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Muslim leaders in U.S. facing challenges inside and outside the faith

Soon after two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on April 15, Muslim groups joined others in denouncing the deadly violence.

When the suspects were identified as Muslims, those same groups, along with family members of the two young men and other individuals, further decried the violence as a misrepresentation of Islam.

Their proclamations that Islam preaches peace and protection of the innocent haven't changed the perceptions of many Americans who believe Islam encourages violence.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center, taken just after the Boston Marathon bombing, found that 42 percent of Americans said Islam was more likely than other faiths to encourage violence — nearly the same proportion as 10 years earlier, when 44 percent held the same view.

The poll underscores the challenges Muslims in the United States face both outside and within the faith. Muslim advocacy groups have focused their efforts on countering a non-Muslim campaign of Islamaphobia. But some scholars and followers of Islam say leaders need to turn more attention internally to eradicating a strain of extremism that exploits the faith and undermines their public relations efforts.

"It's nice to have some high-level thing that might make people feel good about Islam, but that can be reversed any given day by two guys with backpacks," said Richard Bulliet, a Columbia University history professor with an expertise in Middle East studies and experience analyzing terrorist recruitment material.

Bulliet is referring to brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who used backpacks to carry the homemade bombs that killed three and injured more than 260 bystanders at the marathon. News accounts have said 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote on the inside of a boat he was hiding in before his capture, "When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims."


Tsarnaev reportedly said he and his brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police three days after the bombing, learned how to make the bombs and were influenced in their views by jihadist websites.

His comments have heightened awareness of so-called "self-radicalization," in which frustrated, angry Muslim youth surfing the Internet can become influenced by militant groups anywhere in the world espousing extremist views and calling for exacting revenge for injustices committed against Muslims.

The men's uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told reporters after his nephews were identified as suspects that their alleged crimes had more to do with Tamerlan's troubles and frustrations with finding his place in America than with religion.

"Anything to do with (blaming) Islam, with religion is a fraud, is a fake," he said.

Bulliet agrees, saying the recruiting videos and material he has examined for law enforcement over the years have few or no religious messages. He described a recruiting video produced by a group in Algeria that depicted a glorified camping trip where young men bonded with each other by singing songs and firing and repairing weapons.

At the end, a split screen showed photos of martyrs alongside videos of those same young men alive and socializing in camp.

Other videos show Palestinian women being roughed up by Israeli soldiers.

"You don’t recruit people by explaining a religious position, that’s taken for granted," Bulliet said. "They are recruiting off feelings of exclusion, being demeaned, underemployed and disrespected. They offer solidarity and meaning to those who don’t expect to have a job their entire life and get them to think they can have meaning just once if they wear a suicide vest."

While the economic outlook for young Muslims is not as bleak in the United States as it is for their peers in other parts of the world, they do experience the sting of discrimination, according to the recent Pew survey.

Of the 1,054 adults polled earlier this month, 45 percent said Muslims face a lot of discrimination and 28 percent said some discrimination — figures higher than for any other group, including gays and lesbians, Hispanics, African Americans and women.

Counter message

Most Muslim advocacy groups and scholars have gone on the defensive in the wake of the bombings with a renewed focus on radicalization, saying extremists and terrorist groups have misappropriated Islam.

One group, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, is going on the offensive within the faith.

"We will put out an alternative message to the other side that has become very loud and are wrapping themselves in the Quran," which is Islam's holy book, said Dr. Maher Hathout, a senior adviser and founder of MPAC. "We are sparing no effort. This is priority number one."

Hathout said MPAC plans to "flood the market" with video, audio and writings that will counter the militant messages Muslim leaders and terrorism experts say are leading to the self-radicalization of vulnerable young adults.

The group is partnering with the New America Foundation to host a briefing on countering violent extremism and online radicalization on May 28 in Washington, D.C. that will be followed sometime this summer with an imam summit in Washington where leaders of local Muslim congregations around the country will discuss the problem of and solutions to radicalization within their communities.

The latest campaign is the second phase of an effort by MPAC to combat radicalization of young Muslims.

