Posted on December 21, 2009 in Washington Watch

In the wake of the Ft. Hood massacre and recent arrests involving some young men seeking association with dangerous international terrorist activity and others who appeared to be on the verge of carrying out terrorist actions in the U.S., questions have been raised by politicians and the media. “Do we have a homegrown terrorist problem?” “Are we becoming like Europe?”

It was in this context that I accepted an invitation, last week, to testify before a Congressional committee. I was pleased that the committee wasn’t buying into the media frenzy, but was seeking, instead, a sober discussion, because I believe that this entire matter is critical not only to our national security, it also represents a test of our national character.

I began by noting that we are not Europe because our situation, in the U.S., is fundamentally different. I’ve spoken with 3rd generation Kurds in Germany, Algerians in France, or Pakistanis in England who continue to remain on the margins of their societies. They’re “Turk,” “A-yrab” or “Paki” they do not become British, or German or French.

On the other hand, no single ethnic community defines what it means to be American. Within generations diverse communities and people of different religious backgrounds from every corner of the globe have become American. And not only do they become American, but America becomes changed as well. Because of this rich history of integration and assimilation, recent immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries come to this country, in effect, with the table set for them and they find it to be a fertile ground for the ever broadening definition of being American.

Another important difference between our situation and Europe’s is that people here do not stay on the margins. Because of the extraordinary social and economic mobility available to immigrants, they move into enterprise. The Yemeni community in California, which I first met about 30 years ago when they were farm workers, are now business owners throughout the country and their children are in colleges–becoming quite successful.

This is not to say that we do not have a problem, rather it is to note that the problem we do have should be seen in context and not blown out of proportion.

Another issue to consider is that because we are in engaged in a number of international conflicts, which have repercussions here at home either because they involve countries which are the lands of origin of individuals living here in the U.S., or because there are those, on both sides of these conflicts, who have sought to exploit them as a “clash of civilizations.”

All of this exacerbates tensions, promotes fear on all sides, and makes reasoned discussion more difficult. Despite all this, the vast majority of Arab Americans and American Muslims have rejected this fomenting clash. They have worked within the political process available to them. They have fought discrimination, combated hate crimes and voiced their policy differences as citizens, not as aliens. Nevertheless, some alienated young men from those communities have become susceptible to anti-social radicalization and forms of extremism. But it is critical to note that their behavior is atypical and they remain on the margins of their communities. In fact, in the two most recent cases, it was the parents of the young men and members of their mosques who first reported them and worked closely with law enforcement authorities.

This form of radicalization leading to antisocial behavior has long been a problem in our country. We’ve seen it before. In recent decades we’ve witnessed recruitment into white supremacist and “Christian Nation” and militia organizations, the Black Panthers, the Jewish Defense League, the I.R.A, etc. The fact is that the allure of absolutist ideology and romanticized machismo, complete with weapons, training and acts of bravado does provide, for some of these men, a dangerous cure for the alienation and feeling of powerlessness they’ve experienced.

And we are seeing it again, now with a different group of people.

I’ve reviewed dozens of these cases involving young Muslim men, and while there are many differences we should take note of so that we do not lump them into one group, the pattern of alienation that leads to violent action as the cure to that alienation seems to run through them all. This is what must be addressed. But, I believe we must address it with a scalpel and not with a sledgehammer, because If we fail to recognize that we are dealing with marginal behavior and instead take a swipe at the whole community we run the risk of increasing alienation, making it more difficult for us to deal with the problem.

At the same time, we have to understand what we’re doing right, not only what is wrong. Today leading Muslim American organizations are actively responding to efforts to deal with the problem reaching out to law enforcement and working with their communities to create political alternatives–so that young people can voice their differences with policies in politically productive ways. Law enforcement is also working with these communities, and doing so quite effectively. And finally, we have a President who is opening space for discourse with the Muslim world in an effort to create a more positive atmosphere–this should be built on in order to address the alienation and potential for radicalization.

The answers to this problem are, therefore: to keep it in context, to provide young people with alternatives to alienation, and to continue to develop close ties between affected communities and law enforcement to address problems as they occur. It is most certainly not, as some would suggest, to change who we are or how we react, but to be more of who we are and to continue to do what we do best.

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