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How To Spot A Future Terrorist At Fajr: A Review of MPAC’s New “Safe Spaces”

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The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) recently updated its “Safe Spaces” program, which is a “toolkit” for Mosques in the United States to help prevent terrorism coming from their centers. In our political environment, this is the kind of thing at least some Muslim leaders will want to explore.  This is unfortunate.

A necessary disclaimer:  It is admirable for leaders of Islamic institutions to educate both the Muslim community and the larger community and to have programs that encourage peace, justice as well as ethical and moral conduct.  It is also necessary for our community and for us individually to strive for excellence in what we do.  This review is not meant to take anything away from these objectives but hopefully, add to them.

Muslims self-police. Indeed it is fundamental to our tradition to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. There is a process of what might be called self-policing in theology, in religious practice and deeds. In mosques, responsible leaders will not let just anyone give a Khutbah. Sometimes, the reasons may have to do with majoritarian sensitivities in the United States or in the local community. There is nothing inherently wrong with this.   Politically, in both Muslim-majority and minority countries, self-policing can either take the trait of supporting the oppressor or the oppressed.  Both traditions have existed simultaneously.

Safe Spaces as a self-policing framework was not as well received in the Muslim community primarily because it was closely associated with the widely rejected “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) program- indeed, MPAC called the program that. It was praised by the White House and was cited in the official Los Angeles framework for CVE.   In MPAC’s home base of Southern California, the leadership of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California overwhelmingly rejected the program (as well as CVE itself).

At the core of “Safe Spaces” was the creation of a new bad ideology to replace the  discredited “radicalization theory” from the New York Police Department that was popular in anti-terrorism circles. This new bad ideology can be called “Takfirism theory”- a concept that had almost nothing to do with Takfir (calling a Muslim a non-Muslim). It relied on factors such as a person’s desire for “coolness” or a desire to “act in the face of injustice” to assess a person’s likelihood of being a future terrorist.   The original Safe Spaces also accused well-known Islamic Scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah of being “Takfiris,” and the source of this bad ideology.

Margari Hill was the first to write critically about the original Safe Spaces and its security framework at the Islamic Monthly.  I had written about MPAC’s approach to CVE in both in Patheos and here at Muslimmatters in a post about how MPAC was using false information to discourage civic literacy among Muslim communities.

The major criticism was MPAC’s approach to CVE was to accept the premise of dangerousness of Muslims based on vague factors that made no sense. The other criticism had to do with conflicts of interest and the realization the product was not, as MPAC had claimed, “grassroots” in its origins. Most people interviewed for Safe Spaces that we know about were either in the employment of or obtained funding through the government of the United States, Israel or both.   Islamic Studies information, such as derogatory information on  Islamic Scholars, was obtained from the U.S. Military, while a scholar from an AIPAC founded think tank was cited as a “primary source” on what was Islamic extremism. While a couple of Muslims knowledgeable about Islamic Studies were interviewed for other purposes, they were not the source for the defamation of Islamic scholars.

In response to justifiable widespread rejection, MPAC recently released a new version of the document.  This is to fulfill the need of some Muslim leaders to show the government and media they are “doing something.”  The basic idea is that if Muslims do this themselves, the government and media will stop applying pressure on our community and we can reduce anti-Muslim hate.

The premise that Mosque leaders have the ability to identify future criminality in their own community is troublesome. In 2014, MPAC  provided the vague “risk factors” I noted above that would be utilized by leaders to do exactly this. MPAC removed the list form of their “risk factors.”   MPAC did not provide new risk factors, at least not in list form.  However, the same risk factors as before can be obtained from the report, including a desire to be cool, troubles at home and other, fairly normal things for youth.  Even if it was true that community leaders had the capacity to divine future terrorism from a Muslim (they cannot), Safe Spaces fails to answer the question: how?

Alejandro Beutel, the original author of the failed original Safe Spaces, later Department of Homeland Security contractor and recent participant in a Muslim Leadership Initiative cohort to Israel, is no longer part of the project.   However, the 2016 version, which is deliberately not credited to any author, represents largely a mass-deletion of the 2014 document with minimal additional content.  One section on ejection of problem community members was removed, and there was clearly a concerted effort to remove the discredited “takfirism theory,” though traces of it remain.

The foundation of the Safe Spaces program as it stands in 2016 is the PI model, which is Prevention and Intervention. Prevention consists of programs for Mosques, and MPAC offers examples of it’s own contributions in this area. Religious literacy and building community are good things. This is not a new realization.   Indeed, it is well known that many ISIS recruits are not especially religious or have much religious knowledge. However, leaders do not generally conduct programming at Mosques with a view towards terrorism prevention.   Places of worship are not extensions of the national security state.

