Audio from the lecture removed by request.
A few weeks ago, I attended the “Curbing Violent Extremism” event hosted by the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Virginia. Zaid Shakir, an Islamic activist and teacher at Zaytuna College spoke alongside Mohamed Magid, the imam of the ADAMS Center and the new President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). I found the discussion invigorating and refreshingly frank. Below is a recap of some of the major points and the Q&A that followed.
Imam Zaid Shakir
Zaid Shakir opened the discussion by recognizing that the issue of violent extremism is “a very complex, sensitive, and emotive topic and one that stirs up a lot of emotions” so he mentioned by way of reminder the hadith in which the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) advised a man three times to not become angry meaning to “not act out of your anger.”
The most “dangerous manifestation” of violent extremism here in the U.S. in Shakir’s view comes from those who seek to gain positions of prominence in the government to advance an agenda that will prove detrimental to Muslims. However, Shakir stated that his primary focus is on how the American Muslim community can “empower or diffuse” the agenda of those who seek to inflict ever greater levels of harm upon innocent Muslims around the world. He posits that the real targets in this climate of increased attention and hostility towards Muslims are not Muslims themselves but rather the “disappearing white middle class.” The fear of Muslims and Islam is conveniently used to distract attention away from the difficult economic climate.
According to Shakir, we should also be concerned with what Muslims do because “we are a people of personal and individual responsibility. We are not a people who play the victim card or blame others for our actions.” Muslims must learn the lessons of history and look internally to remember that “we are the responsible actors for effecting change and not anyone else.”
Shakir then noted that, “we have some Muslims who are just as wedded to violence as this cabal of neo-cons, extreme Zionists, and [some] Christian fundamentalists in this country.” However, there is a significant difference between the two groups as the latter group has access to the instruments of mass destruction while the Muslims do not. Shakir then noted the example of General Ken Waller during the first Gulf War who responded to Saddam Hussein’s boast to “fight the Americans until the last Iraqi” by saying that “we’ll grant them their every dying wish.”
Imam Zaid counseled the audience to not be so naïve as to think that the claims of those including candidates for public office who say we need to wipe Islam off the face of the earth or bomb Mecca or intern Muslims are so far-fetched if the political reality changes, for “what human beings have done, humans can do” and the examples from history are numerous. In the face of such a concerted effort, the Muslims promoting a violent ideology would not be able to effective counter measures.
Shakir answered critics who say that the violent extremists are only following a literal reading of the Quran with the verse, “Allah does not forbid you concerning a people that have not fought you over your religion nor expelled you from your homes that you have amicable and just relations with them and Allah loves those who are just.” Some may respond by saying that “the Americans are driving people out of their homes” but Shakir countered this by saying “most Americans I know haven’t driven anyone out of their homes.” Rather, he advised Muslims, especially frustrated and angry young Muslims that want to do something to join forces with those Americans like Michael Ratner and Chris Hedges that have dedicated their careers to shutdown the Guantanamo Bay prison and oppose the invasion of Iraq.
“Michael Ratner has dedicated the last 8 years of his career with others in trying to shutdown Guantanamo Bay. What have you done to help him in this effort, did you go to law school or learn about the political mechanisms of this country and add your voice, organize your community, educate your neighbors, use the media…Where were you when Chris Hedges and Veterans for Peace chained themselves to the White House fence and were arrested while trying to draw attention to those veterans protesting the war? Had Shakir, a military veteran been here, he says he would have a joined them.
Out of frustration, Shakir said that some Muslims claim “the only thing they can do is to blow something up and kill their neighbors who never did anything to them” all the while strengthening the forces that are salivating to go to war against Muslims. He then reminded the audience of the hadith where the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “Don’t any one of you insult your father.” The companions replied, “How could any of us insult our father?” To which, the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “You insult another man’s father and in return he insults your father, you’re the cause of your father being insulted.” Similarly, “if you were to go and blow up a bunch of people and these people become filled with rage, vengeance and retaliation and they kill thousands of times the number of people you killed, do you think that none of that blood would be on your hands?” Shakir probed the audience, “There are millions of able-bodied Muslim men that can bear arms and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, why do they need an American to go over there to pick up an AK-47? Is that why Allah put all of these Muslims here in America? Allah has given us so many opportunities here, access to education, the ability to organize and mobilize politically, to critique and stand against our government and its vicious war machine.”
Shakir closed his opening remarks with a final reminder, cautioning Muslims not to be used as unwitting “pawns” in a geo-political game and exhorting Muslims to stand up for justice and to recognize that if the community does stand up, that many other Americans will also stand with them.
Imam Mohamed Magid
Imam Magid opened his remarks by acknowledging the unfortunate reality that despite the many condemnations of terrorism by Muslims, the wider American public will still say that they have not heard this message from the Muslim community. Violent extremism, in Magid’s view has three components – ideological, political, and social.
