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Noor Salman, Domestic Violence, & Criminal Liability?

Noor Salman, the wife of mass murderer/terrorist Omar Mateen (the man who killed 49 people and injured many others at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL in 2016) is being prosecuted for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization , because she allegedly aided and abetted her husband’s violence. The trial is (or soon will be) underway.  It will be important to pay attention to this trial. It could have far-reaching implications for family members of other perpetrators of mass casualty violence.

According to one news report Salman is alleged to have known about her husband’s plan beforehand and did not stop him. The case certainly has to be more nuanced than that, because I am unaware of a law that puts an affirmative duty on an individual to stop someone from engaging in violence. If such an obligation does exist, then why do we not see more parents prosecuted for gang related violence, for example?

First, what constitutes “knowing” in this scenario? Did Mateen tell his wife “I’m off to attack the nightclub now”? If he talked about hypotheticals wondering “what’s worse, attacking a park or a nightclub?” does that constitute “knowing”?

Either way, what is one’s legal obligation? Do we each have a legal responsibility (I do think we have a moral one) to stop someone from committing an act of violence? Conspiracy to commit violence is a crime. Providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization is also a crime. Knowing that a spouse is going to go out and commit an act of violence on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization and then doing nothing is not the same as taking an overt action to help in the commission of that violence.

Second, is this really the right case to pursue this legal theory? Noor Salman was repeatedly battered and abused by her husband. Domestic violence victims advocates – where are you? Victims advocates know very well, as do many of us who work in the criminal justice system, that victims of domestic abuse often have a very hard time confronting their abusive family member.

Is it material support of terrorism when a battered spouse who is living in fear fails to call the police?

When was the last time a family member of another mass murderer was exposed to similar criminal liability? Were Dylann Roof’s family members or friends prosecuted? How about the family members of any of the school shooters over the last 20 years who were not also killed by their loved one? How about the girlfriend of the 2017 Las Vegas mass murderer – Marilou Danley?

I cannot help but wonder if this prosecution is intended to send a message to the Muslim community: report or face criminal prosecution. Federal prosecutions are very selective, and they are used to send messages about the priorities of law enforcement. I have heard U.S. attorneys say this in public many times.

Of course Marilou Danley and the family members of Dylann Roof are not under the same legal jeopardy as Noor Salman.  Even though their loved ones committed equally heinous crimes, those other crimes are not classified as terrorism. White supremacists and individuals with idiosyncratic ideologies supporting mass murder borne of their personal grievances will not be charged with terrorism even if their intention is to coerce others through violence based on politics or other social issues. But this is an aside that is long overdue to become a main topic of discussion.

In addition to the material support of terrorism charge, Salman is also charged with obstruction of justice. Lying to the FBI is a felony. Lie and you can be prosecuted.  And if you are found guilty you will go to jail. I do not have a problem with this charge.  It is wrong to lie to the FBI or to any other law enforcement officer.

I wonder, though, if this is another case where terrorism charges are touted but convictions are secured on the less sexy and the far less sensational obstruction of justice charge?

I would be leery of taking the prosecution’s word in that case that “justice was served” on the crime of material support of terrorism even if the only conviction is on obstruction of justice. If Salman provided material support then prove it.  Prove it so that we have the necessary legal guidance to advise families as to their legal obligations going forward. We have seen too many instances where terrorism is alleged but not proven.

Still, I do believe we need to do more long before a person mobilizes to violence. It is in our collective self-interest to safeguard our communities. We cannot reasonably expect law enforcement to interdict every assailant. And the law will not allow for – thankfully – the mass surveillance that would be required to make that possible.

These acts of mass casualty violence – whether we label them rampage shootings, school shootings, violent hate crimes, or terrorism – are often instances of targeted violence. There are important similarities in many of these cases.

In about 80% of such cases the assailant told someone about his plans – directly or indirectly – before carrying out the violence. Rarely is it a case of good people suddenly “snapping,” and rarely is it caused by a mental illness. Instead, in many of these cases there are warning behaviors that may suggest an increased risk of targeted violence.

We as a society must become more educated about how to notice these warning behaviors. We must learn to interpret the things we see – which often suggest that someone we know and care for is in crisis – and we must learn to take some preventative, helpful actions.  We can learn strategies to engage someone and persuade them to get help, or if necessary, we can refer them for help anonymously. And when we see a mobilization to violence, we must – as a moral imperative – report it to law enforcement.

