Sandwiched as they are between Muslim radicals and American Islamophobes, Muslims face trying times. But like American ideals, Islam teaches hope, not despair.
The packed audience of Muslims and non-Muslims in a Bellevue seminar organized by the Muslim nonprofit organization Pacifica Institute conference on Dec. 15 offered the hope I was looking for.
The occasion was a panel on the causes of Islamic extremism, and remedies for it. I moderated the panel that featured two leaders in the Muslim community: Jawad Khaki, a philanthropist and former corporate vice president at Microsoft, and Jihad Turk, a Southern California community leader and president of Bayan Claremont, a graduate school that educates Muslim scholars and leaders.
The panel members called Islamic extremism a cancer. Some blamed Islam itself, and indeed it is difficult to deny that intolerant interpretations of Islam create a toxic environment in which radicalism takes root. Others attribute it to the Middle East’s corrupt leaders, imperial meddling into region or even climate change.
Once isolated in a small part of the Muslim world, Islamic radicalism today spreads through social media to every Muslim home. An estimated 90,000 tweet crowds related to Islamic State twitter everyday. An astonishing 25,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS ranks since the group emerged.
Some may take comfort in the fact that only a couple hundred have been Americans. Yet even one terrorist is too many when considering that only 19 individuals killed more than 3,000 people on 9/11.
Social outcasts are at greater risk for self-radicalization or terrorist recruitment. Messages of hate and terrorist cyber operatives appeal to the psychological needs of the marginalized by offering them a sense of meaning, belonging, and community.
Religious feelings and political grievances become terrorists’ talking points. To prevent at-risk youth from falling prey to messages of hate, our community centers and mosques should welcome and engage all youth.
Often missed in the noise is that Muslim leaders and organizations routinely condemn terrorism. Yet Muslims should do more to combat violent extremism as called by President Barack Obama in his presidential address Dec. 6. Here are some strategies.
▪ Embrace the community: Shoulder-to-shoulder community work is more powerful than talking to talk. By engaging more with organizations such as Associated Ministries to combat homelessness and poverty in Pierce County or Earth Ministry to fight for a clean environment, Muslims could show they commit to the safety, security and well-being of the communities where they live. Those who serve their communities feel a stronger sense of belonging.
▪ Fight all forms of hate: Hating one group is hating all. Combating the extremism of groups such as Islamic State will not be effective if we do not combat the anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, racism and anti-Shia hate espoused by some members of our community.
▪ Dispel evil with goodness: We cannot combat an evil ideology by just telling how evil or un-Islamic it is. We need to step up to show how Islam teaches the values of tolerance, respect, pluralism and human dignity and how Muslims have practiced these principles for centuries. Light is stronger than darkness.
▪ Non-Muslims have a key role to play: Even though the Muslim community has a responsibility to combat extremism, fellow non-Muslim Americans’ words and deeds can help or hinder this fight. Stereotyping or demonizing Muslims will empower the radicals who campaign on the basis of the incompatibility of American and Islamic values. Reaching out to Muslims will strengthen moderates who envision an American Islam.
At the Dec. 15 panel, Muslims stepped up to the plate and called extremism a cancer. That’s a powerful analogy. Cancer is lethal, and it’s killing my religion. Several non-Muslims in the audience told me that they were there to learn but also to show solidarity with Muslims.
“We’re in this boat together,” one said.
That gave me hope for America, American Muslims and the future of Islam.
Turan Kayaoglu is an associate professor at the University of Washington Tacoma. He, his wife and their two kids live in Puyallup.