Whenever I arrive back in the US, I always get a special welcome from the folks at the airport…the VIP treatment as I like to call it (Very Islamic Person). To be fair, I can understand why I may have ended up on one of their lists, and they are always very courteous and professional. For someone who has done nothing wrong, and has nothing to hide, the system actually works as it's supposed to–with minimal inconvenience to me, and they get to satisfy their curiosity.
The irony is that for two of my three voyages to the Muslim world, I was working through educational programs of the US federal government. I traveled to Egypt in 2004 through an individual Fulbright grant, which is administered by the US State Department. On a recent trip to Morocco, I led a study abroad program for K-12 teachers through a Department of Education grant. Beyond support for the immediate program of research or study, these grants are part of the broad cultural diplomacy efforts of the federal government.
In our present situation, I see a lot of promise in such programs. They offer Americans a chance to expand their often insulated, isolated worldviews. It offers people in other countries a more sophisticated, comprehensive understanding of American life and culture. I know several knowledgable Egyptian Muslims who were able to participate in Fulbright programs, learning about topics as diverse as the life of Mark Twain and US race relations, or traveling to obscure parts of the US where no other Muslim was likely to visit. Recently, I witnessed Wisconsin teachers immersing themselves in Moroccan society, directly experiencing daily life in a post-colonial, Muslim society. In short, these programs help to cut through the dangerous and delusional stereotypes that promote extremism on all sides.
I am proud to have taken part in such programs and hope to do so again in the future. Yet…I'm still on that list. I'm still regarded, at some level, as one of the “homegrown” threats that were detailed in the recent NYPD intelligence report. And as much as I'm not one to dismiss the threat of terrorism, this kind of report can only contribute the problem.
The NYPD report offers a fairly detailed, psychological and sociological profile of extremism in the Muslim world. To some degree, these assertions reflect actual case studies and analysis of “real” terrorist cells (more to come on false terrorist cells). But then it leads to the following diagnosis of how “radicalization” occurs:
Two key indicators within this self-identification stage that suggests progression along the radicalization continuum are:
• Progression or Gravitation Towards Salafi Islam
• Regular Attendance at a Salafi mosque
As these individuals adopt Salafism, typical signatures include:
o Becoming alienated from one's former life; affiliating with like-minded individuals
o Joining or forming a group of like-minded individuals in a quest to strengthen one's dedication to Salafi Islam
o Giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes.
o Wearing traditional Islamic clothing, growing a beard
o Becoming involved in social activism and community issues (NYPD Report, p. 31)
OK, so now I understand why I might be on the list. Years ago, after accepting Islam, I started to give up old habits like listening to music, drinking alcohol, etc. And I started to spend time with a new peer group, young Muslims like myself, some converts to Islam, other from Muslim families who were recommitting themselves to Islam. And a major step in the process, one that really amplified my faith, occured as I gravitated toward Salafi Muslims in Texas. At a certain point, I changed from someone who visited the mosque sporadically to one who regularly attended the Salafi mosque. I let my beard grow, and even started to wear eastern-style clothing…maybe going a bit too far with the clothes. And though I probably could have done much more in social activism and community service, at least I was contributing more than in the past.
I seemed to have followed the script…but let's look a little closer.
The first sermon that I heard at the Salafi masjid in Texas was not about political crises in the Muslim world. It was not a clandestine call to arms from a “spiritual sanctioner” (a term mentioned in the NYPD report). It was not a call to abandon my family and culture. No. The sermon was about the importance of smiling, how smiling is considered charity in Islam, how the Prophet Muḥammad (peace be upon him) used to always smile. It was a small exhortation to improve our manners. And as I attended week after week, this was exactly the kind of message of I heard–small bits of advice, things that one could easily implement in daily life, that were unambiguously rooted in the Qurʾān and Prophetic hadith.
But what really drew my heart to that masjid was a single event. After becoming Muslim, I always heard the wild political rants about the historically Muslim world. I saw some of the radical websites, which operated quite freely before 9/11. I didn't really know what to think. Everyone was claiming something different. Everyone accused their opponents of lying. But despite the complex reality of political and military crises in the Muslim world, one thing never sat well with me–terrorism: the use of suicide bombings, the targeting of civilians, and so on. And honestly, I didn't hear a lot of Muslims condemning this.
So one night at a halaqa in the Salafi masjid, with my new peer group, as my beard was growing bigger and bigger, someone asked the sheikh if suicide bombing is allowed in Islam….and he said “no.” He then proceeded to offer a broad condemnation of the terrorist tactics and extremist groups spreading through the Muslim world. It was one of the most refreshing moments I have experienced as a Muslim…and all thanks to a bearded, Salafi sheikh wearing Islamic clothes.
I would like to believe that this incongruity is only due to misunderstanding and misinterpretation, but I fear there is something more sinister in play. The NYPD report asserts that, along with the “spiritual sanctioner”, the budding terrorist cell requires an “operational leader.” What they don't mention is that in case after case, the operational leader, the one who pushes delusional sentiments into criminal plans, is an FBI plant or informant. Don't get me wrong. If someone is online talking about the “19 lions of September 11″, or chasing down convoluted fatawas that justify indiscriminate killing, then that person needs to be watched. But if it takes an FBI agent to push that person over the edge, was there really a threat? Even the authorities themselves deem such groups “aspirational” rather than “operational.” It is worth recalling that the number one priority for the FBI and US law enforcement after September 11 has been anti-terrorism. All the identity thieves, child pornographers, drug dealers, corporate criminals, and others take a back seat to terrorists. Therefore, the pressure to produce arrests must be enormous. Although you may only need to arrest one person every five years to prevent a terrorist attack, I fear that law enforcement does not think in those terms.
And let me get back to the false terrorist cells. The report also mentions the Virginia “jihad” group as an example of “radicalization in the United States.” Although many people like to believe that “convicted in a court of law” still counts as proof of guilt, the realities of our hysterical age suggest otherwise. I won't waste time talking about this case when others with more knowledge of the situation have already done so. But I do want to highlight a recently published letter from Ismail Royer, one of the brothers serving time for this case.
I started this post by talking about the potential for education to cure extremism. I believe that. The Muslim world must confront the diseases of terrorism and extremism. But from my own experience, I attribute this problem primarily to a lack of critical thinking, a lack of creative consciousness, a blunt willingness to see the world in black and white, to mistake delusions for understanding. And this is one aspect about American culture, at least for those who seize the opportunity, that really can benefit the world, that really can help to dissolve extremism.
So for the skeptics reading this, think about that letter from Ismail Royer. Does he sound like a rigid ideologue? Do rigid ideologues quote Walt Whitman, read the great works of Western literature, and value elegant prose?
I never met Ismail Royer, but I can tell you this. He is the type of person who can help to defeat terrorism. Instead of locking him in jail for 20 years, the government should be giving him a Fulbright scholarship.
- 14 Year Flashback: Accusations of “Fundamentalism” and “Terrorism”
- inSANE Terrorists Coming to a masjid Near YOU!
- America's Dumbest Terrorist-Wannabes (1 UPDATE)
- JFK Terror Plot
- The Ethical Role of Religion in Promoting Peace (Part 1 of 3)
- Terrorism & Militancy: British Muslims vs. American Muslims
- The Link Between Islam & Suicide Attacks (or is there?)
- The RAND Plan in ACTION
- The RAND Report & My RANDom Thoughts…
- How significant is the risk of terrorism?