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Can Muslim Americans Stop ISIS?

President Obama wants Muslims to crack down on extremism. Well, we’re trying. Muslim leaders respond to the speech.

Pool photo by Saul Loeb

President Obama’s national address Sunday night on defeating ISIS evoked a mix of reactions. Some praised the President for laying out specifics in the war versus ISIS. While on the right some were outraged Obama didn’t utter the words “radical Islam”—as if Obama saying this phrase will magically cause the leaders in ISIS to respond: “Well, they got us now—everyone go home.”

The reaction of the Muslim American community was unsurprisingly also a mixed bag. There was unanimous praise from Muslim Americans for the President making it clear that this is not a “a war between America and Islam.” Obama was also cheered for noting that ISIS is “a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims.” And especially for his point that the number one victim of groups like ISIS are Muslims.

But then comes the split within our community. And it’s one that I personally can relate to since I, too, am conflicted.

There are many in my community who ask why should Muslim Americans be collectively held responsible for the actions of a few who happen to be Muslim? After the deadly Planned Parenthood terrorist attack last week that involved a well armed man together with a propane tank bomb, we didn’t hear the media call on conservative Christians to denounce the gunmen’s actions. We didn’t even hear the phrase “Christian terrorist.” Nor did we hear a call for anti-abortion activists to hold a press conference to condemn the four other Planned Parenthood offices that were recently set on fire by religious extremists.

But Muslims in America are somehow held to a different standard, is the sense many in our community feel. As Zainab Chaudry, spokesperson and Maryland Outreach Director for Council on American Relations (CAIR) commented, the demand that Muslim Americans condemn any terrorist attack that happens anywhere in the world by a Muslim could “set a dangerous precedent that our community will be vilified every time an attack happens.”

Debbie Almontaser, one of the leaders of New York City Muslim American community, noted that we “must work collectively to fight this evil of our times” posed by ISIS. Putting things in perspective, however, she cautioned, “Let us not forget the terrorist attacks perpetrated by white supremacists and other extremist ideologies that also have recently occurred in our nation.”

But still Muslim organizations will condemn terrorism because they know if they don’t, some of our fellow Americans will bafflingly think we agree with it.

Don’t get me wrong, Muslims very much want to play a role in countering ISIS. “No one has a more vested interest in countering Daesh [ISIS] than the American Muslim community,” Hassan Shibly the executive director of CAIR’s Florida office passionately explained.

And New York’s Imam Shamsi Ali remarked, “Muslims are fully aware the responsibility President Obama mentioned and we consider it the most urgent priority and crucial need of our time.” In fact, Imam Ali considers fighting against radicalization and the falsehoods served up ISIS “a religious obligation that the holy Quran and The Prophet Mohammed teaches to all Muslims.”

But here’s thing that many aren’t aware of. Before Obama’s call on Sunday night for Muslims to counter ISIS, there has been a concerted effort to do just that. Farhana Khan, the executive director of Muslim advocates, explained, “Imams and Muslim religious leaders in America have been challenging intolerant, deviant interpretations of Islam.”

And Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) was on my SiriusXM radio show this past Saturday discussing MPAC’s work over the past few years on this front. As Lekovic explained, MPAC’s “Safe Spaces Initiative” works with Imams and Muslim community leaders on assisting them to prevent radicalization and counter the recruitment efforts of terrorist groups like ISIS.

But Lekovic noted that the challenge is that these lone wolf terrorists are in general neither part of the Muslim community nor attending mosques. Or if they are mosque goers like it appears the San Bernardino shooter was, the radicalization doesn’t occur there but rather online.

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This very point was also made by Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. As Hughes noted, there were 56 people arrested in the United States in 2015 for ISIS-related activities. How do these people get recruited? Primarily through social media as ISIS recruiters reach out and groom people to join.

Hughes, who recently co-authored a must-read report (PDF) on ISIS’s recruitment efforts in the United States, notes that ISIS’s sales pitch is tailored to each person. In general they will play upon a “grievance” the person has and explain how ISIS will help them address that. These can range from foreign policy grievances to religious issues to revenge for Muslims killed by the West. Hughes noted that ISIS will then twist and pervert Islam to support its sales pitch.

The biggest takeaway though from Hughes and his report was that there is “no silver bullet” to stop ISIS’s recruitment efforts.

Therein lies the challenge for all of us, and specifically for Muslim Americans. What can we do? I’m sincerely asking that question. Some people, inside and outside the Muslim community, have offered suggestions, from Islam needs to be reformed to Muslims need to assimilate more, etc. These suggestions are made by well-intentioned people, but frankly they are simply grasping at straws. Again, there’s no silver bullet.

It will likely take a concerted series of actions. There’s no doubt that defeating ISIS on the battlefield must be a priority and will go a long way in ending ISIS’s recruitment success. Who wants to join an organization that is getting crushed?

We also need to greatly bolster our efforts to counter ISIS’s recruitment online which is objectively outnumbering our own efforts. This was a point made at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremisms that I attended in February but apparently still has not been corrected.

Muslim leaders will continue to counter ISIS’s sales pitch with the goal of inoculating young Muslims from being taken in by ISIS’s lies. We cannot allow ISIS to go uncontested in explaining what Islam is truly about or cherry picking parts of the Koran to support their perverted sales pitch.

And Muslim leaders will of course confront anyone who spews extremist ideology at our mosques or in our community. But keep in mind that only about 10 to 15 percent of Muslim Americans attend a mosque or are involved in the greater Muslim community. That reality means that online methods to countering radicalization are the key.

The American Muslim community is standing shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Americans. Remaining united in our war versus ISIS is vitally important; dividing Americans by faith only helps ISIS.