More Muslim Groups Voice Willingness To Combat Extremism In Their Faith

Feb 20, 2015
Originally published on February 20, 2015 8:10 am

The reluctance of President Obama and others to link Middle East terrorism explicitly to Islam at this week's "Countering Violent Extremism" summit exposed them to withering criticism, and not entirely from conservatives. Some Muslim reformers who have been struggling to combat radicalism in their mosques and communities have been willing to talk about the extremist ideologies they encounter.

"I think it's very important to be clear about this message, and to name it," says Zainab Al-Suwaij, the executive director of the American Islamic Congress. "When we talk about radical Islam, it does exist, and I don't need to be diplomatic [about it]. I think the message should be loud and clear, and this is not going to harm anyone.

"We are Muslims, we're feeling it — we're the first victims of it. I want the whole world to hear about it."

Many other Muslim leaders, however, push back against any portrayal of the terrorism problem that suggests any ties to Islam.

Even though the Obama administration chose words carefully in describing the White House summit, several Muslim American organizations declined to attend, saying they objected to its nearly exclusive focus on Muslim communities; such an approach, they said in a joint statement, "sets American Muslim communities apart as inherently suspect."

A tweet during the conference by Iyad Ameen Madani, secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, even stirred some controversy.

"One of the most important challenges we face is from within," Madani said. "The [Islamic] faith is being hijacked by extremists."

The comment brought a retort from Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the organizations that declined to participate in the summit.

"I don't think the faith is hijacked," Awad said. "The grievances have been hijacked, but not the faith itself. No one can hijack my faith — people can misinterpret it, but they cannot hijack it."

Such varying perspectives highlight a debate taking place within Muslim circles in the United States on whether any ideological reformation is needed in Islam. For Zainab Al-Suwaij, the problems began after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Muslims in America came under fierce scrutiny.

"The message was very defensive — 'stop profiling us' — but no one was really looking into the extremism, the ideology that has been spread in our community, directly or indirectly," she said. "They don't tell you to go kill someone or explode this or that, but there are always these embedded messages about the West, how everyone is out to get Islam. There is always that background. And people start reacting to this, because they feel they've been discriminated [against]. They feel they are victimized, so they need to take revenge."

One Muslim leader who says he has confronted such attitudes is Mohamed Magid, chief imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Northern Virginia.

"If a young man walks into my mosque and has an ideology about Islam that is distorted, my responsibility as an imam, I try to correct his idea," Magid says. "If I find him to be a person who might pose a danger to my community by trying to recruit others, then I have to exclude him from the community. ... And we have to report him — if you have an idea to commit harm to America, we will report him to the authorities."

The debatable question is what such dangerous ideology should be called.

"There's no such thing as radical Islam," Awad said. "There's no violent extremist ideology within Islam. Islam is one. Some people become extremists, but it's not because of the religion — it's because of themselves as individuals. I think people get entangled in terminology when, in fact, we are dealing with criminality. Criminals are criminals."

One problem for Muslim leaders is that the most violent terrorists in the world today have named their organization the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).

"We wish that the name Islam was not associated with this phenomenon, we would just say that there is terrorism," says Sayyid Syeed, interfaith and community alliances director of the Islamic Society of North America. "But since they are deliberately using the Quran, misquoting the Quran, going to the [Islamic] traditions, we will have to say something."

Asked what he and other Muslims can call the group, Syeed laughs.

"Daesh!" he says. The word in Arabic stands for "ISIL" — but because it is only an acronym, it lets Muslims avoid saying the group is Islamic.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One phrase we have not heard from the president this week is Islamist terrorism. He says associating Islam with terrorists gives them religious legitimacy they don't deserve. The trouble is this week's conference focused almost entirely on groups around the world who say they fight in the name of Islam. And even some Muslims say it may be time to speak bluntly about the links between Islam and terror. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In the weeks leading up to the summit, administration officials struggled to say what exactly the conference was about. Here's White House spokesman Josh Earnest speaking last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: You know, violent extremism that's - in which individuals invoke the name of Islam, otherwise - an otherwise peaceful religion...

GJELTEN: Muslim leaders appreciated the administration's effort to avoid saying ISIS or al-Qaida are Islamic. Suggesting that Muslims are somehow the problem makes it easier to target Muslim communities. They also emphasized, as does the administration, that Islamic teachings do not support terrorism. But the most prominent terrorist groups are led by Muslims who say they're fighting for Islam. That's a problem, says Sayyid Syeed, of the Islamic Society of North America.

SAYYID SYEED: We wish that the name Islam was not associated with this phenomenon. We would just say that there is terrorism. But since they are deliberately using the Quran, misquoting the Quran, going through the traditions, we will have to say something, yeah.

GJELTEN: And what do you say?

SYEED: Well, (laughter)... Daesh. (Laughter).

GJELTEN: He laughs because Daesh actually stands for Islamic State in Arabic. In fact, some Muslims are entirely willing to talk about the problem of radicalism in their community. Here's Zainab Al-Suwaij, an Iraqi-American and executive director of the American Islamic Congress.

ZAINAB AL-SUWAIJ: I think it's very important to be clear about this message and to name it. When we talk about radical Islam, it does exist. And I don't need to be diplomatic. I think the message should be loud and clear. And this is not going to harm anyone. We are Muslims. We are feeling it. We're the first victims of it. I want the whole world to hear about it.

GJELTEN: That's the voice of someone who supports a reformation movement within Islam. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, on the other hand, disagrees with those who say ISIS and other terrorists have hijacked Islam. People can misinterpret my faith, he says, but they cannot hijack it. ISIS leaders, Awad says, misinterpret Islam when they cite teachings from another era, like the seventh century.

NIHAD AWAD: That's the problem with these people. They want to impose the past on the present and on the future when, in fact, people have to look at the spirit and the wisdom of the text so that we apply it in a modern, sophisticated, logical way.

GJELTEN: Among the toughest questions debated in Muslim communities right now is what to do about extremists who stop just short of advocating violence. Mohamed Magid, chief imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Northern Virginia, was a guest at this week's summit. He contrasts the way he deals with a young man who's ready to go fight from one who just has an extreme idea.

MOHAMED MAGID: My responsibility as an imam, I try to correct his idea. If I find him to be a person who might pose danger to my community by trying to recruit others, then I have to exclude him from the community.

GJELTEN: And you do that? Have you done that?

MAGID: Of course. And we have to report him. If he have an idea that commit harm to America, we'll report him to the authority.

GJELTEN: There is one idea that unites the Muslims who participated in this week's summit and those who didn't come because they felt it unfairly singled Muslims out. If extremism in the Muslim world is to be addressed, they say, it'll have to be done by Muslims themselves, not by the U.S. government or any government, for that matter. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.