There is no way to predict these horrific acts of violence based on warning behaviors, but by noticing, interpreting, and acting it may be that we help that person with whatever he or she was struggling with, and that by itself can contribute to community wellbeing.

While the impetus for a change in our social contract – in how we relate with one another and the responsibilities we have towards one another – may be to prevent future acts of mass casualty violence, the day to day actions that result can be focused on promoting a stronger, more resilient community.


CVE critics are right and CVE is still necessary

This essay first appeared on on July 27, 2015 | Modified for this blog on October 23, 2016

by Junaid M. Afeef & Alejandro J. Beutel

The Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015 seemed to renew the Obama Administration’s push for implementing countering violent extremism (CVE) as an alternative paradigm to the excesses of the War on Terror. However, many civil liberties groups, including several within the American Muslim community, have raised important criticisms and concerns about CVE that must be addressed to the satisfaction of the public.

There are lessons to be learned from the failed and ineffective government-led CVE efforts of the past, and it is necessary for American Muslim communities to take up the challenge of developing programs that incorporate these lessons in order to prevent Muslims from succumbing to ISIS’s powerful online recruitment efforts. The legitimate grievances of Americans — including Muslims — cannot be a reason to not do the right thing.

With ISIS’s social media onslaught raging and Islamophobia at home helping ISIS make the case for an “Us vs. Them” mindset, the future portends the possibility (but not the inevitability) of more young American Muslims succumbing to ISIS’s call to engage in political violence. The right thing to do in this case is to save as many of young people from hurting others and themselves. And, that requires community-led, research-informed and law enforcement-partnered programs to prevent recruitment in the first place. It also requires programs to successfully intervene when a person has begun traveling down the path towards political violence.

What the Government Got Wrong

Countering violent extremism (CVE) is a concept. It is also a generic name for various programs developed and deployed over the last decade. Some of these programs suffer serious design flaws. The biggest flaw of current and previous programs is that they existed within a law enforcement framework. This led to misunderstandings in the least egregious cases, and serious breaches of civil liberties in other instances.

In several communities the same law enforcement agency attempting to conduct community outreach to Muslims simultaneously deployed informants into mosques seeking to entice individuals into engaging in criminal acts. In other cases law enforcement used “community outreach” as a cover for engaging in warrantless intelligence gathering when there was no basis for obtaining a warrant.

In a post 9/11 era where every threat, no matter how remote, must be thoroughly investigated, law enforcement is struggling to find insights into who is most likely to engage in political violence. Using questionable research, many CVE programs were based on the notion that greater religiosity was evidence of movement into extreme ideas, which in turn, was believed to be the gateway to violent action. This “conveyor-belt” theory has been roundly criticized, even by proponents of CVE. The notion that there is one pathway towards political violence or that there is a particular reason why individuals choose to engage in political violence, has been discredited as well.

Preventing Targeted Violence on the Community’s Own Terms

Experts in behavioral psychology, psychiatry and other related fields, who focus on terrorism, acknowledge that very little is known about why individuals choose to engage in political violence. However, they also note that there may be other indicators that can help narrow the scope of potential threats. Not surprisingly, these other indicators are similar to those that relate to other types of criminal or antisocial behaviors.

Rather than wasting time, money and legitimacy with communities on fixing flawed programs built on questionable research, there is an opportunity to develop a new program focused on preventing targeted violence, which is more appropriately framed as a public health and human services issue. Instead of exclusively seeking to preempt every act of political violence (that law enforcement agencies increasingly acknowledge is untenable), this new approach would seek to help those who are most susceptible to recruitment and will work to re-direct them off the path to violence.

This approach, based on  fairly well researched studies in the context of juvenile delinquency and preventing mass shootings in schools and public places, will accomplish this by assessing at-risk individuals who are brought to the attention of community-led prevention and intervention programs by parents, teachers, friends and, in certain instances, by law enforcement. These assessments, performed by a “crisis intervention team” comprised of community members, social workers, mental health professionals and others as deemed necessary, will then identify any psychosocial deficits that may be interfering with the at-risk individual’s cognitive abilities to the extent that he or she believes that killing innocent people is a rational course of action.

