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Homegrown Risk Worries U.S. Muslims

Times Staff Writer

In the wake of London bombings that point to homegrown terrorists, American Muslim leaders are increasing their efforts to determine why some Muslim youths are drawn to violence and how to divert them from radical influences.

Muslim leaders here worry about a backlash if domestic terrorism is spread by U.S. Muslims. It was easier to distance themselves from the violence, they said, when the terrorists who flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, turned out to have come from foreign lands.

“This is different. It turns out that these are children of parents who left their home countries to live in the West for a better life for themselves and their children,” said Nazim Karim, a member of the board of the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies at UCLA. “The public [in Great Britain] now believes that these terrorists are among them right now.”

While the educational and cultural circumstances facing Muslims in the United States are in many ways different from those in Great Britain, American Muslims are concerned about a backlash, according to Akbar Ahmed, formerly Pakistan’s high commissioner to Britain and now a professor of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

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“Today in America we are at a very dangerous point in community relationships,” Ahmed said. “If, God forbid, there is some terrible strike [by] some stupid or misguided kid, who has been seduced or induced to do something stupid, then the reaction could be horrific and could lead to a lot of violence.”

U.S. Muslim organizations and leaders have long disavowed terrorism and the killing of innocents as alien to mainstream Islam. Just this month, for example, the Council on American Islamic Relations announced yet another public relations campaign to denounce terrorism, this one with the theme, “Not in the Name of Islam.” But that message is chiefly directed at the U.S. public.

Since the July 7 London bombings that killed 56 -- including four British Muslims presumed to be suicide bombers -- and Thursday’s similar but less damaging attacks, Muslim leaders said they would focus directly on their own young people and why a small minority may be attracted to a virulent interpretation of their faith that has abetted terrorism.

Muslim leaders are also examining other reasons why youths may be disaffected. On Saturday, for example, an estimated 120 Muslims listened intently at a forum at Cal State Northridge that grappled with a major dilemma faced by many second-generation Muslim youths -- “American or Muslim.” Chantal Carnes, a 30-year-old American convert to the faith, spoke of a generation gap between many Muslim youths in the U.S. and their parents that makes it difficult for young Muslims to fully integrate into American life.

“Some parents need to recognize their kids are part of this society,” she said. “They need to pass on their Muslim identity but recognize the American identity is there also,” she said in an interview.

Muslim youths, she told the audience, do not sit on the boards of most mosques or other Muslim organizations. Most of the 1,800 full-time Islamic parochial schools in the U.S. do not require their students to be involved in community service projects, such as volunteering at soup kitchens, as do many public schools and parochial schools of other faiths.

“Our presence in the world is to be an active, positive presence,” she told the group.

Similar efforts are underway elsewhere. In Virginia, the Muslim American Society said it would intensify its work with youths and expand youth training programs to encourage volunteerism, community service and overall civic engagement.

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The Muslim Students Assn. said last week that it had begun to forge closer ties with other mainstream Islamic groups, including the Muslim Public Affairs Council, based in Los Angeles, and the Islamic Society of North America. At the urging of the Los Angeles group, the student association issued a statement pledging to be “steadfast in combating this ideology of hatred” among its own constituency.

Jordan Robinson, chairman of the student group’s political action task force, said he anticipated expanding the number of youth forums to hammer the message home. Robinson, 20, a convert to Islam, is a journalism student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

Muslim high schoolers plan a summit in Chicago in association with the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America, which is expected to draw up to 40,000 Muslims from around the country in September.

Meanwhile, youth forums around the nation led by Aslam Abdullah of the Islamic Society of Nevada are being changed to reflect the violence in England. A program Friday in Las Vegas, for example, originally had been scheduled to address the issue of “prayer and character building.” Instead, the topic became “Islam and nonviolence.”

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“We must get to our youth before someone else does,” Maher Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California said during a Friday sermon in Los Angeles. “We must respond to their needs and their questions so that we don’t leave room for individuals with false and dangerous ideologies to lead them astray.”