Ideologically, verses and hadith are taken out of context. Politically, many Muslims do not believe they have an effective platform or may be afraid to speak about foreign policy grievances for fear of being labeled a “terrorist sympathizer.” Zaid Shakir offered that “if you are against American foreign policy, its brutality and its excesses and you are called a sympathizer, then you should know that is nothing new in American history…you should understand that you are part of a proud tradition” of groups that were labeled for standing up for what’s right. And socially, Muslims may become frustrated and angry by the public attacks on Islam and/or by the personal bullying they have experienced for being identifiably Muslim, the last two factors, which Magid believes if taken together may lead to “social isolation.”
In Magid’s view, the Muslim community must respond by engaging in various means of dialogue to deconstruct the arguments used to justify violent extremism. Imam Magid advised the audience that “no Muslim should be intimidated, scared, or afraid to engage in political discourse or to stand up and say that I disagree with the American government on a specific issue because you have the right to free speech.” Commenting on the fears some Muslims have expressed about having their phones tapped or receiving undue scrutiny, Magid responded by saying, “even if that is the case, we have to fight the fight of civil rights and civil liberties as that’s how each people gain respect in this country.”
He also emphasized that “on a political issue if you disagree, you have to use a political platform to make that disagreement known. Trying to take up arms in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq does not solve the real underlying issues.” In addition, Magid believes there is a need for Muslims to work to combat the negative portrayals of Muslims in the media and to offer young people an opportunity to learn “authentic and true Islam” to minimize the reliance on sometimes dubious internet sources.
Questions and Answers
For more thorough responses, listen to the mp3 audio. Zaid Shakir has written an extensive set of responses to questions received after the publication of his Letter to a Would-Be Mujahid article, which can be found here: Answers to “Would-Be Mujahids.”
1. What is violent extremism? Why is that we seem to be adopting the language the corporate media assigns to people struggling for self-determination in their own countries?
Zaid Shakir: Anyone whose land is invaded and occupied has a right to defend their land, their people, their honor, their resources and that right is universal. But we are not talking about that, no one is labeling those defending their land as violent extremists. But people who put bombs in marketplaces, masjids, and now churches or those who would blow up innocent people in some part of this country that’s not doing anything to liberate anybody’s lands. That’s just in many instances frustration…
Our Islamic terminology is being hijacked by Muslims and others. An example of a real mujahid is Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri he fought the French valiantly but when he saw there no maslaha (religiously counted interest) that could be advanced by continuing to fight, he surrendered. He was eventually exiled to Damascus and during a pogrom of Christians initiated by some Druze, he put his armor and weapons back on and gathered his men to defend the Christians. He said, “Anyone who wishes to harm these Christians because they are weak while our Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) has promised them protection will have to fight me.” Now, that is a mujahid. The town of Elkader in Iowa was named after him.
We are an honorable people and do not murder women and children. According to Ibn Hazm, one the ijma’at (issues of consensus) that the entire ummah has agreed upon is that the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) forbade the killing of women and children.
What about those who say if they kill Muslim women and children that we can kill their women and children as well?
Zaid Shakir: Ijma and Muslim history argues against these claims. Imam Malik in his al-Mudawanna mentioned that if you are confronted on the battlefield by a woman with a weapon that you should try to run around her and go the other way because the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) forbade killing women and it is from him (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) that we derive our principles.
Should Muslims accept employment with U.S. federal government and defense contractors that may target Muslims?
Zaid Shakir: Everyone has to use their independent conscience. There are primarily two arguments, we need conscientious Muslims in these agencies trying to bring an Islamic perspective to the policy and analysis so there will be something to check these agencies from running totally roughshod over the Muslim community. The other argument is that these agencies are infiltrating the Muslims and clearly displaying enmity towards Islam and the Muslim community so we should have nothing to do with them. A person must be mature and weigh both sides of the argument. If they feel they can make a difference they should try and if they feel they can’t make a difference then they should quit. Ibn Taymiyyah in one of his fatwa said, “If you are a Muslim in a minority land where you can do something to check the evil of evildoers against the Muslims then you are obliged to make that effort.” But the decision should be made on your conscience and we shouldn’t say nay or yea. Remember the hadith, “Righteousness is good character and sin is what causes you agitation in your soul and you wouldn’t want people to know about it.”
Zaid Shakir: The target is not the Muslims but rather those who see the headlines right at Christmas time. I didn’t elaborate on entrapment because entrapment is clear and well-known. My concern is not the FBI as it takes two to tango. If someone comes to you and says let’s put a bomb out here to blow up innocent people, even if you don’t intend to do anything, what’s going on in your heart and mind to even make you vulnerable to such suggestions? Muslims should not vulnerable to a scheme that’s going to kill innocent people. No ifs, and, or buts…we need to be crystal clear on this that none of us will be involved in any scheme that leads to the deaths of innocent people and which makes it easier to kill innocent Muslims all over this world. This is why I am emphasizing what we have to do.
Feeling guilty about events overseas?
