I want my daughter to know about jihad. But I don’t want her to learn about it from Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.
While my preschooler may still be young to understand, today’s older Muslim youth are not. Some are being seduced on social media into extremist movements.
Women, too, are taking part. Recently, three American-Muslim teenage girls from Denver were picked up in Germany, allegedly on their way to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). If true, than their travels represents a troubling trend of young Muslim youth being seduced online to join the fight abroad.
For example, one female European ISIS member, with the handle Um Ubayda tweeted, “But to be honest, wallahi [by God], there is so much khayr [goodness] being here and being a mujahid’s wife. I wish I could describe the feeling, it’s beautiful.”
Many radicalized Muslims, who join militant groups, have shown to be religiously illiterate. They are attracted by such organizations out of political zeal or a feeling disenfranchisement in their personal conflicts and societies.
These three teenagers, Um Ubayda, and others like her on social media, is why I’m sending my daughter to an American-Islamic school. As surprising at it may sound, my hope is that education at this school will prevent her from the influences of future fringe radicals, whose amplified voices are falsely characterized as mainstream.
And it’s through better institutionalization of Islamic education in America that the religious arguments for violent extremism will lose its appeal to an often naïve, younger generation.
Fear of Extremism
American Muslims worry about rising extremism, whether perceived or real. A 2011 Pew poll indicates that Muslim Americans continue to “reject extremism by large margins,” with 60% saying they are concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism. The general public fears us, too, with more than half expressing similar concerns.
Muslims also worry about Big Brother spying, entrapping and alienating them. A Human Rights Watch report cites the government as unfairly targeting Muslims. Andrea Prasow, an author of the report, states, many of these people “would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.”
Meanwhile, bigoted fear mongering by media and public figures have become the norm.
For example, State Senator John Bennett (OK) stated, “the goal of all Muslims is the destruction of Western civilization from within. This is a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.”
Representative Steve King (IA) suggested the government spy on Muslims in their places of worship. In the viral HBO ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ debate about Muslims, Maher likened Islam to the mafia. Similar to anti-Semites and racists, Islamophobic bigots must be called out and discredited.
But public fears along with government spying, entrapment, and perpetual hate-speech have ensured that Islamophobia will remain in the USA.
As a mother, I feel anxious about raising the next generation of Muslim youth in such a hostile environment. Meanwhile, how do American Muslims prevent fringe radicals from capturing hearts and minds.
Increase Islamic education
The battle against violent extremists is largely a battle of ideas. Getting religious education right, and getting it early is key to preventing the spread of radical ideologies.
Adherents to Islam, both young and old, must become better educated about the religion, particularly with regards to war and peace. Muslims require modern and contextual understandings of the faith by qualified scholars. This not only helps to build sound knowledge but also a solid American Muslim identity.
Islamic studies are taught in homes, schools, community centers, places of worship and online. Nationwide, there are approximately 2,100 mosques and 235 full-time Islamic elementary schools. For those who feel such schools are cost prohibitive or do not attend services or religious/weekend schools, alternative resources should be made available online or institutionally.
Certainly, there’s no guarantee that imams, leaders or teachers will not preach extreme ideologies. Or, that unwitting searchers of truth will not find such views elsewhere online. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying.
How? By supporting reputable training organizations and efforts like the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) Safe Spaces Initiative, which creates spiritually safe areas for debate and works “with imams, counselors, youth workers and community leaders to create a toolkit to help develop the understanding and requisite tools to address violent extremism.” Or, the Islamic School League of America, which helps to develop appropriate curriculums and learning centers. Or, Zaytuna College, the nation’s first accredited Islamic university.
Also, serve as role models. American Muslim leaders and scholars continue to rightly condemn terrorist actions and militant groups, including ISIS. In early 2013, members of a Boston-suburb mosque threw out worshipper Tamerlan Tsarnaev, for his political rantings. This radicalized individual would eventually become the Boston Marathon Bomber. More recently, a mosque in Canada threw out Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the mentally disturbed Muslim convert, who recently killed an unarmed soldier in front of the National War Memorial.
These are all steps in the right direction. Surely, the youth are listening, watching and taking notes. Meanwhile, my 4 year-old daughter attends Islamic school, raises her hands up in prayer “Oh God, increase my knowledge”, then brings her right hand to her heart, “I pledge allegiance to flag of the United States of America…”