How American Muslims plan to counter post-Paris backlash

Muslim leaders said Monday that they aim to register more voters and engage with young American Muslims to counter the lure of ISIS. 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Muslim Public Affairs Council Media and Communications Director Rabiah Ahmed speaks a press conference held by the US Council of Muslim Organizations at the National Press Club in Washington Monday.

Muslim leaders in the United States said Monday they will mount a multifaceted campaign to counter what they call an unprecedented rise in Islamophobia, triggered by recent terrorist attacks and inflammatory political rhetoric.

The effort comes out of a meeting Sunday of about 100 Muslim leaders who gathered in Sterling, Va.  The campaign will include efforts to register 1 million additional Muslim voters before the 2016 election, more fully engage young Muslims in mainstream communities, and forge stronger alliances with civil rights and interfaith groups.

The impetus for the gathering of US Muslim leaders was “the unprecedented rise in violent incidents targeting American Muslims in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the San Bernardino [California] killings and recent inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and political incitement,” said Oussama Jammal, secretary general of the US Council of Muslim Organizations.

“ISIS leaders know that they cannot destroy the United States. What they hope to do is to divide the American people and scare us,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), using a common acronym for the Islamic State.

Hate crimes against Muslim Americans and mosques across the US have tripled since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University that was first published by The New York Times.

Since the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, there were 38 anti-Islamic attacks in the US, including violence against hijab-wearing students, death threats at Islamic-owned companies, as well as arson and vandalism at mosques, the California State study found.

The level of violence against Muslims is not as high as immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the Cal State researchers found. At that time, there were hundreds of attacks against Muslims. 

President Obama, in an interview conducted with NPR released Monday morning, spoke of the need to calm the fears of the American people regarding the power of Islamic State or or ISIL, as he refers to it.  

The president admitted that his administration could have done more to tamp down the public’s concerns. “There is a legitimate criticism of what I've been doing and our administration has been doing in the sense that we haven't … on a regular basis … described all the work that we've been doing for more than a year now to defeat ISIL.”

The role of Muslims has been a major topic recently in the presidential campaign. After the San Bernardino attack, Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims who are not US citizens entering the United States until the government can “figure out what is going on.”

In Saturday evening’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton said, “I worry greatly that the rhetoric coming from the Republicans, particularly Donald Trump, is sending a message to Muslims here in the United States and literally around the world that there is a clash of civilizations … that there is some kind of Western plot or even war against Islam, which then I believe fans the flames of radicalization."

Muslim officials speaking at Monday’s press conference cautioned that many of their organizations had a tax status that barred them from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign.

However, CAIR executive Mr. Awad said of candidate Trump’s language about Muslims: “he knows better” and added, “we feel the heat.”

The Muslim officials said a key component of their work together would be finding ways to counter the appeal of ISIS among young American Muslims.  “We have to do a better job of reaching out to our young people from the pulpits of the mosques in America and teaching them how they can avoid the seductive approaches that are found on the internet from groups like ISIS and others,” said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, governmental affairs director for the Muslim Alliance in North America.

“We believe that the issue is bigger than ISIS. It is a conspiracy to take advantage of our young people and we are redoubling our efforts as a community,” Mr. Abdul-Malik said.

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