To turn tables on ISIS at home, start asking unsettling questions, expert says

A leading Muslim scholar in the US has had remarkable success walking back youths with sympathies for ISIS. But the US government isn't working with him, and in some ways is making his job harder.

Courtesy of Omer Ahmedmia
Yasir Qadhi is a professor of Islamic studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.

“I will throw fear into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Then smite the necks and smite of them each finger.”  –The Quran, 8:12

People aren’t born radical. It requires work – calculated effort over time – to anesthetize the human heart and mind to inflict violence and terror without remorse.

That is the ultimate goal of those working to recruit fighters for the Islamic State group in occupied Syria. And they are very good at it.

In response, the United States is scrambling to counter this sophisticated and methodical recruitment process. But how effective are US efforts?

The State Department runs a Twitter account called “Think AgainTurn Away” that tries to confront and dispute radical tweeters with counter tweets. There are pilot programs in Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles aimed at fostering greater cooperation and trust between law enforcement and the Muslim community. But many Muslims reject the effort as a veiled attempt to improve government surveillance.

Indeed, the primary thrust of the US government’s anti-radicalization effort relies on surveillance, arrests, and imprisonment.

Yasir Qadhi wants to expand the conversation. A leading Islamic scholar in the US, Professor Qadhi argues that the government’s approach ignores the root causes of why a young Muslim might start down a path to radicalization.

Why not try to address the problem of violent extremism before a person becomes radicalized and before he or she breaks the law?

It sounds simple, but Qadhi warns that it involves an uncomfortable proposition for many Americans – that US foreign policy in Muslim lands is a big part of the engine driving radicalization among young Muslims. In effect, he is saying that America itself is helping the Islamic State group win new recruits.

Qadhi, a professor of Islamic studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, has experienced this recruiting issue up close.

As a respected and relatively young Islamic authority, he is regularly approached by young Muslims struggling with whether to answer the Islamic State group’s call to arms.

“I have had and will continue to have lots of dialogues with young men,” Qadhi says. “I am happy to say that none of the people I’ve spoken to about these issues has gone overseas.”

That is quite an accomplishment.

The Monitor recently had a conversation with Qadhi about what he thinks the government could be doing better in the fight against the Islamic State group at home. Getting the answer to that vexing question right is of crucial importance, he suggests, not only for the lives of young Americans considering joining an extremist group, but for America’s better understanding of the Muslims in its midst.

'A badge of honor'

Qadhi and others stress that the vast majority of Muslim-Americans have no interest in joining an extremist group. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an effective campaign to dissuade those who may be receptive to recruitment.

One indication of Qadhi’s effectiveness in countering the extremist campaign can be found in the Islamic State’s official magazine, Dabiq. There, on page 60, in a volume released last spring, the organization issued a formal call for Qadhi’s assassination.

“Frankly, I wear that as a badge of honor,” Qadhi says. “It shows that I am getting across to them and that I am irritating them. I like that.”

One might think that given his track record, the US government would help Qadhi and other Islamic scholars in America to continue and expand their mentoring work.

What Qadhi and others want is a guarantee from federal prosecutors that they will not be subject to investigation and threats of criminal charges for aiding and abetting should one of their “students” end up in Syria or carry out a terror attack.

So far, the government has been loath to assume that risk. But critics argue that men like Qadhi must be on the front line against Islamic State recruiting in the US.

“I think there is a role for the federal government in this,” says Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and a former official at the National Counterterrorism Center.  

“That sounds kind of counterintuitive when we are talking about religious issues,” Professor Hughes says. “But the federal government can provide some level of guidance to people who want to do counter-messaging.”

Hughes stresses that he doesn't endorse Qadhi, personally, as a credible counterbalance, but he does believe, in general, that such efforts are necessary.

The issue arises not only on the front end of the recruitment process, experts say, but will also be important in trying to deal with Americans who are returning from Syria. Roughly 40 have already done so. More are expected.

“Law enforcement doesn’t have the luxury of [saying], ‘Let’s see if this person is going to reengage in terrorism’ or something,” says John Horgan, a psychologist and terrorism expert at Georgia State University. “So it is easy to put the blame on law enforcement, to say they are not flexible enough. Law enforcement is not meant to be flexible.”

“But there is a broader question,” Professor Horgan says. “If we are going to seriously entertain the idea of de-radicalization and reintegration, who precisely will assume the risk?”

