Experts discuss the importance of an organic and systemic relationship between the different sects of the Muslim community and governments in order to combat radicalization.
This session was part of the symposium, UK and U.S. Approaches in Countering Radicalization: Intelligence, Communities, and the Internet, which was cosponsored with Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies and King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. This event was made possible by Georgetown University's George T. Kalaris Intelligence Studies Fund and the generous support of longtime CFR member Rita E. Hauser. Additionally, this event was organized in cooperation with the CFR’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Am I on? Could everyone please take their seats. Everyone, please take your seats, and we'll get started. Thank you very much.
My name is Craig Whitlock. I'm a reporter for The Washington Post. Welcome to the fifth session of today's symposium, entitled Reaching Out: Promoting Community Engagement.
I've been asked to remind you to please turn off your BlackBerrys completely, phones and so forth so it doesn't interfere with the sound system.
I've also been asked to give you a Miranda warning of sorts that this session is on the record, so anything you say may and possibly will be used in all sorts of forms of media and recording.
It's also a reminder that there was an earlier session today that was not for attribution, and we're not supposed to make obvious reference to that during today's discussion. But again, this is on the record. That's also to encourage everyone to have a nice, vigorous, provocative discussion up here.
We're very fortunate to have four panelists, three of whom are original residents of the U.K., one who is from here in the U.S. And we will hopefully be treading some of the same ground that has been raised in earlier sessions, but hopefully from a different perspective.
And I'll start by introductions. I'll let you all read their more extensive bios in the packets.
But to my right here is Abdal Ullah. He's a councilor with the Tower Hamlets and a former member of the London Metropolitan Police Authority.
Next we Have Munira Mirza, who is arts and culture adviser to the mayor of London.
And to her right is Suhail Khan, who was a member of the Public Liaison Office in the Bush administration, and also at other capacities in the first Bush administration.
And to his right is Ed Husain, who is a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations, but also a well-known figure on the subjects in the U.K.
So welcome all.
And to get started, I'd like to continue the thread that Bruce Hoffman brought up at the end of the last discussion about Inspire magazine. Maybe this is a bit of a reach, but Suhail, I'll throw this at you.
After September 11th, there were significant efforts by the Bush administration to reach out to the Muslim community. In fact, I recall it's more recently been revealed that the Pentagon had invited a number of who they thought were moderate Muslim clerics and leaders over for lunch. It later turned out that one of these moderate Muslim leaders turned out to be Anwar al-Awlaki, who, of course, is now known for different things in Yemen, for Inspire magazine.
And Suhail, in retrospect, this may look like a ham-handed attempt to try and reach out to the Muslim community in the aftermath of 9/11, but I want to ask you, was it? You know, was this something that should have happened? It was well-intentioned. You know, clearly didn't go the way people wanted. But was that such a bad idea?
SUHAIL KHAN: Well, first, thank you for having me this afternoon. I really appreciate being included in this panel, and especially with the guests that are here as my co-panelists.
To answer your question, really, first, just a minor correction. It wasn't that the Bush administration began their outreach to American Muslims post-9/11. If you remember, the 2000 elections were really a seminal year in the American-Muslim political history in that both candidates at the time during the elections, then-Governor George W. Bush and then sitting-Vice President Al Gore, were both actively seeking American-Muslim support.
And George W. Bush had, as governor in Austin, had reached out early on and met with Muslim-American leaders. If you recall, in the second debate with Al Gore, he brought up the issue of racial profiling of Muslim Americans, the use of secret evidence in trials and in detention of Muslims in the country.
And so he had gotten out front in reaching out to American Muslims to get support. And as a consequence in 2000, a large percentage of the American-Muslim community -- estimates vary between 72 and 76 percent of the American-Muslim community -- supported George W. Bush as a candidate; 42,000 votes in Florida alone.
So when 9/11 occurred, it wasn't that the Bush administration was now scrambling to reach out to American Muslims.
By the same token, at the time that the Bush administration was reaching out to Muslim Americans post-9/11, if you remember, the president visited a mosque right here in Washington, D.C. to remind Americans that ours is not a war on Islam, but rather a war on extremists, and not to engage in a backlash or to really go the way that we have in the past, including in World War II against Japanese Americans.
