U.S. Muslim groups walk fine line in efforts to confront extremism
As organizations including the Council on American-Islamic Relations begin to publicly confront the radicalization of Muslim youths, they are facing a backlash from their own community.
By Raja Abdulrahim
April 19, 2010For the last decade, U.S. Muslim organizations have faced criticism that they don't do enough to condemn -- or prevent -- extremism and terrorism.
But now that many of the groups are speaking publicly about the radicalization of Muslim youths and even developing scared-straight-type programs to steer young people away from extremism, they are being criticized in their own community for saying too much.
Critics contend that organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Muslim American Society are pandering to outsiders who equate Muslims with extremism.
"Muslims don't really mind if Fox News says something crazy, because you don't have as much an affiliation with Fox News," said Suhail Dar, president of the national Muslim Students Association. "But if it's someone you know, or you think they know you . . . it definitely hits closer because you wouldn't expect it."
In the wake of the Ft. Hood, Texas, shooting, the reports of dozens of Minnesota youths joining a Somalian resistance and the December terrorism-related arrests of five young men from Virginia who traveled to Pakistan, CAIR publicly addressed the issue of radicalization and outlined how it had helped the families of the Virginia men report the disappearances to the FBI.
Around that time, the Muslim Public Affairs Council released a study about counter-terrorism efforts that outlined five theories on why Muslims become radicalized.
And more recently, the Muslim American Society launched the Straight Path Campaign, an initiative aimed at providing Muslim youths with an alternative to radicalization.
The first goal for the campaign has been to hold more than 100 town hall meetings across the country to discuss why the message of violent radicalization resonates with some and what Muslims can do about it.
"I don't know why all these groups were suddenly releasing scathing reports about homegrown terrorism," said Reem Salahi, a civil rights attorney based in Santa Monica. "It really just bothered me; why are we so eager to jump on the bandwagon?"
Younger community members said Muslim leadership has sold them out by giving weight to broad generalizations about Muslims and terrorism.
They have also objected to the use of the word "radicalization," which generally refers to those who are sympathetic to terrorists or have terrorist ties.
There is concern, they said, that the word is being used so broadly that it could be pegged to anyone with unpopular views.
"When we hear people say Muslim youth are becoming extreme, we'd go, 'Hold up,' " said Omar Zarka, a UCLA engineering graduate student, turning to his left and right as if looking for extremists. "We don't see any of it. Whatever, dude."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there have been relatively few occurrences of radicalization and violent extremism among U.S. Muslims, in part because the community is self-policing and publicly denounces such acts, according to a Duke University study released earlier this year.
The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, found 139 incidents over an eight-year period of U.S. Muslims committing acts of terrorism-related violence or being prosecuted for violent terrorism-related offenses.
It concluded that "homegrown terrorism is a serious, but limited problem."
The study and ongoing debate among Muslims has raised the question of whether homegrown terrorism is a real issue. It also highlights a rare divide in a community that typically operates in a top-down manner.
Over the last several months, the Muslim organizations have coordinated meetings at their headquarters, mosques and student groups.
The discussions have led to more understanding on both sides, including an acknowledgment of the difficult position the national organizations find themselves in: stuck between calls for action and demands for a more measured response.
Although the leaders say they understand the concerns of younger members, they insist the issue is not one they can ignore -- for both practical and public relations purposes.
"Do we address it and speak about it and add fuel to the fire of those who want to make this a big issue? Even addressing a false frame or an exaggerated frame adds to the perpetuation of that stereotype," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of CAIR.
"It's like Nixon coming out on TV and saying 'I'm not a crook.' "
Like its sister chapters nationwide, CAIR-LA held a meeting at its Anaheim office to discuss what is myth and what is reality when discussing radicalization.
At the Islamic Center of Southern California, administrators planned a seminar for parents about the signs of youth radicalization, but later -- after complaints -- tempered the event's message and changed the format to a discussion.
In February, Suhaib Webb, a Northern California imam studying in Egypt, organized an online gathering among representatives from across the country.
Even from Egypt, Webb was hearing polarized opinions on the issue and wanted to provide a neutral forum.
David Schanzer, who headed the Duke study, said that although the issue of Muslim radicalization has been overhyped by the media and government, it is not an issue Muslims can afford to ignore.
The only way to sway public opinion about Muslims is to have community leaders publicly address the concerns, said Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center of Terrorism and Homeland Security.
Hossam AlJabri, executive director of the Muslim American Society, acknowledged that organizations like his are walking a fine line with the issue but said he could not wait until it becomes a major crisis.
"We recognize that this is an exaggerated problem right now," he said. "But it could become a real monster."