Silent sermons

Qadhi says there are two basic factors creating fertile ground for young Muslims to radicalize. One is a warped understanding of Islamic texts such as the above-quoted passage from the Koran and many others used by IS leaders to justify beheadings, terrorism, sexual slavery, and other tactics. Qadhi says these acts are not authorized in Islam and amount to war crimes.

The second factor is a lack of compelling voices in mainstream Islam capable of offering an effective counter-narrative to the radicals.

To understand this issue, Qadhi says, it is necessary to see the world through the eyes of a young American Muslim.

Since the 9/11 attacks, this young American Muslim’s religion has been portrayed in the media as evil and dangerous, his community has faced suspicion and massive surveillance, he has seen Muslims investigated and imprisoned on questionable charges, and he has personally felt the sting of discrimination or been reminded of it every time he tries to fly on an airplane, Qadhi says. At the same time Muslims around the world are killed, oppressed, or driven from their homes – with little or no compassionate response from the world community.

More to the point, Qadhi adds, many of these problems are linked in the young American Muslim’s mind to actions by his own government – to US military intervention in Muslim lands, to treatment of Muslim prisoners at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, to lethal drone strikes, to support for Israel, to support for despotic governments, and to a quest for cheap oil even at the cost of Muslim blood.

In a 2010 essay, Qadhi described the impact of all these factors on a young Muslim: “He wants someone to defend his faith and speak up on behalf of the oppressed. He wishes to hear fiery and angry rhetoric, charging the ‘free and democratic’ nations with hypocrisy, double standards, and the flouting of human rights.”

He adds, “Instead, all he hears at his local mosque … are khutbahs [sermons] that have no political relevance whatsoever.”

The tame sermons are no accident. In the crackdown after 9/11, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began investigating mosques and community centers, listening for any hints of radicalization. The effort left much of the Muslim community embittered and frightened into silence. Many in the community had come to the US from Mideast countries that do not tolerate free speech. They know too well the dangers of being outspoken.

But that doesn’t help the frustrated young man struggling to discover his place and his identity in a country that he finds increasingly hostile, Qadhi says. What he wants is someone who understands him and understands his frustration and his anger.

Thus, the frustrated young Muslim turns to the Internet, where he discovers supportive voices, ready and waiting in chat rooms and online forums where people express views similar to his own – and some more extreme. From there, they are directed to online sermons promoting a puritanical version of Islam and a stark worldview of “us versus them.”

“What happens is that these young men, they find comfort and solace in the fiery preachers,” Qadhi says. “Because if I’m not speaking about Palestine and Guantánamo and drones and the Patriot Act [in sermons in a US mosque or in community meetings in America], then who else is? The only other people speaking about it are actual radicals.”

That’s how the process of radicalization frequently starts. Qadhi says it doesn’t have to be that way.

A different worldview

But there’s a catch. Qahdi’s plan to inoculate young Muslims from the grip of radicalization involves opening a dialogue recognizing and affirming the largely hostile view of American foreign policy held by much of the Islamic world. It is a perspective unrecognizable to most Americans, but deeply authentic to most Muslims.

Americans are “blissfully, naively unaware of the impact that [US government] policies have on the ground and have had for the last 30 years in the Middle East,” says Qadhi, himself an aggressive critic of US foreign policy. “They are completely unaware of how genuinely enraged many parts of the world are,” he says.

“When children die because of our drones, those pictures are not broadcast on mainstream media. But I get them on my Facebook feed and these young men get them on their feed. Over and over again,” he says. “Day in and day out.”

Qadhi’s idea is to make it clear to frustrated young Muslims and others that the radicals aren’t the only ones who feel the pain of Muslims hurt in the fallout from US foreign policy. His idea is to make it clear that joining a terrorist organization isn’t the only way to help change the world, and certainly not the best way.

“The young teenager needs to realize he can do a lot more by educating his fellow Americans about what is happening in this country, and where this country is headed in its foreign policy, and making his fellow Americans or Britishers or Canadians realize that you cannot support dictators and impose them at will on a local population and not have consequences,” Qadhi says.

“If we continue to educate I think we will get a lot more accomplished,” he says. “That is my view, and that is why I am sitting here as a college professor teaching people.”

The professor knows there are pitfalls.

