The news of so many home-grown terrorism schemes and plots being uncovered in the U.S. over the past two months is very disturbing. The men who stand accused of these plots are not so different from me in age, religious observance and socio-economic status but their outlook on life seems incomprehensible to me. With all due respect to some of our nation’s dedicated American Muslim leaders and institutions who continue to downplay the problem, I do think the problem within our community is more dire than we are willing to state publicly.
When we discovered that British Muslims were responsible for the London bombings several years back and that they were born and raised in the U.K. there was a concern in the U.S. about something similar happening here. With the exception of Hizb-ut-Tahrir I could not think of any other Muslim organizations who were openly hostile to America and the West, and since, at the time of the London bombing Hizb-ut-Tahrir was long gone from the local scene (it had been many years since we had to endure their shouts and taunts in the mosques), I felt confident that the radicalization that took place among the London bombers could not happen here. After all, we American Muslims are far more integrated into American society and comfortable with our identity as American Muslims.
CIVIC INTEGRATION: A BULWARK AGAINST RADICALIZATION
Even before 9/11 but certainly afterward, American Muslims stepped up their efforts to develop and execute strategies for civic integration into American society. Unlike most other places in the world, the United States’ affords many freedoms which empower American Muslims the ability to become “American” on their own terms. A lot of us are taking advantage these freedoms to carve out our own unique American Muslim identity.
The youth and the young adults seem to be the greatest beneficiaries of the freedoms. Unlike places in Europe and even in a Muslim majority country like Turkey where public expression of one’s Muslim faith is increasingly being curtailed, in America the freedom of religion still means something, and that allows American Muslim youth to develop a well integrated and stable identity.
I see this process of integration taking place among the youth in mosques all over northern Illinois. My own mosque in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, the Islamic Society of Northwest Suburbs (ISNS), is a good example of this positive development.
This seamless melding of American and Muslim is particularly noticeable during congregational prayer. In my mosque you see the youth lining up for the afternoon prayer with us at the end of Sunday school. These kids are wearing their Bears and Bulls jerseys and the other trendy fashions. The shoes, left just outside of the mosque’s prayer hall, pretty much run the gamut of Air Jordan’s to Transformers and Barbie brands and so on. During breaks in between Sunday school classes kids will sneak out of the building to shoot some hoops or throw a football around. This is level of integration is free form and perhaps due in large part to our consumer culture and the pressure to conform and be like everyone else.
Here in Illinois we have some very thoughtful and talent youth organizers who understand the challenges faced by American Muslims. One youth organizer who rarely gets much attention but is doing outstanding work is Amal Ali. Ms. Ali is the youth organizer for the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago(CIOGC) and she has both the academic training and hands on experience in the field of youth work. Over the years Ms. Ali has been a personal mentor to scores of young American Muslims and through CIOGC she has developed programs to help build young American Muslims’ self-esteem through retreats that feature mentoring, spiritual nourishment and tough physical challenges that blend individual courage with team efforts. She works with the Muslim Students Associations in the Illinois universities and colleges to help build leadership skills and again, to provide mentoring from young American Muslim professionals and highly respected spiritual personalities that promote positive and constructive integration while also instilling a commitment to serve humanity.
These integration efforts are not just for the youth. Again, CIOGC has played an important role in promoting civic integration. Under the leadership of Dr. Abdul Malik Mujahid and now with Dr. Zaher Sahloul, the American Muslim community is effectively developing healthy interactions with civic and philanthropic boards and with elected leaders. In May 2009 CIOGC took nearly 500 American Muslims from northern Illinois to Springfield for a day of common good advocacy. CIOGC partnered with Faith in Place and Protestants for the Common Good to develop a common good agenda that went beyond Muslim “special interest” issues and addressed the environment and the inequities of Illinois’ public education funding system. I was there for this event and it was amazing to see the sense of empowerment among every age group from high school through senior citizens!
The idea is to forge an identity that allows American Muslims to be comfortable being American and Muslim. Seeing and feeling the reality of civic integration is instrumental in building a positive sense of self among American Muslims. That positive sense of self, that healthy American Muslim identity, is what empowers American Muslims to be passionate about the many injustices visited upon Muslims throughout the world with a sense that they have the power to do something about it within the system. Civic integration empowers American Muslims to understand the tools and resources available to them and sustains hope that they can make a difference in a meaningful way. In essence, civic integration can arrest the feelings of hopelessness and fear, and in the absence of these two emotions, American Muslims may be inoculated from radicalization.
NOT EVERYONE IS KEEN ABOUT INTEGRATION THOUGH…
Many American Muslims support civic integration, but there are individuals, groups and even mosques that pride themselves on their lack of integration. It is not uncommon to hear an Imam shrieking during a Friday sermon about the sinfulness of befriending Christians and Jews. Some American Muslims use our mosques and our communications tools to promote shallow Muslim supremacist ideas.
Groups like Hizb ut Tahrir are returning to the mosques and promoting a shallow message of top-down theocratic world domination and selling that simplistic notion as the answer to all the ills and suffering faced by Muslims through out the world. Other groups are less public but equally resistant to integration. Within our mosques we have co-religionists who are intolerant of others who do not accept other’s understanding of Islam. Reason and freedom of conscience have no place in such people’s outlook. I have had many unsavory encounters over the past 15 years with these types of American Muslims.
