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 Muhammad (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 Qur'an 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.

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31 Responses

  1. Amad

    Great, great post! We need to be watching you, akhi Musa, very closely now!

    As I was reading this report, several thoughts came to my mind:
    *What is NYPD doing writing a report that has apparently “national” significance?
    *The report is so simplistic in its premise, its analysis and conclusion, that all one needed was the internet to patch all the pieces together.
    *RAND, RAND, RAND.
    *Seems that the author already concluded what the “progression of terrorists” HAS to be, then found a few cases that barely matched his conclusions, and somehow forced them to be “supporting evidence”.
    *I found it not only amusing but also telling when the authors quote “Kitab al-Tawheed”, a book on creed, as a sign of the “dangerous progression”. I plead GUILTY. And so do millions of other Muslims.
    *Like other similar reports, the report’s factual dishonesty is mind-boggling. Quoting a part of the story to represent all of it is its hall-mark. Among the many factual discrepancies and half-truths, while it quotes the “Saudi salafis” who apparently support jihadism, the report fails to mention that the VAST MAJORITY of Saudi scholars, and all the major ones have in fact condemned terrorism unambigiously. You should see this from Hamza Yusuf.
    *This report might as well have been a joint collaboration of Robert Spencer (Mr. Jihadwatch) and Daniel Pipe-Bomb. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s a tax-payer funded “official” government report, which gives it credibility that it does not deserve.
    *Like Br. Musa, I went through many of the stages of “progression”, but never once thought about violence!

    I hope that the NYPD “intelligence” will pay more attention to intelligent information, and not spend all day googling Jihadwatch and other islamophobic and propagandish websites. They have a reputation to keep… remember “Die Hard”?? ;)

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  2. ...

    Br Musa i cannot see Ismail Royer’ letter..link is not working. is it just my comp?

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  3. aarij

    Gripping post, ma sha Allah. I started reading thinking I’d get bored halfway through (as I usually get in musings), but ma sha Allah akhi, you write well :)

    May Allah protect us all from the evils around us.

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  4. Hassan

    Salaam. I been to salafi mosques, deobandi mosques (mainly Texas) and I never heard anything but good. I never saw anyone promoting violence and stuff.

    I think just like there could be extremist muslims, that do not represent Islam, there could be extremist salafis, or whatever that do not represent salafism etc.

    I think its true that many extremist organizations (specially in UK) claim to be salafis, so that may be concern to DOS. Also as from other threads (madhab issues etc), there are very extreme salafis in that regard. My sheikh calls them all super-salafis.

    As for the second point, I always wondered what motivates FBI to do entrapment. Should not US be spending more money/efforts to make muslims less alienated etc. Instead of stopping acts of terrorism, why promote them, and then catch them? It could be because they are not sincere, and they have fundings, so they have to justify fundings, or they want to send a strong message to muslims to be scared, and rest of Americans to be scared from muslims for political gain etc.

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  5. Amad

    MR, be careful man… they might send a John McClane-wannabe to “vet” out a young, suspicious-nick-carrying, computer-savvy dude in the middle of the night ;)

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  6. Hassan

    Is NYPD genuinely stupid or is making case of muslim surveillance? Do they want muslims to start drinking alcohol and smoking to be considered non-threat? Cant a real terrorist pretend (or actually) do those things (living non religious) life, to escape the radar?

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  7. Amad

    Interesting you bring that up Hassan. In fact, some of the 9/11 hijackers were known to drink and frequent bars. That’s the thing… the report is useless (as the report itself kind of states in the end)… if you profile certain things, the REAL terrorists will do exactly the same:

    Agents of terror leave their mark on Sin City

    I would say the people who end up in these situations are usually the “marginal” Muslims, who have little knowledge of Islam, and for sure very little knowledge of the spectrum of opinions. And since we don’t have openly radical preachers in America, they either have to find a marginalized, secret teacher (otherwise he would already have been in jail) OR more likely, as in nearly every case of “terrorism arrests’ and as Musa pointed to– SET UP by the government.

    To your other point on why FBI doesn’t do other stuff to “de-alienate” Muslims… well, that simply is not their job. Their job is to “protect”, which means really “capture”. They don’t have abilities usually to engage in soft-skills. They are under pressure at all times to “produce results”. And when half your workforce is trying to “produce results” out of thin air… then guess what? You will produce, by hook or crook.

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  8. aarij

    No disrespect intended, but I can’t believe people are actually wondering why the US is not spending money to de-alienate Muslims.

    I mean, seriously, the answer should be pretty obvious.

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  9. Hassan

    The authors, Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, of the NYPD’s intelligence division..