Because of his criticism of US policies, he has been accused of being an apologist for terrorists and has received death threats from right-wing, anti-Muslim groups. Recently thousands of petitions flooded into Rhodes College demanding that he be fired.

There are other dangers as well.

Challenging the radicals

Each summer, Qadhi teaches a two-week intensive seminar on Islam at the Al-Maghreb Institute in Houston. He estimates that during the past decade he’s taught more than 50,000 American Muslims.

In 2008, Qadhi encountered a young, painfully shy Nigerian student. His name was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.  

A year and a half later, Mr. Abdulmutallab made international headlines when he tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit with a bomb concealed in his underwear. Subsequent investigation revealed that the quiet Nigerian had traveled to Yemen and fallen under the influence of the American-born militant preacher Anwar al-Awlaki.

The episode prompted Qadhi to begin examining how a college-educated young man with a promising future would come to reject the authentic orthodox Islam Qadhi and others were teaching in the Houston seminar and instead embrace violent extremism.

He concluded that he and other Muslim scholars in the US were failing to offer an effective counter-narrative to undercut and neutralize Mr. Awlaki’s radical sermons.

Qadhi is an expert in Salafi Islam, with advanced degrees from Medina University in Saudi Arabia and Yale University. It is the same puritanical approach to Islam practiced by Awlaki. That made Qadhi particularly well-suited to challenge Awlaki’s unusual and extremist views.

Yet, he did not.

“I, myself, was scared of my own government,” Qadhi admits. He said in the wake of the 9/11 attacks he and his family were harassed and intimidated by the US government. Like many others in the Muslim community, Qadhi decided to keep a low profile and become apolitical.

Today, he regrets that decision.

Awlaki was killed in Yemen in a 2011 US drone strike.

“I knew him back in the day [pre-9/11], all of us knew him. He was senior to me in age and he was active when I was still at the University of Medina – but we all knew each other,” Qadhi says.

“We communally made a mistake with Awlaki that we didn’t reach out to him and try to debate with him before it was too late,” he says.

From 2006 to 2007, Awlaki was held in a Yemeni prison. He claimed that his detention and alleged torture came at the request of the US government.

It was a turning point in his approach to Islam, according to many analysts.

“When he was released, the Anwar that came out was not the Anwar that went in,” Qadhi says. Now he was embracing radical ideas that he had before rejected.

“None of us challenged him because – and here’s the whole point – in order to challenge him you need to agree with some of his criticisms of America,” Qadhi says. “And that is politically incorrect – you’ll lose your job, you are going to be targeted by the Department of Justice, you are going to go to jail.”

The scholar adds: “Put yourself in my shoes. Put yourself in the shoes of anyone who can genuinely provide an alternative to Awlaki. They are scared, not of Awlaki, not of Al Qaeda, they are scared of our own Department of Justice, of our own overzealous prosecutors.”

Seeking a middle ground

In response to this kind of criticism, the Obama administration held a conference in February to explore new ways to counter violent extremism. It supported existing pilot projects and prompted discussions about long-established deradicalization programs in Europe. But the US remains wedded to a law-enforcement approach to the issue, which means prosecutors continue to call the shots.

In the meantime, Qadhi says he gets death threats from both sides, but that he’s more afraid of the far right than he is of Islamic extremists.

He sees himself occupying a kind of middle ground between two extremes – the vigilant and militaristic US government on one side and the brutal jihadists on the other. What he wants is to be able to operate somewhere in between. But the US government, at least so far, has not moved in this direction.

“We are not allowed a free zone where we can have young men vent their frustrations and get their issues answered in an Islamic format,” he says.

“The way things are heading, people are simply not open to the idea of creating some type of free space where people like myself would be allowed to engage with those who are flirting or sympathizing with radical Islam.”


• Part 1, Monday: How doomsday Muslim cult is turning kids against parents
• Parts 2 & 3, Tuesday: One Virginia teen's journey from ISIS rock star to incarceration & Eight faces of ISIS in America
• Part 4, Wednesday: FBI tactics to unearth ISIS recruits: effective or entrapment?
• Part 5, Thursday: What draws women to ISIS
• Part 6, Friday: To turn tables on ISIS at home, start asking unsettling questions, expert says
• Part 7, Saturday: How to save kids from ISIS? Start with mom.

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