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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Monday, March 7, 2011

Congressional Hearing on Muslim Radicalization Poses Challenges

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Pete King will convene a hearing to explore why a small but growing number of American Muslims are turning to violent extremism, often in the form of terrorism on U.S. soil.

There's no question that this is an important issue, if not a new one. American Muslims have been taking up the banner of military jihad for more than 30 years, since two Americans took part in a terrorist attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Since then uncounted numbers of Americans have fought or terrorized in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, Yemen and on U.S. soil. They are literally uncounted -- until September 11, no one in the U.S. government kept track of them in an organized way.

I documented scores of cases for my book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam, and glimpsed many more that I could not document. Even using the most aggressive estimate, the number of Americans who have ever taken up arms in the name of Islam is certainly far less than one half of 1 percent of the total American Muslim population.

But because of the gravity of their acts, this small group has had a disproportionately large impact on American views of Islam. U.S. citizens aided in the first World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 East African embassy bombings and September 11, among many others.

With a caveat for inadequate data, it's pretty clear that the number of Americans attracted to violent Islamic extremism has risen meaningfully over the past few years. But that increase is likely less than most people think. During the 1980s and 1990s, substantial numbers of Americans took part in acts of military jihad; many more were involved in such causes financially and rhetorically.

American involvement in jihadist movements was once considered too sensitive for the FBI to investigate, due to concerns over religious freedom. But since September 11, the gloves are off and anything involving military jihad is considered a high-priority threat to homeland security. Activities that were once ignored are now studied by government officials, academics and the press.

So while today's extremists are likely more numerous on a linear basis, they are exponentially more visible, thanks to heightened scrutiny from the government and jihadists' enthusiastic embrace of the Internet, where radical talk that was once private is now on display for anyone to see.

All of this history lies behind Thursday's hearing, which has generated a storm of criticism from both Muslim Americans and terrorism hawks.

Since last year, when a proposal to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero touched off a firestorm of controversy, the national dialogue on Islam and extremism has become increasingly poisonous. Prominent American authority figures used language that equated Muslims -- all Muslims, not just extremists -- to America's historical military enemies. The most visible example was likely 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who compared Muslims to Nazis and World War II Japan.

On the other side of the spectrum, American Muslim activists, most visibly represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and some of their allies from the left side of the political spectrum, responded to news of the radicalization hearing with their own brand of hyperbole, making clearly specious comparisons between King's one-day, subpoena-free hearing and the ugly excesses of McCarthyism, or even the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

These wildly opposing viewpoints find common ground in the minds of those American Muslims most at risk for violent radicalization. The long history of American jihadism tells us that the single most common and important assumption made by those who carry out violence is the existence of a literal war against Islam and Muslims that requires a warlike response.

Individuals on the edge of radicalization have a selective interpretation of the world, but that vision can be bolstered by real-world facts. When prominent political figures and leaders of the Muslim community make mutually affirming statements that validate the idea of a U.S. war against Islam, it's not hard to understand why some people believe it.

And the same Christian politicians and Muslim activists are more than happy to blame each other for using words that incite violence while ignoring the impact of their own statements.

Online extremists and jihadist recruiters take all of these words and run with them, spinning an ever-more convincing narrative about America's war on Islam. This leads to more extremism, which leads to violence, which leads to even more inflammatory public rhetoric, which leads to still more extremism.

None of this in any way justifies or rationalizes violence and terrorism. We can acknowledge the factors that lead to radicalization without deeming those factors legitimate or reasonable. Actions that are inexcusable do not have to be incomprehensible.

Thursday's hearing will overseen by Congressman Pete King, who has a history of contentious debate with American Muslim organizations. However, King notably refuted Gingrich's Nazi comparison last year.

That's important, because there's a distinction in this conversation. Religious freedom is one of America's most important principles, and that includes the freedom to criticize any religion, or parts of a religion, or the adherents of a religion. Americans are not obliged to like Islam or to like any particular tenet of Islam, just as no one is obliged to like Catholic views on abortion or Mormon views on polygamy.

But applying the rhetoric of war is a very different can of worms, especially when it comes from people in government and politics. It's unreasonable for American political leaders to tell Muslims "you are the enemy" and then blame them for believing it. Such statements ultimately empower Al Qaeda, which has always wanted its war with America to encompass all Muslims.

The overreaching grievances of activists and organizations like CAIR are similarly counterproductive, sending a wildly disproportionate message that Muslims are victims of extraordinary U.S. persecution, then professing disbelief and disavowal when some Muslims take violent action because they believe they are persecuted.

Thursday's hearing looks to be steering a middle path between these two divisive poles, or at least it's trying to. King has gotten heat from both Muslim activist organizations and the most vocal critics of those organizations. That means he's probably doing something right.

This is an important topic, and it deserves to be aired in a public forum. Nevertheless, the outcome of the hearings and the ultimate benefit or cost will not become clear until the gavel falls at the end of the day Thursday.

In a forum like this, it's very difficult to accomplish something positive and all too easy to accomplish something negative. An errant sound bite can echo for months or years.

Which leads us to the one certainty that participants in the hearing should hold close to their hearts: The worst thing that anyone says on Thursday will be the one thing that everyone remembers.

J.M. Berger is author of the forthcoming book, "Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam," the first comprehensive look at the phenomenon of American jihadists from the 1970s to the present. The book will be released in May. Pre-orders are available now.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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