This idea brought over 250 people to at the Dunya restaurant in Alexandria VA, May 28, 2013 for a community forum on online radicalization, organized by Make Space, a Northern Virginia Muslim community organization and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).
To discuss the vital role the community plays in preventing and countering Internet radicalization, Mohamed Elibiary, Hadia Mubarak, researcher Humera Khan, Boston Imam William Suhaib Webb, and Imam Zia Makhdoom sat on the panel, moderated by Haris Tarin, Director of MPAC.
There is no profile of an extremist to help communities identify one, said Humera Khan whose research includes ‘anti-terrorism’. “It's not about poverty, education, family or ethnicity- the only consistency is that these youth did not understand the religion enough,” explained Khan. “It is not about being religious …. it is specifically around the understanding of certain topics and concepts that are completely distorted. If you do not know the original concept, you will not know it is being distorted. You can be born in a Muslim family and not know religion.”
In homegrown cases, youth are recruited at increasingly younger ages. “[They are being recruited] at an age when they cannot distinguish between right and wrong because they do not have that baseline foundation in the religion,” said Khan, who is a member of think tank organization Muflehun.
Khan also pointed out the importance of terminology and discouraged the use of ‘jihadi’ or ‘jihadist’, which perpetuates the terrorist narrative that equates jihad with terrorism.
An overwhelming majority of victims of terrorist attacks are Muslims. Adam Motiwala, a survivor of a terrorist attack in Pakistan, put a face on this reality for the audience. Motiwala worked for an international aid agency in Islamabad when a suicide bomber attacked his office, leaving five colleagues dead and four hospitalized, including Motiwala. "A father of two died, the receptionist died. I lost part of my brain. Everyone who died or got injured was Muslim,” said Motiwala. He wanted to understand why they kill, and he returned back to Pakistan for answers.
Imam Zia of Make Space shared stories of attacks on his ancestral village in Afghanistan and the need for revamping how certain theological topics are taught in seminaries.
Tarin and Mubarak echoed the idea that it is easy to die for a cause, and much harder to live for one. “[There is] no question that people have grievances … we are equally outraged by the killing of Muslims, but we need to separate issues,” said Mubarak, an Alwaleed Bin Talal Scholar at Georgetown University Department of Islamic Studies. She said that the Muslim community often ignore politics out of apathy or intimidation or they hear ‘fiery talks’ that focus on problems and not on solutions. This ‘black and white’ mentality does not help analyze or contribute to policies.
"[Terrorism] is a theology for lazy people, and it allows them to outsource responsibilities … and avoid actually fixing the problems,” said Imam Webb.
Earlier in the morning on Tuesday, Imam Webb, Elibiary and Tarin took part in a briefing hosted by the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program and MPAC for a panel discussion on the threat that online extremist material poses. Peter Bergen Director, NAF, Dr. Peter Neumann, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, Rabia Chaudry Founder, Safe Nation Collaborative and Rashad Hussein, U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation also sat on the panel.
At the briefing, attended by government officials and representatives from civil society groups, Imam Webb said that imams need the leeway to be able to give pastoral care to youth who may have extremists views, so they can help, without being subpoenaed and investigated later.
Chaudry said that the theme that Islam and the West are at odds is a narrative that is pushed by both anti-Muslim bigots and the people who follow a radical ideology. She also suggested reframing the issue beyond national security, to make it local so communities stretched for resources can still address it.
Some in American Muslim communities wonder about the scope of the home grown extremism. Neumann said that the amount of terror that is created by one single action as in the Woolwich case is what creates the impact.
“It is not pandemic but it is a problem and it needs to be addressed; [by addressing it] we build resiliency in our community,” said Elibiary at the briefing. "There's a need for Muslim leaders to identify those exploring radical ideas and "adopt these kids," said Mohamed Elibiary, founder of Lone Star Intelligence.
Experts agreed that blocking extremist websites is not a solution. Thinking that shutting down certain websites will curb the problem is a flawed argument, said Neumann.
Challenging the narrative is the more constructive option and according to panelists, websites like Muslimmmatters.org and Virtualmosque.com (formerly suhaibwebb.com) have been on the forefront in countering online radicalization.
Targeting at risk Muslim youth and the use of FBI sting operations was also discussed in the briefing. Elibiary said that for years he has been saying these were overused strategies. He suggested that other tools the FBI can use are pilot intervention programs used by some field offices. These soft and hard intervention programs give youth on the path to radicalization an off ramp.
Imam Webb also spoke about law enforcement's role in Muslim communities. "The introduction of law enforcement to the community cannot be a securitized relationship based on surveillance, mapping the community, and investigating the imam who was trying to help … this creates tension," he said.
The fact that the alleged Boston bombers were unable to come to their imam and talk is a problem the Muslim community needs to address in their own organizations, he said.
The counter narrative needs to come from the Muslim community and not U.S. government sources, panelists said. Imams and other Muslims have credibility with young Muslim men exploring radical ideas. “Every young man with issues that I [was] able to sit down with has changed for the better,” said Imam Webb. The imam gave the example of one of these young men, who opened up a soup kitchen as his jihad.
Despite the long community panel discussion in the evening, there were questions from the audience that questioned whether the Tsarnaev brothers were even Muslim.
Imam Webb said that conspiracy theories do not help solve issues in the Muslim community. Even if one is to assume that a theory is correct, the community still needs to focus on solutions.
An audience member asked the panel if they would condemn President Obama for killing civilians overseas in the same way that the terrorists are condemned. Tarin replied that the role of American Muslims is to be critical citizens; citizens do not have to endorse governmental decisions.
The overall message that came from the discussion was that American Muslim communities need to continue having these forums -- not because the American Muslim community bears the guilt of the crimes committed by their coreligionists, but because the young men on the path of radicalization need the community to become their safety net.