There were different people at the time were trying to get into the White House. This is Washington, D.C. This is a very political town. And so there were people, like al-Awlaki, who were also were trying to get attention.
So I would state first that it wasn't something that was done last minute. This was a sustained effort. And anything, including in government, nothing is perfect. People come in. And later on what happens with people also can be something that is out of the control of government.
But I think that engagement is important and needs to be underscored.
And I was listening to the last panel. I think what's so important for government, whether they're political leaders or folks in law enforcement, is not only that there be a very organic and systemic partnership, but also that, when there are voices, extreme voices out there, both from the extremist side and from the anti-Muslim side, that government come alongside to promote national security and to help very much condemn voices that are going to be unhelpful towards enhancing our national security.
WHITLOCK: And to follow up, at that time was -- let's focus on post-9/11. And as you pointed out, of course, the Bush administration was looking for political support up to the election, but after 9/11, things, of course, there is a different purpose. You know, they weren't trolling for votes at that point so much as, you know, trying to engage the Muslim community.
You know, at that time in the months after 9/11 and in the subsequent years, was it -- was there much thought given to reaching out to prevent radicalization in the Muslim community? Or was this really to show that this was not a war on Islam, that this was trying to promote good faith efforts in terms of community relations?
KHAN: It was a little bit of both, quite frankly, it was a little bit of both. And what you have to realize is that there was a change over the course of the last nine years since 9/11.
Initially, when the attack occurred on September 11th, Muslim-American community's response was shock, just as much as their fellow Americans, also something, I would say, of denial.
A couple of reasons. First, the hijackers were not American Muslims. These were not people that were going to mosques or part of communities. These were not people that were known. These were people that were living below the radar and had launched an attack against our country.
So to a certain degree, the American-Muslim community said, we're in this fight with our fellow Americans against foreign terrorists who have come to attack us.
Since then, the narrative have changed with people like al-Awlaki specifically recruiting American Muslims to engage in violence. And so now the community's posture has changed, one from kind of facing an outward enemy. And to a certain degree, the government's response was a little bit one of a miss in that the common narrative was there are these imams out there in the country, who are preaching hate and are trying to radicalize their flocks. And that was, of course, not the case.
There weren't these imams out there. Maybe there were in Europe, but not so much in the United States. And so for a long time, government was spinning its wheels.
In the meantime, people like al-Awlaki and bin Laden and others were getting online and recruiting English-speaking, American-born Muslims to try and engage in terrorism in response to the very rigorous steps that were taken by government to stop foreign terrorism. And that's where the Muslim community had to undergo a transformation to say, hey, we might have a problem. Junior down in the basement is spending a lot of time on the Internet, might be talking to the wrong people.
And that's why you saw several years of transformation where the Muslim community finally came to realize, we need to police our own, and that our kids could be susceptible to hateful messages. And when we see behavior that is not right, we need to report that to law enforcement.
And for the most part, that is happening. If you look at the kids that were arrested right here in northern Virginia, if you look at the arrest of the Times Square bomber, even the Christmas Day bomber, these were people that were turned in with help from Muslim-American community. So that partnership is there. It may not get all the headlines, and perhaps Chairman King needs to get that message. But that partnership is there. It can always be improved and enhanced.
WHITLOCK: Suhail, I think that brings up a good segue to our U.K. friends here.
As you rightly point out, I think, initially after 9/11 here, there wasn't as much concern about imams preaching hate and influencing people. But of course, that's been a much longer-standing problem in the U.K. where there have been English-speaking imams who have been preaching hate for a long time.
I'd like to, in particular, talk about the PREVENT program that has been referenced earlier, the preventing violent extremism in the U.K., which, to put it fairly, has probably had mixed reviews.
Like to ask Munira and Abdal for their thoughts on this in terms of, if the government in the U.K. had a chance to do this over again, how would that be done differently.
MUNIRA MIRZA: I think it's fair to say that there is a greater understanding of the diversity of views in the Muslim community, and a recognition that we should treat the claims of more extremist voices, the claim that they represent the Muslim community, we should treat that with more skepticism than perhaps had been the case in the past.
And even the concept of a Muslim community, homogeneous community that feels the same way about political issues is really actually an invention over the last 20 years, 20 to 30 years in Britain. Prior to the 1980s, people in Britain didn't identify so much as Muslims in the public space as Asians or Bangladeshis or Pakistanis. The concept of being a Muslim in the public sphere came out of a set of cultural, social and political trends, partly exacerbated actually by government policy, both at the local and the national level.