Zaid Shakir: Brothers and sisters, you should not be feeling guilty because Palestine is occupied, Gaza was bombed, and Kashmir hasn’t been liberated, yet. There are one hundred million Muslims surrounding Jerusalem, if they haven’t taken it upon themselves to liberate Jerusalem, what are you guilty of? Allah has put you in a position to educate people and let them know about the injustices that are going on, not to get all worked up and feel guilty about something millions of Muslims haven’t done. You don’t have to do anything but be a responsible Muslim, educate your fellow citizens about what is going on in the world and add your voice to a discourse where our voices are missing.
Zaid Shakir: We have a responsibility for the safety and security of everyone we share this land with. And if we know of anyone who is working to undermine the safety and security of the people we share this land with, Muslim or otherwise, we have a responsibility to stop that person. There’s a hadith, “If you see something wrong change it with your hand. If you can’t, then with your tongue, and if you can’t even do that then hate it in your heart and that is the lowest level of faith.” We have to assume the moral agency and the peripheral details vary on a case by case basis. What’s important is to understand the principle that we must protect innocent people from harm.
Should we be more open in taking a stand against Muslim leaders who take a more radical message?
Zaid Shakir: If anyone is distorting the religion especially in a way that has grave consequences for Muslims then that person should be called out for whatever they are advocating…
Preaching to the already converted, what other effective means of communication can we use?
Imam Magid: It begins here first with open and honest discourse without fear that someone is listening in, which will lead to healthy discussions that address the issues. Even if we use all of the means at our disposal we will never be able to control every single outcome. We need to do whatever we can within our own circles of influence and to emphasize the meta-narrative that represents real Islam and minimize the impact of the alternative narrative of those who seek to justify a violent ideology. We need to discuss issues of foreign policy and issues of concern to Muslims by creating an open platform here and in virtual space.
Zaid Shakir: Never underestimate the power of Allah (ta ala) to convey your words, Ibrahim (alayhi salam) was asked, “Proclaim the pilgrimage amongst the people” He said, my voice can’t reach them all. Allah instructed him to make the call and Allah would make the call reach everyone. So the mountains humbled low and his voice spread to all corners of the earth. With the tawfiq (blessing) of Allah (subhanahu wa ta ala), the internet, and word of mouth you never know where your words will spread.
Some signs that one may go down the path of violent radicalism?
Zaid Shakir: Keep ears and communication open, some signs may include withdrawal from the mainstream of the community because they condemn them as sell-outs and punks. Beginning to espouse dangerous ideas and this requires engagement with them. Another sign is disengagement from non-Muslim friends.
Imam Magid: Vulnerability to extremism is not solely a Muslim phenomenon, there are also criminal gangs. When a person becomes isolated or part of a clique they often begin to become secretive, which is a red flag. We have to be able to answer the hard questions and provide a corrective understanding of mistaken interpretations of the Quran to counteract those ideological views. We need to do prevention instead of intervention. We need to engage young people in productive activities. For example, we should have a Muslim Peace Corps so if there is something happening overseas that Muslims here want to contribute to then they can go overseas and help build schools and communities. Bullying in schools and in the media also leads to social isolation and a vulnerability that can be exploited by violent extremist recruiters.
Muslim mainstream has developed an aversion to speaking about foreign policy while more radical voices utilize foreign policy to draw in willing listeners.
Zaid Shakir: If we have any concern for the future viability of this country then we have to speak out…
What can we do?
Zaid Shakir: We need a healthy diverse civic life, if some people wish to engage in civil disobedience that is their right and we should respect that. If some people want to work within the context of a political party to try to advance their interests or do something positive for the Muslims then that’s their right or if some people want to write that is their right. We are a part of a diverse civic community and we don’t all have to march lock-step in one direction to protest or to build and create power to bring our voices to bear in an effective way. We should not forfeit our right to disagree and to civil disobedience. We shouldn’t say those who work in the mainstream are sell-outs as their niyyah (intention) may be greater than our niyyah. And we shouldn’t say that those protesting in the streets are not going to change anything. Every meaningful change in American history started in the streets. It was the people in the street protesting against slavery and the denial of women’s suffrage that led to emancipation and universal women’s suffrage. It was the people in the streets with Dr. King that led to the civil rights advances that occurred in this country. Politicians understand that. Everyone has a role to play and needs to find that venue and go for it.
Dar al-Harb/Dar al-Islam/Dar al-Ahd?
Zaid Shakir: There is no standard definition for dar al-harb and dar al-Islam, scholars have differed. None of them describe the situation we are in now where Muslims have universal equal citizenship that’s protected by the law. If there are abuses we have legal recourse within the modern nation-state. For these political realities, dar al-Islam/dar al-harb thinking has absolutely no relevance.
Imam Magid: A land where you sign a treaty with a people is considered dar al-ahd, which according to one scholar is any place you are able to live and able to practice your Islam. This land then becomes your land and you have to protect it even if you are a minority.