The arrest of five American Muslims in Pakistan allegedly conspiring to join the terrorist groups Jaysh Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba exposes a troubling phenomenon of domestic radicalisation, but also highlights an evolved, proactive Muslim American community seeking partnership to curb extremism.
The five young, American born, basketball loving, community service volunteers from Virginia allegedly join a growing number of jihadist-wannabes, or “jihabees.” Despite appearing mild mannered, well educated and seemingly assimilated, these “jihabees” are often hijacked by an appealing and delusional narrative extolling the heroism of martyrdom which is promoted by extremists, who successfully use the internet for global recruitment and indoctrination. The justification for their criminality is rationalised by a perverse misunderstanding of their religion which is anchored by a growing resentment towards those state actors committing what they see as anti-Muslim violence and oppression.
Recently, the disturbed army major Nidal Hasan killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood allegedly retaliating against the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he often referred to as “war on Islam”.
Furthermore, two US Muslim men were convicted of plotting to aid terrorists by filming landmarks around Washington DC and sending the clips as potential target sites to terrorists abroad.
These isolated examples of imported radicalism nonetheless fuel the latent prejudices of a minority convinced their 4 million Muslim American neighbours represent a treacherous fifth column of stealth jihadists ready to spontaneously ignite. Despite the visible existence of millions of practising American Muslims who belie this stereotype by never engaging in terrorism, let alone felonies or misdemeanors, a study by the Pew Research Centre found that 38% of all Americans say Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions.
This misperception certainly is not assuaged by prominent religious and political figures, mostly stemming from the Republican party, who espouse divisive rhetoric fostering mistrust and fear. Franklin Graham, an influential evangelical Christian, recently stated on CNN: “We have many Muslims that live in this country. But true Islam cannot be practised in this country … I don’t agree with the teachings of Islam and I find it to be a very violent religion.” Sarah Palin casually suggested we “profile away” when it comes to our American neighbours of Muslim and Middle Eastern backgrounds.
This polarisation and the reckless mentality of treating Muslims as suspects instead of partners not only subverts civil rights and due process but greatly hinders the best opportunity to combat domestic radicalisation: respectful co-operation with the Muslim American community.
As an example, the Virginia Muslim community’s private and public response to the arrest of five of their young people marks a decisive change of proactive engagement with law enforcement resulting from mutual trust and open communication. Upon discovering a video left behind by the alleged leader of the group declaring his plans to fight on behalf of Muslims, his parents consulted with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) who reported the disappearance of the young men to the FBI. Ironically, the FBI as of last April refused to view Cair, the most influential Muslim American advocacy group, as an “appropriate liaison partner” due to unfounded and baseless allegations connecting its executives to Hamas.
In addition, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee recently issued a proposal for law enforcement officials and Muslim Americans to use their respective resources and strengths to unite in combating terrorism. However, they stressed an important caveat: “Unfortunately, in the current political climate, the actions of certain law enforcement agencies – whether spying on peaceful activist groups and houses of worship without reasonable suspicion, or religious profiling – have added to difficulties.”
Although examples of such law enforcement behaviour unfortunately continue, most Muslim American communities have now evolved and refuse to outsource blame and espouse victimhood. Instead, they are focusing on introspection as a means of preventing future radicalisation. A new narrative must be preached by imams and Muslim community leaders both in the pulpits and disseminated across the internet which will defang the jihad-obsessed, Islamist ideology of its alleged religious legitimacy and paint it appropriately as the ideology of criminality and barbarity incompatible with Islam. Furthermore, a greater effort must be undertaken to educate disaffected youth that their respective Muslim and American identity and shared values promoting pluralism, civic engagement, and respect are not mutually exclusive and dichotomous, despite the proclamations of Reverend Graham, Fox News, and al-Qaida.
Following the tragedy of the Ft Hood shooting and the recent allegations emerging from Virginia, Muslim American communities, law enforcement, and those who espouse prejudicial rhetoric nurtured by fear should reframe their reactionary narratives, which often paint one another as villains and enemies. This recent example illustrates that law enforcement agencies and Muslim American communities can no longer live in culturally isolated cocoons. Both parties are civic agents and citizens of the same country who must have respectful interaction to yield the greatest chance at curbing extremism and dissolving mutual mistrust.