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5 better ways to enlist U.S. Muslims in the fight against terrorism

As someone who has been involved in counter-terrorism for more than 20 years, I was intrigued with former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman's Op-Ed article Monday on effective strategies to combat radicalization.  

I appreciate Harman's suggestion that we build bridges with Muslim communities, but prominent counter-terrorism thinkers like Harman come across as out of touch with those communities when they suggest that we in the U.S. need to be more effective in arguing how Muslims need to convert to the right side. This is pretentious and full of pitfalls.  

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What I was hoping to read from Harman was how the U.S. government can offer a healthy role for American Muslim communities in these efforts.  

American Muslim leaders cannot be an extension of law enforcement. In fact, our communities have proved effective in pushing back against Al Qaeda rhetoric and shunting radicals out of mosques. Unfortunately, this creates another problem: lone wolves like alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. 

There are five issues.

First, the U.S. government is not the most authentic voice in preaching nonviolence to potential terrorists. In fact, the very people targeted by American efforts view the U.S. as a terrorism sponsor itself, given numerous civilian deaths in drone attacks and other military ventures.

Instead, the government must seek out Muslim leaders who oppose U.S. policies but demand that change take place through nonviolence. This voice is muffled by violent extremists gaining ground in war-torn countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, or when Muslim political groups are designated as terrorist organizations, as in Egypt.

The voices in Muslim communities calling for change through nonviolence exist; they could even occupy space in forums and hearings in Washington.

Second, we need to ask ourselves an important question: Can we prevent or at least minimize radicalization by outcasts like Tsarnaev or even Adam Gadahn, the Orange County teenager who was kicked out of a mosque and became a spokesman for Al Qaeda? 

If so, an effective counter-radicalization strategy would involve prevention and intervention, not just expulsion or calling the police. Prevention could involve replacing violent ideology with good theology. Intervention might call for religious and peer counseling.

But for this kind of counter-radicalization to work, our mosques and gatherings need to be safe harbors free of sting operations or surveillance by the government. We need to foster open and healthy conversations about extremism.

Third, while engagement by law enforcement on issues important to the Muslim community is commendable, it also leads to a stigmatization of us as having only a security-based relationship with government. 

A police chief might be found at many Muslim celebrations and social events -- Harman cites the work of L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca. But why not a congressman or a senator? Why haven't we had a summit with the president on using interfaith relations as a way to prevent extremism from arising from any group? This lack of a meaningful political relationship at the national level hurts the partnership we have been developing with law enforcement over the last 20 years. 

Fourth, the respective work of law enforcement and our community needs to be strictly divided. Police ought to take the lead on criminal investigations, and Muslims should be responsible for developing counter-narratives to radicalization. Mosque and Muslim community leaders need to learn how to discuss radicalization with young people, but we must do it independently, without interference from law enforcement.

Finally, young men who are sold on extremism often display signs of psychosis. They are typically depressed and have become disillusioned with the world or even their own religion. We need to connect these young men to good mental healthcare. 

Bottom line, our community is only further marginalized when U.S. policymakers view Muslim moderates as only those who support American policies in the Muslim world, even if it means unwavering support for war against Muslim countries and communities. In reality, Al Qaeda's nightmare is the image of a well-integrated American Muslim community in the U.S. -- socially, economically and politically.


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Salam Al-Marayati is president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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