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Reem Salahi Headshot

Muslim Youth Radicalization or Politically Correct Islamophobia?

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A few weeks ago, five young Muslim men were arrested in Pakistan for allegedly seeking to join militant groups. The boys' sudden disappearance coupled by a "farewell" video reignited the media's obsession with homegrown terrorism and radicalization. Yet this time, the media was joined by an unlikely ally; some Muslim American organizations and their leadership. Rather than critically question the media's premise of radicalization, Muslim organizations and their leaders jumped on the bandwagon and now seek to put an end to "Muslim youth radicalization," whatever that means.

But seriously, what does that mean? House Resolution 1955 defined violent radicalization as "the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change." In other words, the (unexplained notion of) adopting or promoting an (undefined) extremist belief, which could potentially facilitate (in unclear terms) ideologically based violence is violent radicalization. Now if that doesn't clarify radicalization, I don't know what does. According to my reading, this definition of radicalization could encompass everything from violent acts to civil disobedience to even voicing an unpopular stance.

More problematic than this open-ended definition of radicalization is the supposed source of radicalization: the World Wide Web. As someone who frequents the internet most of my waking hours, I do not deny that there are many bad websites and posts on the internet. But I refuse to believe that these websites could lead a normal, integrated Muslim teen to "radicalization." Yet according to the media and to governmental reports, the internet is that powerful. Without providing any contextual background or analysis, the media, the government, and now some Muslim organizations have simplified Muslim youth into a two-part cause and effect: since Muslim youth are intrinsically prone to radicalization, then the most simplistic of triggers such as the internet will change a law-abiding Muslim youth to Osama bin Laden's prodigy.

While I cannot speak to the psychological deficiencies of this cause and effect analysis, I can speak to its fundamentally racist and Islamophobic origins and its misguided premises. In recent years, the concept of homegrown terrorism and radicalization has been codified into the public psyche by a number of reports and a proposed legislation. Interestingly, the individuals fueling this policy analysis include none other than the four self-described experts on Islam and counterterrorism: Daniel Pipes, Stephen Emerson, Marc Sageman, and Bruce Hoffman. These men are known for "mainstreaming" Islamophobia and lack the academic and research credentials to even assert an opinion on the matters of Islam and Muslims, much less influence policy and discourse. Yet rather than marginalize these men's work, mainstream media, governmental bodies, and even some Muslim organizations have capitalized on their flawed and sloppy theories and writings.

In 2007, the New York Police Department engaged in a study of homegrown terrorism. While the study was broadly titled "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," the NYPD often interchanged the term "homegrown terrorism" with "Islamic-based terrorism." Thus, homegrown terrorists were exclusively Muslim. In attempting to understand homegrown terrorists, the NYPD analyzed the psyche of local Muslim residents/citizens who went from being "unremarkable" to Al-Qaeda wannabes. In doing so, it developed a four-phased radicalization process with the internet acting as the enabler for the process of radicalization. Despite wide criticism of the report and its faulty underlying assumption that "unremarkable" Muslims can spontaneously, autonomously, and unconnectedly transform into terrorists through the aid of the internet, the report became the trailblazer on the question of homegrown terrorism and radicalization.

In late 2007, Jane Harman introduced House Resolution 1955, titled the "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007," which sought to create a national commission on the prevention of violent radicalization and ideologically based violence. After HR 1955 died a quiet death, Senator Lieberman in May 2008 re-energized the overly simplified and unsubstantiated discourse on homegrown terrorism and radicalization. Known for his hawkish military and security stances, Senator Lieberman (I-Conn) along with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) co-authored the report, "Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorism Threat," on behalf of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security. The report reproduced much of the NYPD Report and claimed to have "fully identif[ied] the best way to combat" homegrown terrorism threats by outlining "the process by which individuals or groups of individuals are radicalized to become violent Islamist extremists." As evidence, the Committee report conveniently cited the NYPD report and the testimony of Marc Sageman.

