On December 6, 2015, President Obama addressed the American public in the aftermath of the San Bernardino terrorist attack carried out by Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Rizwan Farook that killed 14 and wounded 21.
The President had much to say about what his administration was doing to protect against ISIS attacks, but what I found most important was what he had to say to the Muslim community in America:
“But it is clear that the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West,” was how President Obama characterized the actions of the shooters. The President added later that while all Americans must do a better job of eliminating anti-Muslim rhetoric, Muslim Americans must do more to address extremism in our communities.
To many Muslims like myself, it is clear that extremists prey on the vulnerable void created by identity politics. The radicalized are not all irrational actors with histories of mental illness. Nor, are they one-dimensional fundamentalists. Many are only one generation away from homelands still burning in violence – Somalia, Pakistan, the entire Middle East. They identify as Muslims, as a cultural identity, as a supra-national identity, irrespective of their level of piety or lack thereof. These same young men and women see their fellow Muslims dying every day, but are unaware of the complicated local histories that have created the current maelstrom and Islam’s own complicated history and ideological diversity; yet they crave a greater understanding of their faith – their main identity marker.
This is what Islamist extremists, recruiters, and social media propagandists prey on when they peddle an oversimplified diatribe that the West is against Islam. These same young men and women want to help Muslims they see suffering around the world and many were attracted to ISIS because of its perceived opposition to the Assad regime, under whose watch approximately half the Syrian population has either been killed or fled the country as refugees.
Islamist groups like the British-born and subsequently banned al-Muhajiroun seek to start a political movement based on Islam but grounded in an anti-colonial, anti-western interpretation of events, past and present. A startling number of terror plots in the UK have been attributed to the group. Self-styled peaceful Islamist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, however, espouse the same ideology. To some, they are a “conveyer belt” to jihadism. HT is also allegedly connected to the murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh, and a lone wolf killing at a police station in Australia this past October carried out by a high school student. The group regularly holds pro-Khilafah (Islamic state or caliphate) conferences throughout the United States.
Worse, by conflating religion with politics, legitimate criticism of the latter is smeared as criticism of the former, creating a chilling effect on speech. This allows the unbalanced Muslim victimhood narrative to spread without pushback, even from Muslims.
Yet, Islamist violence continues. While a complete picture of Tashfeen Malik, remains under investigation, her connections to extremism are apparent. Whether she was radicalized as student at al-Huda in Multan, Pakistan, as a visitor to the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, or in a school in Saudi Arabia, Tashfeen became a victim to the same predatory message Islamism spreads without contest. Following the attack in San Bernardino, even some Muslim American organizations, when interviewed by local media, echoed that anti-Western trope by suggesting that the attack was the natural result of western foreign policy.
A true pro-Muslim response to San Bernardino would attempt to reconcile being American and being Muslim as two sides of the same coin, rather than treating this dual identity as a marriage between oil and water. More importantly, a pro-Muslim group would acknowledge the legitimate concerns, fears and anxieties of youth for the world they live in, and stress our duty as a community to create a path for them to channel these negative feelings toward positive non-violent actions for change.
One such movement that was actually born a day after the San Bernardino shootings is the Muslim Reform Movement, in which I participated. A declaration and a press conference followed the gathering. The movement was featured in a segment on Meet the Press. The Muslim Reform Movement hopes to build broader coalitions with a diverse Muslim American body that includes all sects, feminists, and others who acknowledge the complex issues within the faith, but want to remain a part of the community.
More can still be done. The broader American community has a duty to support that re-direction by being more responsible in their analysis of Islamist extremism. Give Islamist sympathizers less media time, and instead support the small grass-roots efforts of Muslims who want to push our communities towards a more peaceful, human rights oriented path.