Their favored tactic is to attack the sincerity and genuineness of another’s faith in Islam. For example, when I disagree with a point of view or a particular interpretation I am accused of deviating from the Quran and Sunnah (which, in my view, is tantamount to an accusation of apostasy). This extremist approach has a chilling effect on some mosque administrators. Rather than cutting off the extremists from institutional power, they are allowed to participate in mosque governance and often times they impose the “hecklers’ veto” on programs and projects that do not comport with their particular religious understanding.
BRINGING MORE AMERICAN MUSLIMS INTO ORGANIZED RELIGIOUS LIFE IS ESSENTIAL
As we grapple with concerns over the radicalization of American Muslims it is critical that we recognize that we need American Muslims to be more involved in organized religious life. At first blush it may seem counter-intuitive, but organized religious life is the best means of inoculating American Muslims from the extremist ideologies proliferating on the internet.
The five young American Muslims who recently traveled to Pakistan in search of jihad were largely radicalized via their exposure to violent extremist propaganda and e-fatwas extolling the merits of terrorism. Where was their mosque’s youth program when it was needed most? Many mosque youth programs focus on apolitical issues in part because of the presence of the extremist voices that impose the “hecklers veto” on thoughtful discussions. The educational forums offered by mosques rarely discuss socio-political or civic aspects of American Muslim life as well. Again, this is due in part to the extremists’ “hecklers veto”. As a result, many American Muslims, the vast majority who espouse mainstream and healthy Islamic values, feel either uncomfortable in mosques or feel that the mosques simply do not offer them anything useful (outside of Friday and Eid prayers). Research on the American Muslim community suggests that only a fraction (perhaps as little as 5%) of American Muslims are affiliated with a mosque.
The isolated religious existence, while protecting American Muslims from the vocal minority of extremists within the mosques, can also become an incubator of extremism as well. Maj. Nidal Hassan is one recent example. While he attended the mosque for prayers on a regular basis, Nidal Hassan was not very actively engaged in an American Muslim community environment. His spiritual and religious outlet came via the internet and blogs and electronic bulletin boards.
Done right, a mosque can provide a wholesome and nurturing environment that promotes an authentic application of Islamic values and creates a community life that supports a healthy Muslim self-image. But to do it right, a mosque has to be an open and welcoming environment. Women must be made to feel welcome. The programming has to be engaging. It has to be in English (except for the ritual prayer). The imams who lead the spiritual life of the mosque should be well attuned to and positive about American culture because, at the end of the day, that is the culture of the vast majority of the 6 to 7 million American Muslims today. The religious education for the youth and the the adults needs to be tailored to an American point of view in order to be effective. The mosques must serve as a social safety net for a range of issues ranging from unemployment, hunger, substance abuse and domestic abuse. And of course, there must be a social component within mosque community life (particular for the youth) as well.
SHIFTING PRIORITIES, BEING MORE BOLD
American mosques are largely funded by domestic contributions from American Muslims. Since Islam forbids interest-based transactions, American mosques are purchased and built with cash. And the mosques in America are being built in more and more places and existing mosques are expanding all the time. I suspect that 90% of mosque donations are used to maintain physical structures and to fund expansion projects. The vast majority of American mosques are also run and administered exclusively by volunteers.
American Muslims need to shift their priorities from bricks and mortar to programming and human resources. Beautifully titled prayer halls with traditional domes and ornate chandeliers and exquisite Quranic calligraphy adorning the walls are not the antidote to radicalization. In fact, these things are not even the answer to bringing more American Muslims into the mosque. And yet, we continue to channel millions upon millions of dollars to support these types of projects.
All the while, mosques have no budgets for youth organizing, hiring trained professional youth workers and counselors, or for attracting more American Muslims to pursue careers as imams and Islamic spiritual leaders. There is little money allocated to programming to create meaningful and engaging activities for American Muslim youth and young adults. These are, however, the things that mosques need to spend on in order to create the kind of mosque-centric life that will help counter the radicalization being promoted on the internet and even within our mosques through the unregulated and unstructured study circles and discussion groups held in mosques but without much oversight by mosque administrators.
Moving forward, American Muslim leaders and administrators must be bold. We have to stop kowtowing to the extremists within our community. We lament the need to defend Islam and ourselves against the violence perpetrated by our co-religionists, but what we should really be angry about is how mosques have allowed the intolerant behavior of some extremists to stifle ideas, projects and programs that would create a more welcoming environment in our mosques.
If mosques will not provide thoughtful programming and an environment conducive to building a wholesome Muslim community, then American Muslims need to go the route of the Mohammed Webb Foundation in the western suburbs of Chicago. The Webb Foundation is organization that provides a lot of the civic, social and educational programming in an open and welcoming environment that mosques should be providing but often do not. We know what our priorities ought to be, and now we need to act boldly in pursuit of them!
ONE VIOLENT EXTREMIST IS ONE TOO MANY
It is true that the vast majority of Muslims, in America and throughout the world, are peaceful and faithful people committed to living an Islamic life of peace and justice. And in the face of bigots and Islamophobes who viciously malign Muslims and Islam as violent, we are right to point to the billion plus Muslims who categorically denounce violent extremism as a solution.
We must, however, hold ourselves to higher standards. One violent extremist is one too many. In a community of 6 to 7 million American Muslims the handful of individuals accused of plots of violence is not even 1% of our community but its still unacceptable. As American Muslims we have an enormous obligation to the rest of the world. It is not about American Muslim “exceptional-ism” but rather, it is a simple matter of resources and opportunities. We have the freedom and the resources to do much good for Islam and for the cause of justice at home and abroad.
We hamstring ourselves by allowing our co-religionists to succumb to the hirabi creed promoted by Al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups. There is too much at stake for us to allow this to continue.