At the time of its release, the Muslim American leadership rose up and rejected the Committee's report and its findings. In a joint letter, a number of Muslim and Arab organizations stated, "Unfortunately, the Committee's report undermines fundamental American values (as well as its own stated recommendations) by encouraging alienating suspicion of several million Americans on the basis of their faith. Contrary to Secretary Chertoff's recommendations, it thus exacerbates the current climate of fear, suspicion and hate mongering of Islam and American Muslims." Rather than similarly standing up in critical opposition to the media's heightened discourse of radicalization following the capture of the five Virginian youth, many of these same organizations conceded that radicalization is a problem and the internet does pose a large threat. Such a simplified assertion ignores the complexities of the inaccurate comparison of the American Muslim populations with European Muslims, the FBI's role of entrapment, and the tremendous harm in the continued vilification and marginalization of the Muslim community.

Much of the discourse on homegrown terrorism and radicalization looks at European case studies. Yet the European experience hardly relates or compares to the American Muslim experience. Whether it is South Asians in the U.K. or Algerians in France, many of the Muslims in Europe are the product of colonization. They have been afforded minimal rights and prevented from even superficial integration, leading to their "ghettoization."

On the other hand, American Muslims are 44% African-Americans, the descendants of slaves and as indigenous to the United States as the unhyphenated White American. The remaining "immigrant" Muslims lack the citizenship barriers of European Muslims and are overall more affluent and educated than their European counterparts. Hence, there is no equivalent ghettoization of Muslims here in the United States. In other words, by trying to understand why European Muslims might engage in violent acts, we in the U.S. are in no way closer to understanding why American Muslims have committed or sought to commit violent acts here.

Rather, if Senator Lieberman, Representative Harman, and the researchers at the NYPD, including Marc Sageman, were to have looked closely at many of the cited examples of so-called U.S. homegrown terrorism, they would have found a common thread connecting the majority of them: the manipulation of FBI informants and agent provocateurs. From Fort Dix to Lodi to Herald Square Subway to Newburgh, N.Y. to Rockford, Illinois, the U.S. government has spent millions of tax dollars on agent provocateurs who entrap Muslims to engage, or in some cases, threaten to engage, in illegal and violent acts. And while I do not condone the actions of the men in these scenarios, it is worth noting that entrapment is an affirmative defense, which if argued successfully, preempts criminal conviction.

Yet even in cases where agent provocateurs were not employed, the reality is that the government and media have too long treated Islam and Muslims as a homogeneous, non-dynamic, suspect group. Whenever a Muslim engages in a criminal act, the individual is always qualified by his religious background. Very rarely do we see similar treatment of non-Muslims. For example, I have never read an article describing Timothy McVeigh as the Christian white man. But nearly every article on Nidal Hasan qualifies him as a Muslim and Palestinian within the first few sentences.

As a consequence, Muslims are forced to account for the (negative) actions of a fourth of the world's population. Ironically, I have never been congratulated for the positive actions of other fellow Muslims. The acts of a few bad apples or even a few misguided youth become the norm and not the exceptions. Put differently, it would be like suspecting that every White high school student was prone to commit a massacre as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the killers at Columbine High School, did.

The reality is that the discourse on radicalization and homegrown terrorism is fundamentally racist and Islamophobic. It is based on seeing Muslims as the "other" and viewing our actions through an "orientalist" lens which frames any Muslim's questionable action as terrorism. Hence, a Muslim overstaying an immigration visa or improperly filing taxes or even paintballing becomes evidence of terrorism and radicalization, justifying the government's infiltration of our mosques, surveillance of our youth groups, and mapping of our populations. Maybe, just maybe, Muslims don't need to be understood by a different rubric than other populations. Further, by framing Muslims as terrorists and as the internal enemy within, the government and media have alienated and disenfranchised many law-abiding Muslims who seek nothing more than to actually live "unremarkable" lives.

Those in the media, in the government, and in Muslim organizations who have jumped on the bandwagon, you have missed the boat. Muslims and Muslim youth are not intrinsically prone to radicalization through the aid of the internet, just as White youth are not intrinsically prone to commit massacres or lynch ethnic minorities in solidarity with the KKK. Rather, the problem is the media and the government's continued vilification and the consequential disenfranchisement of the Muslim community. It is the government's infiltration of mosques and community centers with informants and agent provocateurs. It is the FBI's prolonged fishing expeditions and false prosecutions of many innocent Muslims. And it is an ever-worsening foreign policy that wastes away our tax dollars on killing innocent civilians throughout the world. So please stop parroting the misguided construct of homegrown terrorism and Islamic radicalization as the problem, when the real problem is xenophobia couched in politically correct terms.