To Fight Terrorism, We Need To Deal With The American Muslim’s Identity Crisis

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February 25, 2015 2:05 p.m.

At the White House summit on countering violent extremism this week, President Obama challenged the American Muslim community to counter the “Islam versus the West” narrative that helps ISIS recruit young Muslims in America. The president is right in that this is a responsibility of the American Muslim community, and leaders are working to advance this message every day. Nonetheless, counternarratives from the American Muslim community alone will not stanch the appeal of ISIS’ propaganda. We, as a nation, must do more.

Hate crimes against Muslims and rampant Islamophobia are destroying young Muslims’ sense of their American identity. The murder of three Muslim college students at UNC-Chapel Hill, the premeditated hit and run that killed a 15-year-old Muslim boy in Kansas City a few months earlier, an arson attack on a Houston mosque, and the vandalism at a mosque in Rhode Island are creating a hostile environment for Muslims in America. These hate crimes are fueled by virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric from the far right. At the core of this rhetoric is the insistence—despite all the logic and facts to the contrary—that Islam is responsible for terrorism. This misleading trope is driving a wedge between Muslims and their fellow Americans.

It is tough to forge a counternarrative to the “Islam vs. the West” imagery in the midst of these hate crimes and fear-mongering. Parents, imams, and Sunday school teachers trying to impart a genuine sense of belonging in America to the Muslim youth need something they can point to as evidence that the sense of community is being reciprocated. The responsibility for changing the climate that breeds alienation in the minds of young Muslims in America belongs to all of us.

The government can play an important role in mitigating the Islamophobic rhetoric. President Obama’s Chapel Hill statement last week (“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship”), although slow in coming, helps. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reached out to Muslims across the country last week in a conference call to identify any immediate and longer term needs and concerns in the wake of the murders. The local authorities in Chapel Hill have assured the public that all motives are being investigated. And the FBI is investigating the possibility of federal civil rights violations in cooperation with the local U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Carolina. These are all good measures that help to make the Muslim community feel that it is a part of American society.

Americans outside of the Muslim community have a role to play, as well. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 40% of Americans view Muslims negatively. Those who do know Muslims—as coworkers, neighbors, classmates and friends—can make a significant impact in countering the anti-Muslim bigotry. That impact needs to be felt in the local communities where Muslims live so that Muslim youth can see firsthand that they are welcome and included in America.

The media can do a better job of fairly covering Muslims. In the immediate aftermath of the Chapel Hill murders, the media is right not to call them hate crimes just yet—ultimately the evidence will speak for itself. The problem, however, is the double standard. Had the religions of the murderer and the victims been reversed, the speculation on ISIS-inspired lone wolf terrorism would have been the dominant story. How the media is reporting this crime involving Muslims is how it should report all crimes involving Muslims.

Countering the perverted version of Islam that ISIS advances is important, but addressing the identity crisis that makes young people susceptible to this perversion is just as vital. Dr. Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist, a PhD in sociology and a former CIA officer, has been a consultant on terrorism for the U.S. government for a number of years. He argues that the effort to counter violent extremism should look at why some young Muslims seek out “imagined communities,” doing so to fill a void they feel because they are alienated from American society.

Groups like ISIS, Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda offer these “imagined communities” that disaffected young Muslims may gravitate to if they cannot find a sense of belonging in America. Creating a more welcoming community for Muslims in America is an important part of an effective strategy for countering violent extremism in the Muslim community, and it will take the efforts of all Americans to make that happen.

Junaid M. Afeef is an attorney focusing on criminal justice policy, a former executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and a Truman National Security Project Political Partner. His views are his own.

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