MPAC released in 2010 its first videos designed to discredit militant messages promoting violence. A video titled "Injustice Cannot Defeat Injustice" includes brief statements by conservative and liberal imams speaking out against advocates of violence.

"Where are (extremists) successful?" asks Imam Zaid Shakir. "You just see one mess after another ... and it's time for us to start cleaning up those messes and even going beyond that. It's for us to contribute to the construction of something beautiful."

Hathout said the next phase of the campaign will produce additional videos and articles designed to convince young men that Islam and the society in which they live provides more constructive ways to resolve grievances and cope with personal setbacks.

While details of how and when the imam summit will take place haven't been finalized, Hathout described it as a town hall format where participants will discuss the issue of radicalization openly and frankly.

Haris Tarin, who runs MPAC's Washington, D.C. group, said one of the suggestions will be to provide a safe place where young adults can speak their minds without fear of reprisal or being labeled a radical. He explained that law enforcement's strategy of using informants within mosques has had a chilling effect that has either silenced troubled youths or driven them away.

"Law enforcement should handle the criminality and not the ideology," Hathout said. "The ideological battle is ours."

Branding battle

MPAC's counter-information campaign within Islam is happening in tandem with ongoing efforts among Muslim groups around the country to brand the diverse faith to outsiders as one that promotes peace and condemns without exception the killing of innocent people.

The Pew survey shows in March 2002, just six months after the 9/11 attacks, a low of just 25 percent of Americans said Islam was more likely to encourage violence, with 51 percent disagreeing.

"What's happened (since 2002) is the politicalization of this issue and a very strategic campaign by individuals and foundations that promote this narrative that Islam is inherently violent," Tarin said.

The Center for American Progress, a think tank that describes itself as progressive, issued a report in 2011 titled "Fear Inc." that identified seven organizations that contributed more than $42 million to individuals, grassroots groups, media outlets and politicians that the center said fostered Islamaphobia in the United States.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the fact that public opinion is holding steady on whether Islam encourages violence can be viewed as a positive sign, considering concerted efforts to demonize Islam and its followers.

"We work every day to decouple Islam from ... a virtual cottage industry of Islam-bashers and fearmongers devoting their lives to promoting the notion that Islam is forever linked to violence," he said.

CAIR distributes daily statements and news roundups on what they view as attacks against Islam. The latest anti-Islam campaign has been a slew of state laws prohibiting courts from recognizing foreign laws. This year, some 15 state legislatures have either passed or are considering such legislation, which CAIR says targets Islamic law, also called Sharia.

“People see the threat and also know that a bill that simply protects U.S. citizens and residents from constitutionally offensive foreign laws and judgments can only be a good thing,” David Yerushalmi, a Washington-based lawyer who drafted template legislation used for the anti-Sharia and anti-foreign law bills, told Religion News Service.

Global and diverse

Those who fear Islam have material to interpret to their advantage and cast Muslims as the enemy. A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found as many as 40 percent of Muslims in Palestine and Afghanistan justified suicide bombings and other forms of violence, although sizable Muslim majorities in most countries around the world said such violence is never justified. In the United States, fewer than one in 10 Muslims said suicide bombings and violence are ever justified.

Muslim leaders and scholars respond to those data by explaining Islam is diverse and its followers in one area of the world are informed in their theology by different circumstances than those living elsewhere. Indeed, the Pew survey found Muslims in the United States are considerably more moderate in their views than Muslims in most other parts of the world.

Since 1992, an estimated 1.7 million Muslims have immigrated to the United States, a recent Pew survey shows, making up a large portion of the the 2.75 million Muslims in the U.S.

In Utah, Imam Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar said many of the faithful who belong to the Islamic Center of Greater Salt Lake are first-generation immigrants who are working hard to achieve the better life they desired when they left their homelands.

He says it's in larger metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, where Mehtar attended college, that one finds second- and third-generation Muslims who are more vulnerable to radicalization because they have abandoned the core values of their faith for materialism and instant gratification.

"If a person has those core values of honesty, a work ethic and doing what's right, no matter what others think of you, he can read between the lines" of extremist propaganda and know it's not aligned with Islam, Mehtar said. "I am not afraid for the Muslims who have come here from another place. I am more afraid of Muslims born in America."