Muslims in America

April 19, 2011 Topic: ReligionTerrorism Regions: United States

Muslims in America

Mini Teaser: The threat of domestic Islamic terrorism grows. But the origin of the problem is neither mosques nor the Muslim community writ large—it is jihad cool.

by Author(s): Jessica Stern

ON MARCH 10, Representative Peter King (R-NY), who has alleged that the vast majority of U.S. mosques are run by extremists, held a hearing on radicalization of Muslims in America. The event generated an astonishing reaction—from just about everyone. Demonstrators, both in favor of his position and against, gathered outside Mr. King’s offices on Long Island. The congressman requested additional security, and Capitol police were deployed to protect the hearing room as well as his workplace in Washington. Some pundits praised Mr. King for speaking the unspeakable on a topic usually beleaguered by political correctness. The Tea Party Patriots’ Facebook page urged supporters to call and stand behind Congressman King for his courage. But there were others who lambasted him for his lack of political sensitivity, pointing out that non-Muslim domestic terrorists are greater in number than Muslim ones. And Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) held up a copy of the Constitution while arguing that the hearing could well violate laws against religious discrimination: “this hearing today is playing right now into al-Qaeda, around the world.” Meanwhile, Keith Ellison (D-MN), one of two Muslims in the House, was unable to hold back tears as he recalled a Muslim paramedic who died while responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Certainly Mr. King has had quite a lot to say about Muslims in America—much of it seemingly inflammatory.

“There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community, and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.”

“Over 80 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by radical imams. Certainly from what I’ve seen and dealings I’ve had, that number seems accurate.”

“85 percent of American Muslim community leaders are an enemy living amongst us”; “no (American) Muslims” cooperate in the war on terror.

“The average Muslim, no, they are loyal, but they don’t work, they don’t come forward, they don’t tell the police.”

“When a war begins, we’re all Americans. But in this case, this is not the situation. And whether it’s pressure, whether it’s cultural tradition, whatever, the fact is the Muslim community does not cooperate anywhere near to the extent that it should.”

How do we disentangle truth from provocation in this list of “observations”?

The congressman is right about the growing threat of violent Muslim extremism. The problem is he mischaracterizes the source. American mosques are not at the heart of the threat any more than is the Muslim community. Just as there is a difference between those who oppose abortion on religious grounds and those who target and kill abortion providers, there is a difference between the Muslim community and Muslim terrorists. But it is also wrong to claim, as some have suggested, that because they are greater in number and commit more crimes, white-supremacist and antigovernment groups pose more of a threat to national security than do Muslim extremists. Indeed, it is precisely because the threat of violent Muslim extremism is so serious that Mr. King’s rhetoric is so dangerous.

The al-Qaeda movement has deliberately attempted to tailor its message to attract American youth, even encouraging them to act on their own, at home. Most of the American Muslims who are joining this jihad were not brought up to believe in the Salafi teachings that undergird the al-Qaeda ideology. Instead, the idea of jihad has become an extremely dangerous global trend. For a very small segment of young people across the world, it is a cool way of expressing dissatisfaction with a power elite—whether that elite is real or imagined; whether power is held by totalitarian monarchs or by liberal parliamentarians. And like all fads, this one too shall pass. But the threat is likely, in my view, to get worse before it gets better, both on our shores and further abroad. For though there is much to celebrate about citizens’ demands for greater freedoms in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, history suggests that the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy is a particularly dangerous period in terms of terrorism.

In fact, in an essay in the March 2011 issue of Inspire—al-Qaeda’s magazine aimed at extremist youth—the radical American Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has emerged as an eloquent recruiter for jihad against the United States, taunts Western governments. He claims that the mujahideen are elated about the revolutionary fervor now spreading throughout the Arab world; the fighters—he claims—are ready to exploit the opening, especially in Yemen and Libya. But Western Muslims who would like to join the “jihad” are still urged to remain at home, to fight the “tyrants” in the West. So as to avoid the fate of the many homegrown terrorists who were arrested before implementing their attacks, lone-wolf operations are encouraged (the fewer the number of perpetrators the smaller the chance of getting caught). Inspire sees itself as offering a venue for “open source jihad,” which it defines as a “reference manual for those who loathe the tyrants,” providing instructions, in its less-than-perfect English, to allow “Muslims to train at home instead of risking a dangerous travel abroad.” This is radicalization by Internet—not by mosque—making Mr. King’s warnings seem quaint and obsolete.

It is important to correctly characterize the threat, and to develop responses based on facts, not fear. We are fighting the spread of the idea that a “good” Muslim will respond to the West’s purported war on Islam by joining the “jihad” against “tyrants” wherever they are found—in Somalia, in Libya or in Portland, Oregon. Inspire aims to shame Muslim youth into action. You feel safe in the United States, it argues, but you are governed by those who want to destroy Islam:

Today, America has invaded two Muslim lands and goes around sending missiles on Muslims in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Do you not feel any shame for saying that Obama is not at war with Islam when he’s slaughtering your Pakistani brothers and sisters with his drone attacks? It has been proven in numerous media reports that the majority of those killed in the attacks are not Taliban or al Qaeda fighters, but ordinary Pakistani citizens. 1

It is the nature of teenagers to seek an identity. Al-Qaeda is exploiting that typical adolescent confusion, trying to shift their allegiances. Only a few will succumb, but as we have seen, even small numbers of determined terrorists are a threat to us all.

UNTIL A few years ago, America seemed relatively resistant to the kind of homegrown Islamist terrorism that has plagued Europe for the last decade. Terrorism experts attribute the resilience of American Muslims to their greater integration into society. In Europe, immigrant populations tend to cluster—with Algerians settling in France, Turks in Germany, Moroccans in the Netherlands and so on, making it easier for ethno-religious groups to remain isolated, spending time only with others like themselves. Many Muslim immigrants in Europe arrived as unskilled guest workers, and changes in the labor market have made it harder for them to find jobs.

European Muslim youth describe themselves, often accurately, as victims of prejudice in the workplace and in society more generally. In the European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey for 2009, one in three Muslim respondents reported experiencing discrimination, with the effect greatest among Muslims aged sixteen to twenty-four (overall discrimination rates decline with age). Muslims in Europe are far more likely to be unemployed and to receive lower pay for the same work than “native” Europeans. Thus, Muslim immigrants in Europe are often impoverished. For example, 10 percent of native Belgians live below the poverty line, but for Turks that number is 59 percent and for Moroccans, 56 percent.

Image: Pullquote: Congressman King is right about the growing threat of violent Muslim extremism. The problem is he mischaracterizes the source.Essay Types: Essay