earlier) is also the name of ISIS's slick magazine that not only shows graphic images of beheadings and murder, but also justifies them by quoting sacred scriptures. Left unchallenged, such spurious interpretations will assume an air of authenticity. Imams, scholars and leaders need to directly refute the un-contextualized interpretation of such hadiths and highlight the dangers that stem from excessive literal reading of sacred texts.

One of the best antidote to radicalization is better social integration and accepting the fact that responsibility towards citizenship must go hand-in-glove with assertion of rights. Complaining about Islamophobia, but doing little to promote dialogue and understanding, creates an attitude of victimhood, which in its most radical form can lead to violence. A 2006 study titled, "Countering Radicalization," by the Dutch Clingendael Centre for Strategic Studies, provides a way to measure social integration, arguing that better social integration can reduce chances of being radicalized. The study asserts that there are ten factors, which are necessary for social integration:

  1. Acceptance -- an individual's perception for being accepted in society.
  2. Welcome -- an individual's feeling of being welcomed or warmly greeted by society.
  3. Integration -- an individual's involvement in activities outside of their own ethnic or religious groups.
  4. Entitlement -- an individual's feelings about their citizenship rights.
  5. Equal Opportunity -- an individual's perception of fairness in their professional life.
  6. Social Access -- an individual's feeling about being accepted in or have easy access to local clubs, sporting groups etc.
  7. Loyalty -- an individual's loyalty or allegiance towards their country of residence.
  8. Citizenship Pride -- an individual's satisfaction in being a member of the national community.
  9. Social Values -- an individual's attitude towards social values, such as freedom, human rights, etc., of the broader society.
  10. Language -- an individual's fluency in the local language of the country they reside in.

Scoring low on these factors increases the risk of radicalization. The propensity to radicalize is a multifaceted and complex process that needs help from both the Muslim community and the society at-large. Community organizations need to proactively institute programs that allow young Muslim Americans to develop positive attitude towards their society even when facing hardships. Redressing grievances in an inclusive way can engender positive feelings towards citizenship and foster loyalty. In addition, first generation immigrant Muslims need to be better integrated into American civic society. Youth alienation is closely linked to their parents' insular attitudes.

While Muslim Americans are better educated and earn more than the average American, the number of hours or dollars committed to volunteer activity is relatively low. The average American volunteers about 20 hours a week and donates 4.7 percent of their pretax earnings to charity. A 2011 Pew Research Center report suggests that nearly one in two Muslim Americans, attend weekly services at their mosque. However, given that fundraising remains a constant struggle at local mosques, it is safe to conclude that the rate of charity by Muslim Americans is not at par with that for their fellow Americans.

Undoubtedly, progress has been made over the past decade with more Muslim Americans voting than ever before and getting involved in local civic projects -- from feeding the homeless to establishing free medical clinics. While the Muslim American leadership, particularly its plethora of civic organizations such as ISNA, MPAC and CAIR remain committed to interfaith work, engagement at local grassroots level is usually limited to a few Imams and the occasional Islamic center leadership. Muslim Americans legitimately worry about the increasingly negative perception of Islam and Muslims in the public square. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that Muslim Americans are ignorant about the religious practices of other faith communities. Understanding is a two-way street. Mutuality must be the cornerstone of the quest to make society more civil. While many churches and synagogues invite Muslim speakers to address their congregations, examples of reciprocal gesture by mosques is few and far between. Ignorance breeds radicalization. Insularity allows victimization to fester.

Steps in Countering Radicalization

  • Embrace Pluralism -- Mosque communities need to develop and project an attitude that is inclusive of the multitude of ways in which Islam is practiced, from the orthodox to the liberal. Pluralism does not mean a mere toleration of diversity. Harvard University's Pluralism Project defines pluralism as "energetic engagement with diversity" and an "active seeking of understanding across lines of difference." This needs to be applied both in interfaith and intra-faith relations. A greater appreciation of diversity can counter the poison of "takfir" spilling over the internet and social media. Pluralism in general, particularly intra-faith, can become a bulwark against the takfiri ideology.
  • Political Mobilization -- Increased political mobilization will stunt radicalization by providing to Muslims both here and abroad a model for peaceful resolution of conflict though democracy and working within the confines of law. Political mobilization with a broader coalition will increase the chances of success, which will draw out more members of the community to rally behind common causes. American political and civic leaders must step forward to aid integration by establishing regular contact with their local Muslim communities.
  • Relationship with Law Enforcement -- In light of the many media exposes about FBI infiltration of the Muslim American community and about how agents goaded vulnerable youth toward radical views, Muslim American leaders find it increasingly difficult to trust law enforcement. However, cynicism must not replace pragmatism. Efforts towards meaningful dialogue with law enforcement need to be sustained and enhanced. In addition, youth need to be encouraged to seek careers in law enforcement. Serving one's country, whether through military, police or civil service, should not only be encouraged, but also celebrated. Consistent presence of law enforcement and civic society officials at Muslim events can also help create mutual trust.
  • Access -- Nearly two out of three Muslim Americans are first-generation immigrants. Some, especially those coming as refugees from war torn nations, may struggle to adequately provide for their families often due to poor English language skills or lack of higher education. Parents may work double or triple shifts to make ends meet with little time for their children, particularly the youth. Such youth are often vulnerable to unsavory networks, particularly via today's social media. Muslim Americans in partnership with public agencies, need to provide resources such as youth centers, health clinics, and English language courses to struggling immigrant families. The community must invest in developing institutions that will help youth practice Islam within the context of American pluralism.

Despite the setbacks on civil liberties, the United States remains a land where Muslims can practice Islam freely. Muslims must use the freedom they enjoy to effectively respond to the trials recent incidents have created about the compatibility of Islam to American values. The publications of cartoons ridiculing holy figures, such as in Charlie Hebdo or the Danish newspapers pose a particular challenge in balancing between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

While speaking out against perceived affront to Islam, Muslims must uphold the principles of free speech, no matter how unpalatable that may sometime seem. The First Amendment gives Muslims the right to freely practice Islam without coercion from government. The same amendment also guarantees freedom of speech, albeit with certain limits. Muslims cannot demand selective enforcement of First Amendment rights. Moreover, taken holistically, Islam also upholds free speech rights and teaches an unequivocal commitment to the rule of law. Citizens have the right to protest unfair treatment, and if they believe laws to be unjust, they should work to change such laws by using peaceful advocacy.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. It remains an inspiring reminder about non-violence in the face of unimaginable oppression. Promising integration lies in embracing pluralism, engaging in civic work and mobilizing politically. Random violence is immoral and ineffective. It can never be justified no matter how severe the underlying grievance -- this message needs constant reinforcement from the mosque pulpit to the kitchen table.