Intervention in the Safe Spaces model is elaborate in form but lacking in substance. Safe Spaces proposes a team consisting of Mosque leaders, a lawyer, a social worker and so forth. This team would conduct an “intervention” when someone is “at-risk.” Unfortunately, the term “at-risk” is not defined but it does not mean someone just about to commit a crime since this would be reported to law enforcement. Furthermore, success is attained when a person is “disengaged” from committing violence. However, an intervention does not require a person be engaged to commit violence in the first place.  Safe Spaces appropriately advises people about to commit an act of violence should be reported to law enforcement.  Disengagement is easy when you were never engaged in the first place.  So the model is fundamentally incoherent.

The United States has long had “at-risk” youth in all faith communities. Being at-risk does not necessarily mean a young person will be a national security threat.  Rather, it means the individual may not be successful in contributing to society unless we as a community help them. There are professions of people who help at-risk youth, such as social workers and teachers. They usually manage to do their work without seeing troubled young people as future terrorists. Ideally, they see promise and opportunity. They work to help develop that. Perhaps Muslims can do the same with each other.

The National Security frame that MPAC uses may garner praise from government agencies, the White House, anti-terrorism contractors and even provide future employment and funding for people associated with MPAC (this venture has already done that). It does nothing however for the Muslim community, nor does it make America safer.

MPAC would have been better served by eliminating Safe Spaces completely. They may have kept some version of it as some Muslim leaders believe the grim politics of our day requires the existence of such a product. Unfortunately, MPAC worked with the wrong people with the wrong frame of Muslims being a national security problem.  Now they have an incoherent jumble that accomplishes nothing beyond an empty promise to an unreasonably frightened Middle America that “we are doing something.” They are not.  I doubt many will be fooled.

 

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Ahmed Shaikh is a Southern California Attorney. He writes about inheritance, nonprofits and other legal issues affecting Muslims in the United States. He is the co-author of "Estate Planning for the Muslim Client," published by the American Bar Association. His Islamic Inheritance website is www.islamicinheritance.com

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    M.Mahmud

    March 3, 2016 at 5:16 PM

    MPAC has been ridiculous for a while. I remember reading rubbish about Islamic law on their website and deciding to disavow their organization years ago.

  2. Avatar

    M. Banville

    March 18, 2016 at 10:51 PM

    I suggest this piece might be better titled. Something like “How Not to Spot a Terrorist at Fajr:…” with italicized emphasis on “not”. Perhaps also a bit of editing so as to make it a bit more readable. I nearly stopped reading it less than a third of the way in due to the difficult writing. Ultimately, I am glad that I read it and am glad that the author took the effort to write it.

  3. Avatar

    Manzer

    March 21, 2016 at 8:54 PM

    I admire many of MPAC programs but the idea that the Masjid leadership can somehow identify future terrorists is so ridiculous that it should have been rejected outright. Promoting the idea that the mosques can somehow counter terrorism, even if just for the sake of showing that the mosques are doing something, is counterproductive. It may get short-term notoriety or government funding but it will not have any real long term effect. At the end of the day the funding agencies will ask the mosque committees to show concrete result which they won’t be able to show. Has any of the terrorist ever discuss his or her plans with mosque committees?

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Politics

Imam Omar Suleiman Calls for Unity at Bernie Sanders Rally

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Imam Omar Suleiman made a special appearance at a Texas rally for the supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. In his speech this February 16th, Imam Omar Suleiman called for “[a]n America of safety, dignity, love and unity. An America where we uplift our most vulnerable, celebrate our diversity, and unlock our collective genius.”

The video of the full speech may be viewed on his official Facebook page.

When asked whether his presence at the Sanders Rally served as an official endorsement of Sanders by Iman Omar Suleiman, he responded on Instagram, “Not an endorsement just yet, but genuine appreciation for his time, listening, and authentically engaging the community.”

Although Imam Omar Suleiman has not endorsed any specific candidate, he has previously stated,

“I don’t believe in uncritically adopting a platform, or letting a party take advantage of our vulnerability. We need to challenge Democrats just as strongly as we do Republicans, while remaining independent and principled. We have a right to an agenda like any other community. Politicians should have to work for our vote, and we shouldn’t shy away from where we differ with candidates even when we vote for them.

You can read my article on voting here in which I lay out those principles.”

