On Friday, March 6, 2015 I gave a presentation on countering violent extremism (CVE) within the Muslim community in Illinois. I would like to thank Dr. Azher Quader and Community Builders Council for inviting me. Thank you also to Sabeel Center in Des Plaines for hosting the event. The following is an overview of my comments (taken from the prepared comments):

Introduction

The specter violent extremism scares me. As an American Muslim parent, the fear of young Muslims becoming violent extremists is of paramount interest and concern to me. I recognize that violent extremism emanating from the Muslim community is not nearly as big a problem in America as other forms of politically motivated violence. Still, I focus on the Muslim community because it hits closest to home, and there is something I can do about it.

Domestically, white supremacists, sovereign citizen groups, and other groups are responsible for far more politically motivated violence than American Muslims. There is not much I can do to stop people in those groups. I hope that law enforcement will continue to interdict these groups and individuals before they cause harm. Violent extremism coming from the American Muslim community is something I can work on, and that is why it is on my radar.

The subject is really an interdisciplinary undertaking that involves the collaboration of community members, law enforcement, psychiatrists and psychologists, violence prevention service providers, civil liberties attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, researchers, and academics. I have a strong background (22+ years) as a Muslim community leader. I am a parent who is concerned about these issues, I have 22+ years of legal experience in the area of criminal law and civil liberties, and I have work in the field of criminal justice policy (which engages many of theses specialties).

I am here today to share my observations and to have a good discussion about what we can do together.

Recommendations

At the end of my presentation I will share some ideas that I believe will help the Muslim community deal more effectively with the threat of violent extremism emanating from within. The recommendations, not necessarily listed in order of priority, are as follows:

Teach Muslim children that being a good Muslim and being a patriotic American go hand in hand.

 

Develop a definition of patriotism (allegiance to country) that goes beyond symbols, and which is based on celebrating and using the fundamental freedoms that separate the United States from other countries, and which is based on service to others to make our country better.

 

Inoculate Muslim children beginning at a very young age from the deviant interpretations of Islam used by ISIS and Al Qaeda and their affiliates through online recruiters by giving them an accurate, well-reasoned understanding of Islam; focus early on those verses that are frequently taken out of context by extremists, from the start.

 

Develop and support American Muslim scholars and use their knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with American culture to articulate accurate and well-reasoned teachings of Islam (particularly on those selected verses most often taken out of context by extremist recruiters); make this information, in writing and in audio and video, available online so that these show up at the top of every search result on Islam.

 

Repair the mistrust between Muslim communities and law enforcement so that the community feels comfortable reporting suspicious activities without fear of being ensnared themselves, and so that law enforcement will feel comfortable diverting Muslim youth that appear on their radar before they reach a point that can only be handled through a criminal prosecution.

 

Muslim organizations must develop a wide array of social, religious, and mental health services that can help at-risk youth who need assistance such that help and assistance can be provided to Muslim youth whether they are identified by law enforcement or through the community’s own social service safety nets.

Violent Extremism within the Muslim Community

In the past few years we have seen a number of young Muslims ensnared in the criminal justice system for engaging in, or attempting to engage in, violent extremism. This is a problem the community must address.

Is it really a problem?

Our national security strategy views violent extremism inspired by Al Qaeda and ISIS as a priority. There have been numerous instances of violent extremists coming from the American Muslim community committing violent crimes domestically, or going abroad to fight with terrorist organizations. The New York Times estimates 70 to 100 American Muslims have joined ISIS.

In northern Illinois over the past 3 or 4 years 3 individuals have been indicted in federal court on terrorism related charges. In just the last few weeks, six individuals were indicted on charges of providing material support to terrorist groups in Syria, and of those six individuals, two reside in the Chicago suburbs.

The fact that the Muslim community is highlighted in America’s national security strategy makes it a priority for me. That does not mean that the community should not push back on the assumption that violent extremism inspired by Al Qaeda, ISIS, or its affiliates is a real problem in America. Additionally, the community should be wary of law enforcement efforts over the last 14 years. Some of the cases brought against American Muslims on terrorism-related charges have been questionable. Some of the investigative tactics have been abusive (click here for a very informative report by Human Rights Watch).

Fortunately, there are numerous organizations challenging the assumptions, as well as some of these cases and tactics. These groups include Muslim Advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union. We are truly fortunate to have strong civil rights and civil liberties groups constantly challenging the government on these issues.

