Mar 9th 2015
AROUND 150 American citizens and residents have travelled, or attempted to travel, to Syria to fight for the Islamic State (IS). Three more men, residents of Brooklyn, recently joined this list of aspiring (though thwarted) jihadists. The number is quite small—in Europe, by contrast, more than 3,000 people are believed to have joined the ranks of IS fighters—but the allure of jihad among Westerners remains alarming nonetheless. The terrorist organisation uses social media to create what James Comey, director of the FBI, calls a “siren song” for troubled souls. The IS sales pitch, he says, goes like this: “Come to the caliphate, you will live a life of glory, these are the apocalyptic end times, you will find a life of meaning here fighting for our so-called caliphate, and if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are.”
How does one counter such recruitment efforts? At a summit on violent extremism, President Barack Obama called on Muslim Americans, and moderate Muslims everywhere, to contradict the Islamic State’s extremist messages. Muslim communities, he argued, “have a responsibility to push back, not just on twisted interpretations of Islam, but also on the lie that we are somehow engaged in a clash of civilisations.”
But is combating the Islamic State really the responsibility of American Muslims? Many Americans appear to believe so, particularly as more than a quarter of Americans and nearly half of senior Protestant pastors view IS as a logical extension of Islam, according to LifeWay, a Nashville-based Christian research group. More than 70% of Americans also say the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria is the number-one threat to American interests in the region, according to a recent Brookings poll. Though most Muslims do not harbour terrorist sentiments or affiliations, hard statistics are hard to come by. A 2011 Pew report found that around a fifth of Muslim Americans say there is support for extremism in their community. At the time nearly half of Muslim Americans faulted their own leaders for failing to challenge Islamic extremists.
Some human-rights activists and Muslim-American groups are nervous that domestic efforts to counter extremism could quickly develop into more surveillance and discriminatory profiling of Muslims. “This focus solely on attacks committed by Arabs or Muslims reinforces the stereotype of Arab- and Muslim-Americans as security threats, and thus perpetuates hate,” says Samer Khalaf, President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Still, many moderate Muslims feel a personal duty to denounce Islamic radicalisation. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), the largest mosque in the DC metropolitan area and the third largest in the country, holds internet-safety seminars and town hall meetings to deconstruct terrorist messages and defend families from the threat of radicalisation. Since 2001 the mosque has also worked closely with the FBI. Rizwan Jaka, chair of ADAMS’ board, says that information for over 40% of arrests of attempted terrorists comes from within Muslim communities. The mosque insists on being partners, not suspects, in countering violent extremism.
“We feel responsible, as citizens, as Muslims, to defend our faith from these evildoers,” says Mr Jaka. At ADAMS this also means ensuring that children learn to become both good Muslims and good Americans. Indeed, over 400 children in the community are also members of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
Similarly, at the Nation Mosque in Washington, DC, Imam Talib Shareef explains, “We have embraced our American identity.” The mosque offers classes in Muslim-American history and teaches the importance of interfaith relations. In response to the Islamic State’s enhanced recruitment efforts, the mosque has been presenting more lectures and videos that promote the “pure sources” of the Islamic faith, such as the Koran, rather than the “disturbed sources” of fundamentalist sermons, says Mr Shareef. He adds that the best guard against radicalism is getting to know people in the community. Anyone who seems vulnerable to the sway of jihad is welcomed into the fold for more peaceful lessons about Islam.
Using Islamic teaching to combat extremism is complicated, however, as there is no single authoritative interpretation of Islam—unlike Catholics, Muslims have no pope who can settle doctrinal debates. More awkward still, “the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” as Graeme Wood observed recently in the Atlantic. “The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” Or as Bernard Haykel, a Princeton scholar and leading expert on Muslim theology, has exclaimed: “As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam!’ It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts… And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”
Small wonder then that many Muslim clerics in America say it is in their interest to speak out against radical Islam, to distance themselves from the violence of extremists. As Mr Shareef explains, “We have to set the record straight.”