The reluctance of President Obama and others to link Middle East terrorism explicitly to Islam at this week’s “Countering Violent Extremism” summit exposed them to withering criticism, and not entirely from conservatives. Some Muslim reformers who have been struggling to combat radicalism in their mosques and communities have been willing to talk about the extremist ideologies they encounter.
“I think it’s very important to be clear about this message, and to name it,” says Zainab Al-Suwaij, the executive director of the American Islamic Congress. “When we talk about radical Islam, it does exist, and I don’t need to be diplomatic [about it]. I think the message should be loud and clear, and this is not going to harm anyone.
“We are Muslims, we’re feeling it — we’re the first victims of it. I want the whole world to hear about it.”
Many other Muslim leaders, however, push back against any portrayal of the terrorism problem that suggests any ties to Islam.
Even though the Obama administration chose words carefully in describing the White House summit, several Muslim American organizations declined to attend, saying they objected to its nearly exclusive focus on Muslim communities; such an approach, they said in a joint statement, “sets American Muslim communities apart as inherently suspect.”
A tweet during the conference by Iyad Ameen Madani, secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, even stirred some controversy.
“One of the most important challenges we face is from within,” Madani said. “The [Islamic] faith is being hijacked by extremists.”
The comment brought a retort from Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the organizations that declined to participate in the summit.
“I don’t think the faith is hijacked,” Awad said. “The grievances have been hijacked, but not the faith itself. No one can hijack my faith — people can misinterpret it, but they cannot hijack it.”
Such varying perspectives highlight a debate taking place within Muslim circles in the United States on whether any ideological reformation is needed in Islam. For Zainab Al-Suwaij, the problems began after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Muslims in America came under fierce scrutiny.
“The message was very defensive — ‘stop profiling us’ — but no one was really looking into the extremism, the ideology that has been spread in our community, directly or indirectly,” she said. “They don’t tell you to go kill someone or explode this or that, but there are always these embedded messages about the West, how everyone is out to get Islam. There is always that background. And people start reacting to this, because they feel they’ve been discriminated [against]. They feel they are victimized, so they need to take revenge.”
One Muslim leader who says he has confronted such attitudes is Mohamed Magid, chief imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Northern Virginia.
“If a young man walks into my mosque and has an ideology about Islam that is distorted, my responsibility as an imam, I try to correct his idea,” Magid says. “If I find him to be a person who might pose a danger to my community by trying to recruit others, then I have to exclude him from the community. … And we have to report him — if you have an idea to commit harm to America, we will report him to the authorities.”
The debatable question is what such dangerous ideology should be called.
“There’s no such thing as radical Islam,” Awad said. “There’s no violent extremist ideology within Islam. Islam is one. Some people become extremists, but it’s not because of the religion — it’s because of themselves as individuals. I think people get entangled in terminology when, in fact, we are dealing with criminality. Criminals are criminals.”
One problem for Muslim leaders is that the most violent terrorists in the world today have named their organization the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL).
“We wish that the name Islam was not associated with this phenomenon, we would just say that there is terrorism,” says Sayyid Syeed, interfaith and community alliances director of the Islamic Society of North America. “But since they are deliberately using the Quran, misquoting the Quran, going to the [Islamic] traditions, we will have to say something.”
Asked what he and other Muslims can call the group, Syeed laughs.
“Daesh!” he says. The word in Arabic stands for “ISIL” — but because it is only an acronym, it lets Muslims avoid saying the group is Islamic.