That does not mean, however, that we cannot simultaneously look for this problem in the Muslim community, examine what we find, look for solutions, apply solutions that make sense, and measure the impact our efforts are making in stanching the flow of young people from our communities become violent extremists. The examples cited above are enough to make me concerned. I believe it is a problem, and I believe that it is a problem that the Muslim community must take an active role in addressing.

How is the Muslim community supposed to counter violent extremism?

Given that I believe we should be addressing violent extremism coming from the Muslim community, the next question I have is “How?” This is a challenging question. I do not believe there is a proven method that simply requires implementation at the grassroots level to solve the problem. In fact, this is a topic that is vigorously debated.

The individuals most at risk within our community are young people. I believe that our efforts should begin with a focus on the youth. Our youth are not just the high school and college aged individuals, but also the twenty-something members of our community as well. This is the community on which we should focus. A friend of mine who has been doing some great work for the Muslim community for decades made the following comment during a presentation he made on CVE: he said “I don’t do CVE, I do Muslim youth empowerment.” I think re-framing our discussion at the community level this way will help us think in positive terms.

We have a lot of young Muslims in the community. How can we identify which of them are at risk? Do we look at the causes of violent extremism? Do we even know what are the causes?

What causes a Muslim to become a violent extremist?

The big question everyone is asking is “What causes a Muslim to become a violent extremist?” My observation is that it is not clear what causes a person to become a violent extremist.

The initial thought was that Muslims who become violent extremists are ideologically motivated. Some argue that it is the religion of Islam itself that is to blame. Others argue that it is Salafism, or “Islamism” that are to blame. Clearly religion plays a role, but is it the cause?

Experts (click here and here for more information) argue that the reasons for becoming a violent extremist can vary from individual to individual. In order to stop young people from becoming violent extremists, we should be looking at trying to narrow the field of people who are risk for becoming violent extremists.

How are Muslim youth being recruited to become violent extremists?

The FBI says that ISIS recruitment is being tracked in all 50 states. It appears that the majority of that recruitment is online. It is done in the shadows. This makes it very hard to intercept youth who are in fact engaging with online influences.

If we don’t know why they join, and if the recruitment is secretive, then what can the community do to stop it?

We may not know what causes a person to become a violent extremist, but we can identify aspects of individuals who have become violent extremists, and then we can think about what we as a community can do to reduce or totally eliminate those risk factors. Some have argued that there is a profile of would be violent extremists. Experts believe that identity plays a significant role in pushing an individual towards violent extremism. This is something we can address in our community.

We need to ask ourselves: How can we build a strong identity for our young people? One that is fully Muslim and fully American? The onus for developing a strong and healthy identity among Muslim youth falls upon parents and on the Muslim community, but there is also a role to be played by the broader community as well.

Others have argued that there are various risk factors that create “cognitive openings” (click here and here for more information) that make individuals receptive to the online recruiting messages of ISIS. These cognitive openings can be the result of trauma. There may be parallels in this area with gangs that we can look to for guidance on how this works out in practice.

Looking to research on gangs does not meant assuming that joining gangs and joining ISIS involve exactly the same issues and processes. However, what ever has been learned over the last 50 or more years about gangs may be helpful in understanding the process of recruitment (how, who, why, etc; click here for more information on gangs and violent extremism studies).

We do not have to start from scratch when trying to formulate programs that can counter violent extremism in the Muslim community. Many of the things our community does well already in the arenas of civic engagement, public service, youth enrichment, and inter-religious dialogue (with a fair amount of overlap in these arenas) are excellent forms of countering violent extremism, because they help build strong identity, they teach skills that people can use to work on changing bad policies and for implementing good policies (and thereby giving Muslim youth a means through which to channel their desire to impact change), and they provide a means for engaging with fellow Americans beyond the Muslim community.

Furthermore, there are pilot programs underway in other parts of the country that the Illinois Muslim community can tap into for guidance and for ideas. In Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles there are CVE programs that bring together the local Muslim community, federal and state law enforcement, public schools and other public health and human service agencies, and community service providers all working to identify at-risk individuals and to then provide those individuals with whatever is needed to re-direct them onto a more healthy and productive path and away from the path towards violent extremism.

