An unfortunate consequence of the Boston Marathon bombings has been this: the sick words and deeds of a tiny, demented fringe of extremists—no more than .1% of Muslims overall—command vast public attention. The good words and work of all other American Muslims get drowned out. This happens whenever a violent act’s culprit is identified as a Muslim, even though other religious groups usually are not measured by their extremists. Instead they are regarded as aberrations—not at all representative of their claimed faiths.
This status quo must change, for American Muslims are invaluable to countering extremists and their narrative. If the 99.9% is to become more relevant, then it must challenge extremists in areas where they expend their resources.
By now we know well the opposing worldviews that characterize our struggle with extremists. The latter promote the cult of death, whereas we—the mainstream—promote the theology of life. They believe that only they know the will of God, which they can impose on people, whereas we believe that the will of God is represented by the will of the people. They believe Sharia is limited to draconian punishments to terrorize people, whereas we believe Sharia is the path to God—one defined by different groups that adhere to justice, mercy and compassion. They believe grievances are irreversible facts that should be fuel for political violence, whereas we believe grievances can be redressed non-violently, and in partnership with others who, like us, respect human dignity. They believe that recruiting young people to serve as their warriors will be their unending revitalization, whereas we believe that the mission of Islam is entrusting Muslim youth to be ambassadors of good will and future leaders.
Islamic thinkers have pushed back against extremists for years. Fathi Osman, an Egyptian and Islamic scholar who died on September 11, 2010, wrote about human rights as the fulcrum of Sharia in the 1960s. He also raised the concern that Muslim extremism was an immediate threat to Muslims. In this way he rebutted the confrontational ideology of Sayyid Qutb, who was radicalized after years of torture under the Nasser dictatorship in Egypt. Dr. Maher Hathout, a colleague of Dr. Osman and a leading American Muslim spokesperson, likewise said, with pithiness: “We are determined to win the ideological battle to discredit and isolate the extremist voices.”
Osman’s words are reflected in the work of American mosques and Muslim communities, which visibly have shunned adherents to Al-Qaeda’s ideology. Bin Laden had hoped for automatic and widespread recruiting in the mosques, after the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. But that didn’t happen, thanks to American houses of Muslim worship which rightly banned violent rhetoric. According to media reports, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, shouted at the Imam of the Cambridge mosque for encouraging the message of Martin Luther King. Tsarnaev was booted out. The same happened earlier, in the 1990s, when Adam Ghadahn was kicked out of a Southern California mosque for his outbursts. He later became a spokesperson for Al Qaeda.
Of course it is not enough merely to displace troublemakers from Muslim worship rituals. These days, extremists also recruit and radicalize followers online, in a process that has contaminated popular Islamic discourse and inspired lone wolves. That presents American Muslims with a different type of problem: cyberspace. Thus we must intervene at the earliest stages of cyber-radicalization. Today there is more information available on the targets of extremist recruiting. And religious counselors and peers, as much law enforcement or intelligence officials, can discern early indicators of online radicalization—and take steps to counteract it.
So what do those steps look like? In our Building Bridges policy paper, the Muslim Public Affairs Council argues for a division of labor between Muslim communities and law enforcement. Community jurisdiction is defined by theological, social and religious efforts to prevent violent extremism; beyond this, communities should warn law enforcement whenever they detect imminent criminal activity. In giving effect to these principles, it is critical that mosques and Muslim organizations not be viewed as mere proxies for law enforcement, lest trust between those organizations and their members be undermined. Likewise, we must also not stigmatize young Muslims, for that risks alienating a key segment of American Muslim society. With these parameters in mind, Muslim communities can continue to play an active, important role in stopping radicalization before it is too late.
As American Muslims, we can work in a united front with other Americans in leading our country out of the abyss of terrorism. We need the American public to realize our role. That realization will enhance our security, for it will make the mainstream relevant and the extremists irrelevant. Irrelevance is the nightmare scenario of any extremist group. But the mainstream’s relevance is our hope for victory.