A year after the Boston Marathon bombings, experts still dispute whether the homegrown terrorist attack might have been prevented. Much of the debate focuses on which law enforcement agency – or which country, Russia or the United States – should have detected the steady radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers. The debate is useful, up to a point, to improve surveillance of such radicals.
Less discussed, however, is whether other Muslims might have persuaded the pair to reject Islamist extremist ideology and instead embrace alternative, nonviolent views.
The elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, for example, was expelled from a mosque in 2012 after interrupting Friday services in protest over American Muslims celebrating Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. What if, instead, he had been invited to discuss his grievances against the US, urged to listen to other views about Islam, and offered counseling for his anger?
That approach is not widely used among the Muslim communities in the West, in large part because of a strong reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Many Muslims are under pressure to simply distance themselves from radicals prone to violence and their interpretation of Islam. Most of all, with police asking them to report potential terrorists, mosques are more likely to expel radicals rather than work with them.
Last month, however, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, began a campaign called the Safe Spaces Initiative aimed at training mosques on how to help a congregant whose words or behavior indicates a shift toward extremism. In Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s case, for example, his request to change his name to “Muaz,” an early Islamic scholar, might have been a tip-off.
In a 139-page guide, the council says expelling a member should be only a last resort. “There are multiple opportunities for communities to protect their friend, family member, or brother/sister-in-Islam from going down a dangerous and destructive path,” the document states. Individuals should be given a “healthy outlet” to deal with complaints about nonMuslims. In essence, writes council president Salam Al-Marayati, “we want to enhance both a spiritual safety and public safety.”
The council’s campaign is an echo of a similar campaign in Britain, where the government’s Channel Program seeks “to identify and provide support to people at risk of radicalization.” A former Muslim radical in Britain, Maajid Nawaz, author of “Radical: My Journey out of Islamic Extremism,” says Muslims need to inoculate young believers against extremist ideology by pointing out its flaws and contradictions – such as the fact that the Taliban kill far more Muslims than nonMuslims. But they must also help them “believe in certain core principals of human rights and democracy.” Would-be Muslim radicals can be rescued from their identity crisis of living in the West, he says, by giving them an alternate narrative about democratic values.
Such a positive approach is being tried under a global campaign launched last year by Turkey and the US with the aim to counter the “local drivers of radicalization to violence.” Governments, however, have a difficult time in such campaigns. They can be seen as mainly spying on Muslim communities, often with secret informants, and not acting as a voice for peaceful alternatives. A government is also in the tricky position of having to counter radical religious views.
The best approach toward preventing attacks by Muslims living in the West is the kind of grass-roots campaign begun by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Its timing is welcomed on this first anniversary of the Boston bombings.