At that point, working in coordination with social service providers, healthcare professionals, community-based mentors, and religious advisers, the identified deficits can be ameliorated and the at-risk individual may then be better equipped to re-direct him or herself away from a path of violence. Approaching at-risk individuals to re-direct them away from political violence does not negate the vitally important role of law enforcement in ensuring the public’s safety. If these programs can reduce the pipeline of individuals committed to political violence, then law enforcement’s job may become more manageable and our communities will become safer.

This is not ground-breaking thinking. Violence prevention efforts have often sought to identify and address risk-factors that contribute to individuals engaging in mass shootings and gang violence. It is also not a simple task. Ideally, these community-led programs will partner with academics to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts, and whenever possible, these studies will seek to identify what works and what does not work.

Furthermore, an effective targeted violence prevention program, even when developed and led by the community, has to coordinate with law enforcement. That will require trust. This is why the concerns raised by civil liberties organizations must be addressed effectively and quickly. The threats are ongoing, and law enforcement agencies are themselves recognizing that they need help from the communities to stanch the flow of potential recruits. It is in the best interests of public safety that law enforcement be able to collaborate with communities when individuals are on their intelligence radar but have not yet committed any crimes.

Community Introspection on Current Threats

Some American Muslims are interested in, and are buying into, ISIS. This is a fact. There have been enough American Muslims who have gone abroad to fight to make this fact very clear. More recently, there have been a number of recruits who are turning their violent focus inward toward American soil. The shootings in Texas and the alleged plot in New York City are a few recent examples. In addition to the American Muslim cadre of foreign fighters are the ones who have been indicted and convicted of terrorism or related offenses.

How many young people need to screw up their lives and put the public’s safety at risk before American Muslims see that they need to take care an active role in addressing this problem?

It is true that there are other threats to our collective public safety in the form of hate crimes and political violence committed by white supremacists and others, and these acts of violence must be addressed as well.  However, American Muslim community members are better situated to address the threats created by ISIS’s online recruitment efforts, as the targets of this recruitment are all often Muslims, and this why this particular form of political violence must be a priority of American Muslim communities.

The other threats noted above must be effectively addressed by law enforcement not only because they are statistically more likely to erode public safety, but also because these other forms of political violence are used by ISIS in its recruitment narratives.

The work of civil liberties groups in raising public awareness of government overreach is invaluable. Many of the issues raised by these organizations must be addressed. However, the need for effective prevention and intervention is urgent, and alternative strategies for preventing political violence must be intelligently and diligently pursued. Seeking to protect the most vulnerable members of American Muslim communities from becoming killers or convicted felons or both makes sense in every instance.

Junaid M. Afeef is a Partner at the Truman National Security Project and the former Executive Director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. Alejandro J. Beutel is a Researcher for Countering Violent Extremism at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, College Park.  The views, opinions and positions expressed by Alejandro Beutel are solely his and do not necessarily represent those of the START Consortium.  The views, opinions and positions expressed by Alejandro Beutel are solely his and do not necessarily represent those of the START Consortium.

CVE in the Illinois Muslim Community – Presentation at Community Builders Council

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):


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.


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.


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.


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.

It is Violent Extremism, Not Islamic Extremism

[Author’s Note: an even better term than “violent extremism” is “targeted violence.”]

President Obama’s remarks at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast — particularly that those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam are in fact betraying it — are timely if not overdue. Muslims in America, particularly youth, deserve to hear the president speaking accurately about Islam at a time when Islam is being maligned by terrorists like ISIS and by Islamophobes like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). Terrorists and Islamophobes are seemingly bound together by their loathing of Islam, a religion practiced by nearly 1.4 billion peaceful, law-abiding Muslims around the world.

Obama has been assailed for his comments by many on the right for having the courage to speak about Islam accurately. And, given that on February 18 President Obama convenes a long overdue summit in Washington, DC to discuss strategies to counter violent extremism, the unwarranted criticism will likely intensify. Those who criticized the president for his prayer breakfast comments will likely excoriate him for not calling it a summit to counter Islamic extremism. It has already begun.