And what you have, I think, is, today, a greater understanding of the fact that Muslim lobby groups and Muslim community leaders actually very rarely represent the Muslim population, despite all their claims, because the Muslim population is so diverse. And on many, many different issues, we'll have quite divergent views.
And I think part of the reason that I'm here is because I did quite a lot of research in a previous role, looking at Muslim attitudes, and could see that the Muslim opinion about Sharia law, about free speech, about even foreign policy, was actually very diverse. And that this idea of engaging with our Muslim community can be counterproductive, because what it does is it exacerbates a politicized identity along lines of religiosity rather than an engagement with people, our citizens. It enforces this idea that they belong to a community and a group.
WHITLOCK: Well, in fact, from your research and expertise, just the fact that there was a government program designed to reach out to the Muslim community, was that seen as offensive, was that seen as misguided, just the fact that they were looking at a broad Muslim community rather than individuals or individual groups, and trying distinctions? How did that go over, just that by itself?
MIRZA: I mean, there are two issues with PREVENT. I mean, this is, you know, my personal take on it. One was that there was a concern that funding and status was being conferred on more extremist organizations and individuals, and that these people were being invited in because they were seen to have some kind of connection with the Muslim community.
I think that that was not the case, and there's an appreciation of that now.
More generally, the concept of community engagement, which has developed really since the '70s and '80s in Britain, has been -- has arisen out of a change in the way in which politics is done at the local and national level.
So rather than engaging with people as universal citizens who might have shared concerns, shared aspirations, there is a division going on or a differentiation going on where people are grouped into categories -- you're a Muslim, you're an Asian, you're a Jew, you know, et cetera.
And that has, I think, fueled a sense of difference that hadn't been there previously, or not to the same extent. So on that level, I think that the kind of government response to dealing with Muslims has been, rather than the solution, it has exacerbated the problem.
WHITLOCK: Abdal, what do you think?
ABDAL ULLAH: Good afternoon. Personally speaking, having been to D.C. post-7/7, I was asked by the foreign office, sort of home office, to chair the task group looking at Muslim youth and radicalization in Britain. Having coming to D.C. post-7/7, I realized there was not much for us to learn from USA in terms of sort of looking at the local level.
We then went about setting about agenda how to sort of got better engage, understand the Muslim community.
Now, post-2006, I left my role as a Police Authority member in London to sort of seek public office. And subsequently been elected in the constituency with the largest Muslim population in the United Kingdom. Now, I wasn't a Muslim representative. I was an elected official for the whole constituency, of which happens to be a high proportion of Muslim.
I personally accepted the PREVENT money, in fact the largest amount of PREVENT money in the country. And I went about, because of my personal experience with the Police Authority and the home office, engaging with the community.
I think the conversation earlier was about bottom-up. I invited community groups to say, you know, I want to sort of address the issues, I want to talk about the issues and not shy away from it. There is sort of a stigma, and I totally accept that.
And I think I shared with you yesterday and I want to share with the audience about how we went about doing this. It was a big taboo, you know, PREVENT money coming to an area with a high proportion of Muslims, and in fact one of the largest youth population in the country, if not Western Europe.
It was seen like, is it because this young Muslim was going to be trouble? Well, predominantly South Asian Muslims, of which are 80 percent are Bangladeshis, and the Bangladeshi community has not been spectacularly in terms at the forefront of the national terror.
However, we want to engage with those people. Now, I couldn't just go out there and say, send -- I think there are a couple of Met people here -- send officers, middle-aged, white officers into a Muslim youth center or a Muslim community and say, let's talk about terror and so forth, because that would not be the right thing. This is about winning confidence and winning trust.
Now, I was alerted to a project, and I sort of took on that project. It was a small voluntary sector organization working with the deaf Muslims, who are excluded in all forms of mainstream society. Now, they go to the mosque on a Friday, and they've never participated or understood the sermon.
So one of the things I did was to give a small amount of money to that project from the PREVENT to bring about sign language of the sermon on a Friday prayer. And that was spectacularly received in the community as, wow, this has never happened. And it brought tears to not just my eye, but many people, 5,000 people that go to that particular mosque when a man who's been going to the mosque for 27 years says this is the first time that he felt part of the congregation because he was able to understand.
