Our Radical Youth: Kick Them Out, Turn Them In, or Counsel Them?

Community News


Muslim Public Affairs Council Launches Toolkit to Help Masajid Create Safe Spaces


As the anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing approaches, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) has launched a Safe Spaces Initiative which seeks to help communities ‘create spiritual safe spaces for open dialogue and debate while also providing physical safe spaces by helping masjid and community leaders deal with any misguided individuals.’

After a year worth of research, MPAC asks and answers the question: could more have been done by the community to intervene in the case of the Tsarnev brothers?

The tool kit, which is available on the MPAC website, encourages communities to use the PIE model: Prevention, Intervention and Ejection.

Imams such as Yasir Qadhi and Yasir Fazaga were interviewed for this toolkit, as were mental health counselors, and national organizations that have decades of experience dealing with far right extremism, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center. MPAC believes the best approach when faced with individuals that espouse a violent ideology, based on the best scientific evidence, is similar to how schools and universities across the nation prevent violent tragedies such as Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University shootings. According to the toolkit, in those cases, schools formed teams of teachers, counselors and other staff to identify problems and alternative solutions to arrest, such as counseling. That method has been effective, preventing 120 incidents of violence in the past decade. These cases are not reported in media.

The toolkit suggests that masajid should have safe spaces where sensitive or taboo subjects can be discussed in a ‘comfortable and non-judgmental atmosphere.’ This should include discussions about religious and civic identities, concerns over national and foreign policies, sectarianism, etc. However, in the aftermath of the NYPD spying, some communities are concerned that these discussions could be used by federal agencies to entrap young men.

One of the concerns of masjid leaders is the necessity for such a dialogue. Is this issue such a big problem or are our civil right organizations just dancing to the official governmental tunes?

In a tele-seminar conducted by Haris Tarin and Alejandro J. Beutel, the author of the toolkit, an independent consultant and former Government and Policy Analyst for MPAC, they addressed this concern. They say that they do not want to fan the flames of propaganda nor do they want to instill fear in religious spaces. Tarin says that it is not a huge issue, but the impact is very big; even one is too many. “Unfortunately, there is a very small, but dangerous minority of violent individuals who falsely claim to act on behalf of the interests and aspirations of all Muslims. In order to recruit people to their backward ideology, they prey on vulnerable and misguided members of our communities. Some of these individuals have gone on to do terrible things, such as carry out the Boston marathon bombings. While these incidents are few their impact is huge,” notes Beutal.

In an op-ed Salam Marayati, the Executive Director of MPAC National writes: “We aim to prevent violent ideology with a dose of good theology and healthy, honest conversations in our mosques. We then try to intervene with anyone who exemplifies troubling behavior. Finally, we resort to ejection from our mosques when all other measures are exhausted. In all cases of violent activity, we remind our constituents to call law enforcement. The precise mechanisms for these steps can be found in the community toolkit.” The publication discusses the planning and legal ramifications of interventions and the pros and cons of ejection of a violent person from a community.

Beutal says that experts have noted that a lack of trust and an environment of silence may actually encourage troubled individuals ‘to go down a path of violence because they will be less likely to get help, such as mental health counseling. Those with the ability to provide help are also less likely to be aware of those who may need it.’

MPAC suggests that masajid, community centers and MSAs develop a Crisis Inquiry Team consisting of imams, mental health counselors and legal experts that can intervene when an individual is going down the path of extreme violence. Planning is crucial as material support laws – federal laws which are used heavily in terrorism related trials to convict people who indirectly assist in any way a person or organization accused of terrorism -- are murky and well meaning leaders could get caught in the net.

In cases where ideology and religious misguidance are a major factor in a person’s movement toward violence, MPAC suggests that communities ‘take the lead role’ with four basic principles, in addressing extremist ideologies and helping people exit from violent groups:

1. Listen

2. Understand the person’s references and sources

3. Provide the person comfort

4. Give alternatives and consistently follow up

Many masajid and Islamic Centers are struggling for funding and do not have full time staff or the expertise to deal with such issues. Many Islamic Centers want to help, but do not have a model to follow. Tarin says the organization is cognizant of the state of masajid and that tabletop exercises and training through MPAC does not involve high costs or experts to come in.

A suggestion made by one activist at a March 2014 FBI outreach program at a local masjid was that intervention instead of prosecution and supplying of materials would have made for a better outcome in the 2010 case of 17-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, was echoed in the MPAC toolkit.

Mohamud was arrested and convicted of attempting to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon with materials supplied by law enforcement. Mohamud came from a broken home and had personal issues that led him to a path where he began supporting extreme ideologies, but had not yet committed an act of violence. MPAC notes that Mohamud’s father ‘noticing his son’s troublesome path, called the FBI, assuming that this was the only option. “In those circumstances, arrest and criminal prosecution were the only tools that were available. However, if people like Mohamud’s father have access to community-led initiatives that focus on prevention and intervention, then our communities and the nation will be safer and the community can avoid the trauma of the criminal justice system.”

The Muslim Link asked MPAC what their stance was on law enforcement in local masajid. Tarin believes that Muslim communities should build trust with local law enforcement agencies, even if there is disagreement with some policies.  Not down playing the civil liberties concerns that the American Muslim communities have, MPAC suggests that communication lines should be open and law enforcement should approach the community through the front door and not the back door -- spying and paying informants.

Beutal emphasized that no money from any government was used to develop the Safe Spaces project; it was developed for American Muslims, by American Muslims and comes from a place of authenticity and independence.  So far reaction to the initiative has been positive.

A sustained effort by MPAC, the training offered will be local and community driven, not through law enforcement.