    The names say a lot…

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  10. AnonyMouse

    I think it should be called the UNintelligent report!

    Honestly… it’s ridiculous… to them, the only good Muslim seems to be a non-Muslim!

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  11. Dawud Israel

    Hey this is the NYPD–not exactly the best police force out there…

    Maybe it would be good to research on other police reports (Dearborn, MI comes to mind) and maybe even produce a counter, “How to spot an Islamophobe” report and circulate it around Muslims. Would be of some use and send the message to them.

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  12. jinnzaman

    Assalamu alaikum

    What a load or horse manure. I can’t believe this is being praised as ‘good intelligence.’

    They listed halal meat stores and sheesha bars as places where people get radicals. Why didn’t they just list masjid bathrooms and the ISNA lobby scene if they were going to make such vague and incorrect claims?

    This is begging for a parody.

    Keep up the good work Muslim Matters and keeping us informed about these issues.

    May Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) reward you for the work you do and bring our Ummah closer together through this blog. Ameen.

    masalama

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  13. Amad

    jazakAllahkhair JZ for your kind comments. If bringing the Ummah closer even a little bit is all we can accomplish, this whole effort would be well worth it…

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  14. Ahmad AlFarsi

    Assalaamu alaykum Hassan,

    Read this:

    http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/08/15/daveed.godswarriors/index.html

    Another thing I have noticed, one extreme takes person to another extreme….

    Even though the article you linked claims that this apostate had joined “radical Islam,” what was quoted in the article as examples of “extremism” are pretty much agreed upon by all Sunni Muslims.

    The article says:

    … a young Gartenstein-Ross experimented with a radical form of Islam that eventually led him to shun music, reject women’s rights and even refuse to touch dogs because he believed this was “according to God’s will.”

    “I began to pray for the mujahedeen, for these stateless warriors who were trying to topple secular governments,” he said.

    Shunning music and refusing to touch dogs are not extreme. And I am fairly certain that the claim that he “reject[ed] women’s rights” is referring to him having viewed hijaab as fard, and other probably universally accepted Islamic rulings.

    The article also quotes the apostate as saying:

    “What I didn’t expect was that over time my ideas would fall into line with theirs,” he said. “I wasn’t to shake hands with women. I wasn’t to pet a dog. I wasn’t to wear shorts that came up above my knees. But conversely, my pants legs couldn’t be too long.”

    Again, nothing really different from mainstream Sunnism here…

    It seems that what this CNN article is referring to as “radical Islam” is simply mainstream Islam. Just another media attempt to paint practicing Muslims as “radical “and non-practicing Muslims as “mainstream.”

    Perhaps the strangest part of the article is that after knowing about Islam, he left it for the shirk of the trinity. This shows that this guy either never really knew what tawheed was in the first place or never really believed in it.

    Even though this guy seemed to be practicing mainstream Islam, perhaps he was just following the rules without knowing anything about tawheed… in which case, THAT is extremism.

    Of course, seeing this guys backstabbing two-faced nature (turning on those brothers who supported him), I wouldn’t be surprised if he was just a govt spy the whole time…

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  15. Hassan

    Ahmad AlFarsi, you may be right, he may never have been muslim, just spy. What I meant from one extreme to another, is to being extreme liberal to being christian. Islam did not suit his nature of extremism.

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  16. Amad

    I am amazed by the hatred these people have and how their whole life rotates around creating more hatred for Islam and Muslims.

    I hope the MSAs around the nation take notice of this and petition/meet with the University officials to stop this hate-mongering. And if that doesn’t work, organize a counter “Islamic-awareness” week…collaborate with the Progressive/Democrat and anti-war groups to challenge their message in the SAME week.

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  17. Nuqtah

    It seems that authors of this report have overlooked all the dictates of statistics, data, fair survey et cetera.

    Reminds me of Steven Levitt’s discussion in Freakonomics about how the supposed ‘experts’ use the cover of their ‘expertise’ to play on the ‘fear’ of people. Same thing has been done here, they just trumpeted the long held, deeply ingrained stereotypes. That’s all.

    (Of course there are some who are extreme but by painting the entire body of practicing Muslims as ‘extreme’ they are only being counter productive).

    And the assertions sound as silly as saying that a white man with blonde hair, blue eyes, a deep southern accent and a love for NASCAR, is ‘most probably’ a white-supermacist, ‘most likely’ prone to ‘violence’. It is unbelieveable.

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  18. muhd ali abdullah

    We are against Islamophobe, and we are also against any kind of Islamic terrorism and extremism. That’s what I called balance.

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  19. Ahmad Abdullah

    Islamophobe and anti-Islamophobe actually are no different to each other.

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