And when that reached the community, it was great. But then I was able to say, this is part of the PREVENT. It's about extending the communication, making our community feel safe. Given the fact that the 7/7 bombing happened literally a two-minute walk from that mosque -- (inaudible) -- and that sort of made people understand the PREVENT agenda is not about the Muslim community is seen as the troublesome, but the Muslim community has a solution to prevent mostly young people from being radicalized.
So the PREVENT agenda and the money allowed us to work exclusively with the Muslim community, but not all completely. We had interfaith project. That was a trip to Bosnia by a group of multi-faith representatives from our area, to understand the post-Bosnia situation. It gave opportunity to understand the community better, even though we lived amongst each other on a daily basis, having the same problem, whether it be school, policing problem or bus and transport.
But it kind of gave us an opportunity to understand and deliver service to better equip the community to deal with the problem that the authorities were seeking to get information, and also make the community and the borough and the area safer.
WHITLOCK: Well, that's all -- those sound like very worthwhile programs in terms of community engagement. You mentioned helping deaf Muslims have access in terms of better understanding what the Friday prayers are.
But you know, how does that help prevent violent extremism? And how do you make that connection between -- this is, after all, what the -- I mean, it sounds like a noble purpose, what the government is trying to do in terms of helping out with these projects. But what's the payoff on that front?
ULLAH: What the payoff is, is it's been four years. Once we started the project, which was well received, we then told the community, this is part of the PREVENT program. We then have gone about setting new projects, working with the more hard-to-reach young people.
I prefer to call them the pamphlet preacher. This is taking one verse from the Quran, particularly in -- we call them chicken shops, you know, sort of not McDonald's, but in a similar kind of thing, where they preach hate to young vulnerable people.
Now, what we do then is bring a -- (inaudible) -- platform debate. We had ministers coming into youth centers, you know, and literally one-to-one on this sort of platform, talking to them. And trying to give an example where PREVENT has allowed or created a platform for people to air their frustration, but in a positive way. And then through bona fide projects, get young people to have the confidence to approach a youth worker, who will then speak to our designed Met officers.
And I think in one of the earlier sessions, they talked about the three things around community. Well, the three institutions, which I was very much involved with -- university, as a government, as a Muslim and a member of the Council of Mosques, which is an umbrella organization of 40 mosques. As I said, it's the largest population of Muslims. Forty mosques from some as small as this room, to a big one with 5,000, who are part of an umbrella organization that could actually talk to the authorities. And then on an individual level as individual citizens, that we had a multi-layer of relationship in that area because we were able to build trust with the authorities and the public.
The vast majority of the Muslim community did not feel threatened by Met officers going into a community center, working with women. And I think the -- I consider him to be a hero -- the commissioner or the police of Los Angeles, because I've sort of been involved with the police authority, seen what is done -- the drug problem is a big issue in the Muslim community.
And we sort of parallel the drug problem with the terror problem, which is sweeping it under the carpet, as in happened in my family, no, no, no. We've got to address the issue, so we spoke to the mothers around, I think, your example of what is Ali doing in the basement in the Google and so forth.
We, you know, we need to educate them around certain trends. We know for a lot of young Muslims who are involved disproportionately in prison, youth institutions. When they come out, their appearance changes. The beard is longer than the father, and they pray more, and timing, and sort of different mood swings.
We want to address that to the mothers, because they're the best people to understand. So we've run workshops with police, with community figures, to sort of address some of those problems.
So it's about going to the grassroots and making the community feel that they're empowered to challenges, because otherwise, it's a them-and-us situation. Met officers, whether they be in plain clothes or uniform, turning up, it just creates tension. And in an urban setting in a minority community, there is a distrust of authority. We just didn't want to add to that. We wanted to build trust. That's how we do it.
WHITLOCK: Ed Husain, I'd like to come to you a little bit here. Given your personal history, you've spoken and written widely about your experiences with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also with HuT. Tell us a little bit more about that. Is there anything the government could have done to reach out to you? Or is this something that should be done by other actors?
ED HUSAIN: Well, I think most young people at a certain age in life ask the question, what's life all about? Who am I? What are my surroundings all about?
