President Obama’s request that Muslim Americans help “root out” and confront extremist ideology in their communities is getting mixed reactions. Muslim leaders say they want to help, but some are not happy that they are being singled out.
“We would never ask any other faith community to stand up and condemn acts of violence committed by people within their groups,” said Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour, who has worked extensively with the Black Lives Matter movement and other minority groups. “The fact that this is only directed at the Muslim community is something that I personally can’t accept.”
In his Sunday night message, the president did say Muslims should not be treated differently, but administration officials say they are looking to the Muslim American community for some particular assistance. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson took that request personally Monday to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling, Va.
“I will continue to speak out against the discrimination, vilification and isolation that American Muslims face in these challenging times,” Johnson said.
But then came the appeal.
“Now, I have an ask,” he said. “It is an ask of the people in this room and all Muslims across the country. Terrorist organizations overseas have targeted your communities. They seek to pull your youth into the pit of violent extremism. Help us to help you stop this.”
Muslim leaders have heard this before, and some find it a little irritating.
“We’re not law-enforcement officials,” said Shahed Amanullah, a Washington, D.C.-based Muslim American entrepreneur with Silicon Valley connections. He has worked with the U.S. government on combating online extremism, but he said it’s unrealistic to expect Muslim Americans to confront violent people in their midst.
“We’re community members and Americans like everybody else,” he said, “and we should have the same relationship with law enforcement that everybody else has. To expect us to be on the front lines without having the capacity or the support would not be [productive]. It wouldn’t be productive with any community.”
The feeling among Muslims that more is expected of them than of other religious groups seems to be widespread. Ahmed Hahsy, an immigrant from Afghanistan now operating a kebab restaurant in South Philadelphia, agrees he has a duty to confront extremism when he sees it, but not because he’s a Muslim.
“It’s everybody’s duty,” he said, “not Muslim or Christian. As Americans, it’s our duty. I just told my wife, ‘You’re not Afghan anymore.’ I’ve been living in this country for 25 years. We are first American, then Afghan. This is our duty, to protect this country.”
For Bassam Issa, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, Tenn., there is nothing new in the request to assist law enforcement in identifying violent extremists. A local Muslim shot up two military installations in Chattanooga, killing four Marines and a sailor, in July.
“When that happened, we contacted each other more often,” Issa said of his relations with the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies. “We’ve been working together very closely. They know that anything they want from us they’ve always gotten, and we will always be there for them.”
The shooting in Chattanooga was a turning point for the local Muslim community there. The San Bernardino, Calif., shootings may yet turn out to be a game changer as well, ushering in closer relations with law-enforcement agencies and counterterrorism investigators.
Bob Marro, chairman of the government relations committee at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in northern Virginia, said his fellow Muslims may need to do more to help identify anybody with violent or extremist tendencies.
“We see these people close up,” he said at the meeting with Johnson. “If [we] see something a little bit out of character, maybe the time has now come to say something to somebody else.”