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Civil Rights

Podcast: Muhammad Ali, Superhuman and Super Human | Amaar Abdul-Nasir

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Why is Muhammad Ali the only one known around the globe simply as “The Greatest”?Click To Tweet

It is in part because Ali wasn’t just a boxing superstar. Rather, he played a large role in creating what the definition of a boxing superstar has become. And he wasn’t just a social activist; he was a cultural trail blazer.

In that respect, Ali holds a place on the most exclusive of sports lists: His name sits next to Jackie Robinson as athletes and historical figures whose impact on sports and society leaves them without peer.

From putting America on blast for its racism and hypocrisy when it was still very dangerous for a Black man to do so, to taking a loud and very public stance against the Vietnam War when it was dangerous for any American to do so, to in later years lending his resources to a variety of social and political causes, Ali’s strength and compassion shined even when his body couldn’t always keep up.

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#Current Affairs

Coronavirus And The Impetus To Close The Chinese-Run Concentration Camps

My Appeal to the International Community to Save the Lives of 3+ Million Uyghurs in China’s Concentration Camps

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According to Dr. Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher based in Germany who has testified on several occasions on Capitol Hill, the concentration camps in East Turkestan number up to 1,400 (8 Nov 2019, [1]). It has been estimated that the number of the Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic minorities being held in those concentration camps can add up to more than 3 million.

On February 5th, 2020, when the official Chinese government’s media were reporting that coronavirus death toll on mainland China was 600 – 700 [2], Tencent briefly listed 154,023 infections and 24,589 deaths from Wuhan coronavirus [3]. That is, the actual death toll is about 40 times higher than what the Chinese government reported. East Turkestan (known as Xinjiang) is far from the epicenter of the outbreak and just 55 cases have been reported in the region so far [4]. We can easily believe that the actual number of the people who fell victim to coronavirus in East Turkestan is tens of times more than the above figure.

Among those who died in Wuhan, 61% died in their homes. Currently, almost all the Uyghur population in East Turkestan is locked up in their homes. 

The situation of the 3+ million Uyghur concentration camp detainees is worse by several degrees. Keeping 3+ million Uyghur alive detainees is a complex, expensive and extremely difficult project. Are the 3+ million detainees still alive? Are they still being fed? How and from where? 

There is a real reason to fear a rapid spread of coronavirus in the controversial Chinese camps. “The virus spreads from person to person through droplets disseminated by sneezing or coughing, and confining large groups of people together, possibly without adequate access to germ-killing soap and water, will increase the likelihood of an outbreak.” [4] 

I have started to panic. Most Uyghurs in the United States have families there, and they are dealing with the camps and the virus, and we do not know if they have enough to eat, have masks and enough heat to survive.

“If the international community fails to pressure China to take adequate actions to prevent outbreaks in the region, the nature of its mass network of concentration and forced labor camps will add an entirely new dimension to China’s ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs.” [5]

“Uyghurs in the diaspora fear if the virus isn’t already in the camps, when it does reach them, the consequences will be catastrophic, leading to mass outbreaks and high mortalities very quickly given reports of overcrowding, starvation, forced labor, sexual abuse and torture in the camps. As China has largely ignored the issue of the virus spreading in the region and its crimes against humanity in the region are ongoing, it’s unlikely the Chinese government will allocate resources to address the issue.” [5]

I call for:

  1. UN to send a delegation to the region to find out if the concentration camp detainees are being provided with enough food and heat to survive.
  2. WHO to send a delegation to the region to evaluate the spread of the virus, assess the risks in the camps and take all measures necessary to prevent mass outbreaks and deaths. 
  3. WHO, the UN, international human rights groups, national governments and the rest of the international community to pressure China to close the camps and release the millions detained immediately as part of the global response to the coronavirus outbreak.
  4. Global health and humanitarian organizations to send medical supplies and teams to screen, diagnose and treat affected individuals in the Uyghur region including those in China’s concentration camps. (Items 2 – 4 are almost identical to those in [5])

[1] https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/detainees-11232019223242.html

[2]https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/cloneofcloneofchina-coronavirus-outbreak-latest–200207231158175.html

[3]https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3871594?fbclid=IwAR1k3x27tW2jNmmQzbaNOWtciIwlP3z70GWvj2XcRhestwB6T6l16pSqL18

[4] https://www.france24.com/en/20200212-exiled-uighurs-fear-spread-of-coronavirus-in-china-camps

[5]https://www.change.org/p/demand-china-release-3-million-uyghurs-before-coronavirus-outbreaks-in-concentration-camps?utm_content=cl_sharecopy_20183581_en-CA%3Av2&recruiter=53261213&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition

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