And at that stage in my life and, you know, a whole generation of people throughout the 1990s in Europe, I think, troubled by the events in Bosnia, turned to people who were on our doorsteps, who were giving us very black-and-white solutions to the world's problems.
So if Muslims were getting killed in Bosnia in the thousands that they were, and they were blond, blue-eyed, white Muslims that were being killed, despite being in Bosnia for 400-plus years, what's the answer to that problem?
Now, on my college campus and elsewhere, there was a lot of mobilization around the Bosnia conflict in the early 1990s. And the answers to those conflicts weren't forthcoming on my campus from, say, the Liberal Democrats or from the Labour Party or from the Tory Party or from anyone else.
The answers were forthcoming from the kind of groups that you spoke about -- the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir and others. And their answers were very black-and-white, very direct, very blunt. But you know, to the mind of a 16-year old at the time, very effective.
And I think what could have been done differently then, and I think it's being done increasingly now, is the emergence of political parties in the U.K., whether they're sort of center-right, center-left or further along the left-wing spectrum, but actually engage with young Muslims on questions of global politics, on questions of identity, and then have alternative outlets that then take those grievances through the mainstream, pluralist political system. And we're beginning to see that now emerge in the U.K. more than was the case, say, in the 1990s.
WHITLOCK: Suhail, I'll come pick at you again about this. As you know, this country was founded more than 200 years ago by political and religious radicals, many of whom had escaped from the U.K. to come here, to believe what they wished in freedom.
Should the government of either the U.K. or the United States be trying to reach out, engage in a way that could be construed as interfering in religion, no matter how extreme?
KHAN: Yes, and it would not be in the role of interfering. We are a country founded on principles of religious freedom that are enshrined in our First Amendment. And I think the answers lie right there in the First Amendment. And that is, what I use as kind of a bumper sticker slogan, seminary is security. We should continue to promote religious freedom, religious discussion, religious dialogue.
And in doing so, the religious communities, in this case, the Muslim community, whether it's here in the United States or in Europe or other places in the world, will self-police if there is full religious freedom.
When there are attempts to silence religious discussion or to marginalize religious voices, that's when you drive religious voices underground, and then they don't have the sunlight, the power of sunlight to really have that vigorous discussion out in the open.
And so extremist voices can then, again, recruit people, whether it's on closed places like the Internet, or in quiet discussions and whispers in back rooms, rather than having those discussions out in the open.
So going back to our Founding Fathers, we need to have full and rigorous religious freedom for all groups, and that includes vigorous discussions. And that includes with government.
And the other thing I'll say, and that brings alongside what Ed brought about, and that is, the answer does lie in faith. When you have extremists who are motivated, in part, by narratives that are drawn out in a faith narrative, even though they are taken from verses from the Quran or misinterpretations by some extremists of their faith, whether they're Muslim or even of other faiths, the answer lies in religion.
You cannot use a secular narrative to counter a religiously based narrative. Because there, again, to use one more bumper sticker, we need to have the best of faith to defeat the worst of religion.
In other words, religious actors, religious voices who are authentic leaders in the Muslim-American community, in the Muslim-European community, need to be brought forward to really punch holes in the narratives of the al-Awlakis and Osama bin Ladens or the HuT voices, et cetera.
Because what we find is, their voices and their religious narrative is paper thin, they take a very angry political narrative, and they wrap it in the cloak of a religious argument that is paper thin.
And when they are confronted by authentic and authentically educated Muslim leaders, those arguments fall away. But that argument needs to be had, and that can only be had if there's a rigorous debate, out in the open.
WHITLOCK: Well, that brings up a really good point about self-policing. Any of you three from the U.K. care to talk about examples where self-policing has worked, and how that can be encouraged further?
MIRZA: Can I just pick up on the point about the role of bringing in religious leaders? And I can understand the argument that it's important that there's a debate within the Muslim community between the extremist voices and the more moderate voices. And I think that that's started to happen increasingly in Britain.
And actually, I think William and Ed's work has been incredibly important in Britain, because it exploded the myth that all those Muslims were represented by one particular group. It exposed the fact that there was a debate that needed to happen.
But I think that it's important to think about the bigger picture and why it is that a particular form of religious politicized identity has emerged in Britain, and why it hasn't, to the same extent, in America.
