Fort Hood shootings: US Muslims feel new heat
After the shootings at Fort Hood, Muslim communities across the US were swift to condemn the attack. But the incident has again raised image issues for Muslims, as well as questions about how to best counter radicalization.
San Francisco — In the hours after officials identified Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a Virginian of Palestinian ancestry, as the shooter at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5, US Muslim groups quickly condemned the attack. Religious and community leaders were eager to assure the nation that Muslims were appalled by the day's violence.
"It's our job to make sure that the actions of one individual aren't going to generalize an entire faith community," says Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
About 2.35 million Muslims live in the United States, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center. The majority are middle class, moderate, and assimilated into American society, according to the survey. A small minority, however, hold radical views, and at least 60 have been charged with plotting domestic terrorist attacks. Rightly or wrongly, these actions are coloring perceptions about Muslims.
The shooting at Fort Hood follows a string of foiled domestic terrorist plots. In September, a Denver airport-shuttle driver was charged with plotting to explode chemical bombs in New York. He is an Afghan immigrant. Around the same time, two Muslims were arrested for allegedly trying to blow up buildings in Texas and Illinois. Last month, a Detroit imam whom authorities say wanted a separate Islamic state within the US was killed in a shootout during a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid.
While Muslims have worked with federal agents to thwart domestic terror plots, these recent cases are spurring many prominent voices within the community, as well as outside observers, to suggest more-effective ways for Muslims to ferret out extremists and push back against radicalization.
"When it comes to countering radicalization, that is up to the Muslim community to deal with," says Alejandro Beutel, government liaison for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Next month, the council will release recommendations to improve cooperation between law enforcement and Muslim groups.
One recommendation: a "fresh counterterrorism enterprise" between the government and Muslims that follows a community-policing model. The group also suggests that federal and local agents develop a better understanding of America's diverse Muslim community, which largely consists of immigrants from all over the world and Muslims of every Islamic sect. It further recommends that Muslims undertake the "counter radicalization aspects" of fighting terror groups while law enforcement focuses on criminal investigations.
The relationship between police and the Muslim community has been strained since 9/11. Many Muslim groups accuse the FBI and other counterterrorism agents of using overly aggressive tactics to strong-arm mosque attendees into becoming informants. Others say Muslims are often victims of racial profiling.
The scrutiny has created a siege mentality in some Muslim communities. Many are afraid to talk to newcomers for fear of being entrapped by FBI informants. Some are afraid to express political views, and others have stopped attending mosque altogether.
"Sometimes the Muslim community does have reason for its suspicion in cases where representatives of the government do not do a good job of distinguishing who could be a terrorist [from] those who could just be loudmouths," says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of "My Year Inside Radical Islam."
Still, he says, "there is a lot of frustration that the [Muslim] community is not doing enough to combat extremism."
For instance, says Mr. Gartenstein-Ross, the views of Daniel Boyd, who faces criminal charges related to training young Muslims to fight, were well known within his Muslim community in North Carolina. "That's an example where not enough was done to counteract someone who had extreme views," he says.
The ideal scenario, Gartenstein-Ross and others say, involves Muslims serving as eyes and ears for law enforcement within mosques and the broader community. And religious leaders, he says, should be more aggressive in providing an ideological counterweight to Al Qaeda.
Some counterarguments are happening. After militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is US-born and now reportedly lives in Yemen, praised Hasan as "a hero" on his blog, Faraz Rabbani, an Islamic scholar living in Canada, listed six reasons on Facebook why the Fort Hood killings were haram, or against Islam.
More open discussions are beginning to take place inside mosques, too. In October, the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California broke ground by starting a series in which both Muslim and non-Muslim authors discuss their works. It's this kind of engagement that observers say can both thwart radicalization and help engage Muslims with the larger community.
While many say a healthier degree of debate and dialogue is essential to derail extremism, others say it will persist as long as Muslims in the US are viewed as a fifth column.
"The fundamental issue is [that Americans are] uncomfortable as a diverse society," says Agha Saeed, national chair of the American Muslim Alliance. "If I am being treated right, why would I radicalize?" he asks.
And while many Muslim leaders say they are willing to help federal agents, they wonder how much they can do when much of the radicalization happens via the Internet.
Still, he says, imams have an obligation to use their position to confront radicalization. "Friday prayers must always talk about moderation and fighting extremism," he says. "It is required for Muslim imams to speak louder and make their voices heard."