A new study shows how Muslim-American communities counter online extremism
Published on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010 5:27PM EST Last updated on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010 3:22AM EST
In response to the plot to blow up a U.S. airliner on Dec. 25, the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada issued a fatwa condemning terrorist actions perpetrated in the name of Islam. A fatwa is a religious opinion concerning Islamic law issued by an individual trained in Islamic law. In Sunni Islam, it’s non-binding.
Interestingly, the signatories of the Canadian fatwa included three Muslim women. The statement called on North American Muslims to safeguard Canada and the U.S. by exposing any individual who would cause harm. If there’s quibble, it’s the seemingly parochial nature of the fatwa: Terrorism is condemned because of its negative impact on the religious freedom of Muslims. Why not simply refer to the Koranic edict against murder, or the Prophet Mohammed’s clear directive against harming non-combatants?
Others took issue with the fatwa for a different reason. Why, they ask, should Muslims have to make any statement? Why should they have to speak to actions committed by extremists? This short-sighted approach completely ignores the Koranic directive to “enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong.” Furthermore, public condemnation serves a valuable role in fighting domestic terrorism, according to the 2010 study Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans by the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.
The goal was to examine why relatively so few Muslim Americans have become radicalized. Although a “few” is still discomforting, the authors say the damage caused by this group since 2001 is relatively small. Since 9/11, there have been more than 136,000 murders in the U.S., with 31 (or 0.02 per cent) committed by radicalized individuals.
The anti-terror study generated social science evidence about how and why Muslim-American communities have resisted radicalization and political violence. The authors found five characteristics that enabled these communities to counter radical messages from the Internet.
Public and private denunciations of terrorism: Contrary to public perception, mainstream Muslim groups have constantly issued statements condemning terrorism, drawing on both religious and secular arguments.
Methods of self-policing that prevent the growth of radicalization: These practices include confronting individuals who express radical ideology or support for terrorism; preventing extremist ideologues from preaching in mosques; communicating concerns about radical individuals to law-enforcement officials; and purging extremists from membership in local mosques.
The study points to examples where concerned roommates, parents or imams informed the police about radicalized individuals. As one imam told his congregants, “Don’t come here with that foolishness. I’ll call the police right now. And you can call me a snitch or a rat, but call me a Muslim.” Ironically, this vigilance has led to confrontations with “agitator” informants, along with warnings to Muslims to be wary of entrapment. The use of informants is a sore point between Muslim communities and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Muslim Americans also have adopted programs for youth to help identify individuals who react inappropriately to controversial issues, so they can be counselled and educated. Such programs should be adopted in Canada, including information on the signs of radicalization.
Importance of community-building: This reduces the social isolation of individuals who may be at risk of becoming radicalized. Strong social networks, educational programs and the provision of social services help identify risk-prone individuals.
Increased political engagement of Muslim Americans since 9/11: This channels grievances into democratic forums and promotes integration of Muslim Americans.
Compatibility between Muslim Americans’ U.S. and minority identities: This plays a key role against radicalization, since it counters the radical message that American values are hostile to Islam.
The study’s authors make a number of recommendations to bolster efforts against radicalization, including promoting public denunciations of terrorism by the media and public officials; increasing political engagement; improving community/law-enforcement relations; increasing civil-rights enforcement; and supporting enhanced religious literacy (Muslims with rigorous religious training are far less likely to radicalize).
Bottom line: This U.S. anti-terror study provides valuable lessons for counter-radicalization efforts in Canada.