And I think part of the explanation for that is, the multicultural approach that has happened in Britain, where local politicians have sought to engage with religious leaders, partly as a -- and you know, I think this is fair to say. There's a cynical strategy to getting votes, and we know that that's happened historically in Britain, and have created an almost Faustian pact with particular leaders. You deliver us votes, we will confer status upon you.
At the same time, religious groups, community groups are very vulnerable to being hijacked by more extreme voices. You know, I always say, you know, people who set up community groups and community organizations don't tend to be the ones that have nothing to complain about.
There's something inherent in the notion of engaging with a community group, which invites the culture of grievance and complaints because, you know, that's their raison d'etre, that's their justification. They have to think of reasons to complain as well.
And therefore, I think we need to be cautious about the idea that by engaging with religious leaders or community leaders, we deal with that problem, we've softened extremism. Because I think what you end up doing is you create a greater consciousness amongst Muslims that they are Muslims first and foremost, rather than citizens, and for young Muslims, in particular.
And this happened after September the 11th and after the July bombings in London 2005, where it wasn't so much the terrorist act that was the radicalizing influence; I think it was the reaction to the terrorist act from government, from particular leaders by talking about Muslims as a group and by scrutinizing them as a group. And in doing so, encouraging Muslims to make a choice by saying, you are a Muslim, and the way that you identify, the way that you experience this situation and you relate to it is primarily as a Muslim, rather than as a citizen of Britain.
So I think that, you know, the road to hell has been paved with good intentions in this. You know, no other area of British policy is characterized by so much naivete, in a sense. And you know, we've learned a huge amount, I would say, over the last five years about how delicate the identity formation has been for young Muslims and the way in which particular government interventions have, in some cases, exacerbated that problem.
WHITLOCK: Well, Abdal, she brings up -- she talks about how easy it can be for radical elements to hijack mainstream groups. In your community, have you seen any attempts at this? And if so, what's the most effective way to deal with that?
ULLAH: Well, out of all the panel, I'm sort of the one who has sort of gotten elected by the public out there. And I don't think I've used the religious-bloc vote for my advantage.
I think the key practical issue is, there are those more in Britain, a small, a very small group, who are going to go about advocating that voting is forbidden, it's, you know, man-made law and so forth. And I actually have confronted that many times, going back to then my local MP, Una King (ph), who was a mixed Jewish, and her father was American, and confronting HuT, who were giving out leaflet, was I was giving out on behalf of her leaflet, outside the large mosque.
And then when I stood for public office, I was then an automatic target, because, you know, from my student days, from youth parliament days, I've been forefront of youth citizenship, you know, leading the youth political movement.
So it was like, how do they go about stopping me, because I was sort of the voice and so forth?
And I have to say, it was the elders in the community who supported me, because this is somebody they saw as their kid of, you know, who has done this and been involved with youth activities and trying to bring positive.
So they came about supporting me, and that also inspired the youngsters who rejected their sort of belief of a democracy isn't for us. And so we actually -- and I went about encouraging others to be involved in political debate and political position. And at some time, even so, you know, those who I encouraged stood in different platforms, and sometimes against me, which is not a good thing to do, but I did it.
And that sort of shunned the voice of the very minorities who were saying that voting is haraam and you shouldn't take part in democracy, and that the party that I stood for went to war with Mr. Bush. And so it was really interesting.
And I think what you're saying, self-policing, that was evident, was that the community decided to come out in numbers, four or five individuals would stand for political parties, of whom was a Muslim as their background. So that kind of gave a clear message that what they were selling about not participating in democracy and elections, was not, you know, what they believed in. And that has helped us.
But in terms of -- in relationship about the Muslim core vote, I don't think it's about politicians, whether they be locally or regionally, exploiting them. They are there to be spoken to. If they choose to vote for you in a way because they feel comfortable, that is obviously a good way to go about getting the votes. But it's not about manipulating those particular bloc votes.
WHITLOCK: Ed, you have the history with the Muslim Brotherhood and HuT. Is there a danger? Does the government, both here and in the U.K., tend to lump these groups together, to some extent? And how can it say who's, you know, how does it draw the line on which groups should be encouraged or considered legitimate and which ones should not be? That's a tricky line, isn't it?
HUSAIN: In terms of engagement?
