After nearly six years of intense law enforcement scrutiny of Muslims in the United States, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is reshaping his agency’s approach to Muslims and invited four prominent Muslims to help the agency prevent homegrown radicalism.
The four leaders Chertoff called on — a former ambassador from Pakistan, a Santa Monica author who grew up in San Jose, a Houston city councilman and an Austin, Texas, blogger — suggest increasing youth services, working with bloggers to fight extremist ideology on the Web and even changing the terminology the government uses to describe terrorists.
The May 8 meeting — the first of its kind the Homeland Security secretary has called with Muslims — was part of a series of gatherings that Chertoff told Congress in March would be “an unprecedented level of cooperation” with various ethnic and religious communities to “prevent radicalization.”
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Daniel Sutherland, the department’s officer for civil rights and civil liberties, said Chertoff invited the four leaders last month because they are among the most influential Muslim scholars and thinkers in the nation. Sutherland, who has been with Homeland Security since its inception, said he believes that previous secretary Tom Ridge never had such a meeting.
The department also is working with Sikhs, South Asians, Arabs and Iranians to counter radicalism, Sutherland said, and Chertoff has pointed to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as the best example of homegrown radicalism.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, domestic anti-terrorism efforts have included sweeping measures such as requiring all men and boys without permanent residency from many largely Muslim nations to register with the government. Federal authorities have also planted informants in mosques.
Participants in last month’s meeting praised Chertoff’s desire to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the 2.5 million to 8 million Muslims in the United States and figure out how to find terrorists of all nationalities.
“I like the idea of shifting the focus from policing an entire community to doing ideological battles with the very people who are threatening,” said Shahed Amanullah, 39, an Austin blogger and editor of Altmuslim.com. “It’s much more surgical. You’re going right after people who are causing the problem.”
The 90-minute conversation produced no specific plans, and participants said the U.S. government must develop long-term policies toward the world’s billion-plus Muslims and the major Muslim nations.
“This is not going to be a quick affair,” said Akbar Ahmed, 64, an American University professor and former ambassador from Pakistan. “Emotions have been unleashed. This is going to be a long, simmering relationship.”
For all participants in the meeting, the two top concerns were finding commonly acceptable terminology for terrorism and figuring out how to keep young people from radicalizing, Sutherland and the participants said.
Chertoff has said that the period immediately after Sept. 11 was a time of crisis when policies were developed based on “imperfect information.” And he has talked about the need to constantly “recalibrate” anti-terrorism efforts.
“Our department’s conclusion is that the American Muslim community is very strong,” said Sutherland, who helped organize and attended the meeting with Chertoff. “It’s well-educated. It’s well-integrated. It’s different than Europe and other parts of the world. How do we preserve that strength?”
The four Muslim leaders suggested increasing interfaith efforts and social services for Muslim youth and encouraging parents and community leaders to allow disaffected young people to talk about their concerns.
“Just like we’re concerned that our children don’t get involved with gangs and drugs, we have to be proactive and make sure they don’t have interaction with people with extremist ideas,” said M.J. Khan, 57, who is in his second term as a Houston city councilman. “The responsibility lies with community members, and especially parents, to make sure we have open discussion and guide them properly.”
Ahmed said Muslim leaders in the United States and abroad must create a public discussion about Islam so non-Muslims have a more accurate understanding of the faith. American Muslims also must study American history and learn from the progress of other minorities, particularly African Americans, he said.
Amanullah, 39, the blogger, said extremists don’t come to mosques or Muslim community centers because they fear scrutiny from law enforcement. But they thrive unchallenged on the Web, where it’s easy for people to find them — and difficult for leaders to control them.
He said he and other Muslim bloggers would like to be able to fight extremists on the Web through blogs and critiques in other online forums. He wants to create a program that would give some Muslims explicit freedom to visit extremist sites and do that work.
“We’re not going to get the hard-core ‘jihadis,’ but at least we’ll get to the disaffected people who are wondering what side they should be on,” said Amanullah, who lived in the Bay Area for eight years until 2004 and remains an adviser to regional Muslim groups such as San Jose-based Islamic Networks Group and American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism.
Sutherland, the Homeland Security official, said Chertoff was “very interested” in Amanullah’s proposal but wanted the blogger to work out details.
Starting the conversation about terrorism is problematic. The term “Islamofascism,” used by President Bush and others, offends Muslims who believe their faith condones no violence and other religions are rife with examples of terrorism. Many Muslims also reject terms such as “Islamic terrorism,” “Islamist terrorists” or “Muslim terrorists” for the same reason.
Amanullah and Reza Aslan, author of “No god but God” and a professor of religion and creative writing at the UC Riverside, prefer the term “jihadist.”
Many Muslims object to it because it modifies the Islamic term “jihad,” which refers to an inner struggle — not a military one. But “jihadist” has been widely adopted in the Arab world as a way to describe terrorists, said Aslan.
Aslan, 35, who grew up in San Jose, went to Santa Clara University and taught at De La Salle High School in Concord, said agreeing on terminology is vital.
“If you’re in an ideological war, as we’re told we’re in, then your most powerful weapon becomes your words and your words become very important,” he said.