It is a theme increasingly heard from other Muslim leaders.

“We want to make sure our youth get the proper understanding of Islam and help them fulfill all their potential and keep them out of the range of extremism and moral vices,” said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, who said his group will step up outreach through affiliated Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. “The worst moral vice I can think of is ... to combat injustice, or perceived injustice, through injustice.”

Hasnain Syed, 26, of Chatsworth, a Cal State Northridge business major and an activist in mainstream Muslim groups, was among those who attended the campus event Saturday.

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The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks “forced most of us to come out of our shells,” and now with new bombings in London, he said, Muslim youths must press forward to become fully engaged in U.S. politics. He said many U.S. Muslims may disagree with the Bush administration’s foreign policies but most would agree with many Americans on other issues, from Social Security reform to racial profiling.

“That means we need to be individuals who are proactive, who need to be integrated and work with society without compromising our principles and our beliefs,” he said.

Muslim leaders are not alone in their concern about possible homegrown terrorism. In Washington, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met Thursday with U.S. Muslim leaders on the issue. The meeting was scheduled before the latest bombing attempts in London. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has endorsed a call by Muslim leaders there for a thorough inquiry into the causes of homegrown terrorism and how to respond.

Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, was one of those who met with Biden in Washington. He said the American Muslim community had been successful in forging cooperative ties with government officials and law enforcement. But he said more needed to be done to reach Muslim youths.

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The task is formidable, he said. While much is being done to reach youths at the local level through mosques and schools, there needs to be greater cooperation at the national level among various Muslim organizations, Al-Marayati said. “We have no infrastructure.”

That suggestion was welcomed this week by Robinson of the Muslim Students Association. He said he hoped that cooperation on nationwide outreach with groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council and Islamic Society of North America would help amplify the work of the student association.

“Are we missing something? Have we missed this mosque? Have we not heard that someone said it’s OK to do this or that? We have to go beyond our frustration,” he said.

Their frustration, mainstream Muslim leaders have said, is that they have condemned violence and terrorism from the start.

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“We can’t yell any louder. People who are hateful, people who espouse this ideology, are not going to hear us one more time and say, ‘What am I thinking?’ ” Robinson said. “I don’t want to say that Muslims in America are potential threats, that there are secret sleeper cells we are not catching. I think there are a very small number of people in the single-digit percentages that ... have a lot of hatred in their hearts. I don’t think there is a problem in the Muslim community.”

For the stepped-up outreach efforts to be successful, another student leader said, they will have to overcome apathy born of their own positive experiences as mainstream Muslims.

“To be honest with you, I don’t see it [terrorist thinking] in our community. That’s why these attacks are such a shock to us,” said Hadia Mubarak, past president of the Muslim Students Assn. “When you don’t know if someone is hiding, they’re hiding from everyone. They’re hiding from Muslims as well as others.”

The circumstances faced by Muslims in America are not identical to those of Muslims in England or France, several of the leaders said. Generally speaking, they said that Muslims in the U.S. tend to be better educated and hold higher paying jobs than those in England or France.

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Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, observed that France and England colonized Muslim lands.

“It’s difficult for the French psyche to recognize Muslims as equals. They were ruling them,” Syeed said. “The day I landed in this country [the U.S.] my rights were equal to anyone else whose ancestors might have migrated here from some other lands.”

Another problem, said Ahmed, of American University, is that U.S. foreign policy is widely seen among Muslims worldwide as being aimed against them, despite repeated denials by the Bush administration.

But regardless of U.S. foreign policy, Ahmed said Muslims have no choice but to press forward with an invigorated outreach to their own. The message leaders must take to their youth is that the way to change things is through democratic means, not violence, he said. “I’m not at all satisfied with Muslim leadership. I want to see them much more active. I want to see them nail the [American] flag to the mosque,” Ahmed said. “They have to make it clear that they are Americans.”

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