Those who wish to frame the fight against domestic terrorism as “Islamic extremism” pre-empted the White House summit with their own “Defeat Jihad Summit” last week. It was organized by Frank Gaffney and featured well known Islamophobes, including Geerts Wilder, Nonie Darwish and Zuhdi Jasser. The “Defeat Jihad Summit” also included politicians such as Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rep. Steve King, and Sen. Ted Cruz. At its core, this “shadow summit” continued to advance the irresponsible notion that Islam and Muslims are the problem.

Muslims are Not the Enemy

Critics say that what we call the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the beheadings and immolations by ISIS matters — and they are right. These are acts of violence committed by individuals following an extremist ideology that is related to Islam only because the perpetrators claim it is. But that does not make it Islamic extremism — not when nearly 1.4 billion Muslims around the world reject the perverted interpretations espoused by Al Qaeda, ISIS and their ilk. The terrorists are the exception, not the rule.

That being said, there is a battle raging within Islam pitting the masses of peaceful, law-abiding people against violent, brutal and barbaric killers. Historically, terrorism committed by Muslims has been less frequent than other faith groups, but from 9/11 onward the threat of terrorism committed by Muslims is on the rise (with the largest number of victims coming from the Muslim community). This is why the fight against violent extremism has to include Muslims rather than painting them as the enemy. Muslims are the first victims of Al Qaeda and ISIS, and Muslims are the first to condemn them.

Ignoring or alienating the vast majority of Muslims who are peaceful and who are the natural enemies of ISIS and Al Qaeda is shortsighted. Calling any of the atrocities committed by terrorists “Islamic” fuels Islamophobia. And cherry-picking which people who commit violent acts are then called terrorist makes it worse. Social media is already rampant with unbridled anti-Muslim hate. The recent murder of three young Muslims at UNC Chapel Hill may have been motivated by an anti-Muslim animus. Mainstream Christian religious leaders like Franklin Graham openly speak of Islam in stunningly ignorant and false terms. To conflate the terrorism committed by Muslims as Islamic only diverts attention from the real issues.

Countering violent extremism within the Muslim community in America does not lend itself to simple solutions. Muslims in America are not becoming radicalized as much as they appear to be in Europe, though our problem at home is undeniably growing. Within the last week six individuals were indicted in St. Louis (two of whom reside in suburban Chicago) for allegedly providing material support to extremist groups in Syria. The FBI is engaging would-be terrorists in undercover operations across the country on an on-going basis.

The Muslim community needs to be fully engaged as an equal partner in developing strategies to counter the radicalization narratives, in formulating guidelines around what the warning signs of radicalization may be and in implementing programs that divert at-risk youth from the dangers of radicalization. The overarching goal must be to create a more resilient Muslim community in America — one that has a mutually trusting relationship with law enforcement so that when individuals become threats, people who see the danger signs can report them to the authorities without fear.

Criticisms of the White House’s CVE Summit

There are valid criticisms of the upcoming White House summit on countering violent extremism specifically, and the administration’s efforts more broadly in this vein. It is troubling that a summit that should have convened long ago has been hastily put together. It’s troublesome that the agenda is shrouded in secrecy. There are a number of questions raised by the White House summit. For example, to the extent that the countering violent extremism relates to the domestic Muslim community, what role did these communities play in formulating these strategies?

Also, on what is the U.S. strategy on countering violent extremism based? Are there evidenced-based practices previously used in American communities, which are being applied? What, if any, lessons were derived from law enforcement efforts to fight gangs? Crisis intervention teams within local police departments are showing promising results in re-directing people with mental health issues away from the criminal justice system and into treatment or into other community interventions. Have these strategies been considered when developing the strategies to be discussed at the summit?

Who is charged with the responsibility of conveying the strategy to the grassroots where the buy-in and the understanding is most critical? How will the White House countering violent extremism strategy be deployed? What training will be provided? What resources will be made available?

These are some of the questions that remain to be answered.

There is good reason to be concerned about domestic violent extremism, and we know that some of those concerns are emanating from the Muslim community. By now the question is not whether, but to what extent this is a problem for the Muslim community. Solutions for this national security issue will be most effective when common sense is used to work with and empower Muslim communities to become trusted partners. Extremists — including Islamophobes — should be on notice that we are committed to working towards these smart solutions as a united community.

This essay was first published by on February 16, 2015.

Countering homegrown radicalization: Muslims Must Reclaim the Mosque as a Center of Religious Life

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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.