Each program will be unique to the community it serves so it is not as simple as picking up the template for one of these pilot programs and copying it in Illinois. Furthermore, these programs are in varying degrees of progress so there may not be a well defined program that can be replicated. And lastly, these programs still need to be evaluated through a collaboration with researchers and academics to see what is working and what is not. Nearly everything in these programs sound good, but some things may be more effective then others, and that is one place where research can help create the most effective programs (and thereby maximizing the use of limited resources).

Trying to counter violent extremism is challenging to begin with, and the various shortcomings in the Muslim community exacerbate the difficulty. There are limited resources in the community, and too many of those resources are disproportionately deployed for bricks and mortar projects. What we need are community investments into human resources. Too many of the people doing the work of running Muslim institutions and community programs are volunteers. The few social service agencies serving Muslim communities are underfunded, and in some instances, kept at arms length from the community (because they deal with domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other problems that are perceived to be taboo issues by some). This creates limitations and gaps in the provision of services.

There are still too many anti-American/anti-Western ideas being promoted in our mosques. At the very least these views should be challenged. These ideas (objecting to inter-religious dialogue, promoting Muslim supremacy, and generally promoting a theology that makes living in America untenable) are not what cause Muslims to become violent extremists, but they do have an impact on identity, and that, in turn, may contribute to the transformation into a violent extremist.

Conclusion

The community needs to make a commitment to CVE if it is to do it well. The community needs to acknowledge that Muslims in our community are at risk for committing violent extremism, and that regardless of how big or small this problem is relative to all other domestic violent extremism, it is a huge problem for the Muslim community.We know that calling it “Islamic extremism” is wrong, because the acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims are not condoned by Islam. We’ve known intuitively that it was not Islam that caused Muslims to become violent extremists, and now research is showing that this gut feeling is true. The six recommendations I made at the beginning of my presentation are simply my initial thoughts on what we can do. Once the community acknowledges that this is a problem, then it is up to the community to develop a set of solutions, and to then implement those solutions.

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After I gave my presentation there was another hour of discussion between me and the individuals who came to hear my presentation. Professor Inamul Haq was present at the event, and Professor Haq made some very interesting observations that were very relevant to the topic. Professor Haq teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Elmhurst College and at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, IL. His area of expertise is Islamic Studies.

The following is a summary of Professor Haq’s observations:

Religion does have a role to play in making a Muslim become a violent extremist. Because Islam, like any other Religion is prone to a variety of interpretations. ISIS does represent one such interpretation. ISIS does build it,s case from Islamic sources such as Quran, Hadith & opinions of Islamic Scholars of the past , Ibn Taimia & others.This methodology gives them an authenticity in the eyes of it,s followers even when majority of Muslims do not consider it valid. .To understand why someone in the U.S becomes an ISIS supporter one has to look at the progression in the following way. & here I am referring only to religious dimension of the issue.There are & Their can be social /psychological factors which I am not discussing here.

(1) A Particular Theology within U.S. Mosques: local mosques led by Muftis who adhere to a very conservative interpretation of Islam and they influence young Muslims to their religious understanding; the result of this is a worldview that is rigid and unworkable in Western societies, and this leads to various forms of marginalization. This marginalization creates social and economic frustration which leads to scapegoating modernity, which in turn, sometimes leads to anger towards the West coupled with a belief that an Islamic society would eradicate the sources of social and economic frustration. This anger & Alienation in Western society takes the individual to the next level which is radicalization.

(2) Radicalization: the angry or disaffect individuals now see that the only solution to their problems and to the injustices they see all around them and abroad are to create a pure Islamic state. It sees the U.S. and the West in general as corrupt & root cause of every wrong in the world.

(3) ISIS: recruiters focus on these radicalized individuals, gain access to them via the internet through social media, and tell them that the only way to really make a difference is to act on their convictions (those convictions generally being: (a) the U.S. and the West are the enemy, (b) Muslims in the West are sellouts, (c) there is now the re-emergence of a true Caliphate and it is ISIS, and (d) to be a real Muslim one has to act on his beliefs and join a real struggle by coming to Syria or “doing” something wherever he is.

Its wrong to use term Islamic Terrorism because it creates impression that this violence is theologically connected to faith. It is also playing in the hands of ISIS who would want its followers to believe exactly this. However the term “Muslim Terrorist Groups” can be used because we are referring to the “identity” of Group not the confession of their faith. When we say “Irish Terrorists” we do not mean there is something fundamentally wrong with being “Irish”. We are simply referring to social identity of Group.