HUSAIN: That's an excellent question. And I think many of the previous panelists on some of the panels early in the morning were referring to not knowing enough. And this is a real challenge, especially here in the U.S. context.
And I've been here just over four months now, and watching some of the turbulence in the Middle East appearing on some of the news channels here, seeing educated liberal, well-to-do, often well-thought-out people on every other subject, suddenly lump the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda together, and say, is Egypt about to be controlled by al Qaeda, and extending the metaphor to other countries.
And I think that's deeply worrying. It sort of fails to understand the deep nuances within those organizations and without those organizations. So that's a real problem, more so I think here in the U.S. in the state of public debate, than it is in the U.K.
And that's a real risk. It's a real risk for foreign policy; it's a real risk for domestic policy.
But one of the things I want to say in the U.S. domestic context -- and again, as someone who's been observing as a semi-outsider -- is that I think, again, too much of the commentary -- and forgive me for naming names -- puts major organizations such as ISNA, NPAC, CAIR, MASS and all those organizations together as Muslim Brotherhood organizations or Muslim Brotherhood legacy organizations.
Now, without doubt, there are ties historically to the Muslim Brotherhood. But to suggest that ISNA -- and I speak after having met ISNA that has excellent ties with synagogues here in the U.S., that condemns Hamas, unreservedly, that -- I mean, every test you can give them, they more or less pass those tests -- is somehow the same as other organizations that foster the victimhood mind-set that Muslims are essentially, you know, a victim community, that it's a resistance community.
Somehow, this all-one-in-the-same, I think, again, leads to then bad policy being crafted. So there is this real issue.
And the last point I'd make is this. And again, as someone who's, you know, been up close and personal in the U.K. with some of the more negative aspects of Muslim activism and also the negative attitudes of the U.K. government previously in dealing with empowering, even literally ennobling, you know, people become sir this, sir that, on the back of the U.K. government's engagement with some of those characters in the U.K. -- having met those people and sort of, you know, been involved with them in the U.K. and then coming over here to the U.S. and then seeing the huge strength that you have as Americans with your American-Muslim community, I mean, it's a huge asset that you have, that you're not starting from scratch.
In other words, there's a strong national identity in place already among most American Muslims. There's a strong feeling of commitment to the Constitution, an understanding of American history, a dedication to what it means to be American. Those are key, you know, deep-rooted principles and assets that you have against the fight and the narrative of al Qaeda, because al Qaeda undermines all of that and claims fundamentally that Islam and the West are somehow at loggerheads.
But you have nearly 8 million, 9 million Muslims in your midst that daily undermine that narrative. And yet, I often find that huge asset, your first line of defense, almost being, you know, sort of sidelined repeatedly.
So you know, I'm an optimist for American Muslims, and I think American Islamists, American Muslims are, in many ways, in comparison to European Muslims, are pioneers for some of the key debates happening within Islam.
WHITLOCK: Good. Let's open things up to questions. And we'll bring the microphone around. If you could please stand up, again, state your name and affiliation clearly for the record.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Dan Sreebny from the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications at the Department of State. I want to thank all the panelists for this very interesting session.
Ed Husain talked a little bit about some of the shows that he's appeared on and the naivete or ignorance of some of the journalists.
One of the factors that impacts on communities and perceptions of communities is how they are communicated about, not just in mainstream news, but in the tabloids, in the talk shows, the cable stations and, of course, on the Internet. So I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you try, as part of community partnerships, both to strengthen communities' capabilities to communicate effectively on their own behalf, and also how to work with professional communicators and others to improve their ability to communicate on these issues of interest. Thank you.
WHITLOCK: Anyone care to take a crack at that?
ULLAH: It's a two-way street. I remember after 7/7, then the commissioner or the assistant commissioner going on record, and I happened to be -- when 7/7 happened, I was actually in Singapore for the London Olympic. And watching, glued to a telly. And the first press conference, you know, the assistant commissioner saying, Muslim, you know, something around what you're sort of saying, this is a terrorist act in our city, it has nothing to do with Muslim.
And I remember another senior officer actually, not necessarily out of (context ?), but saying it was a Muslim terrorist. So it was a conflicting message.
And I remember it, and returning back from Singapore, and the first Police Authority meeting asking, categorically saying, look, I am a member of the authority, but I'm also a Muslim, and I live amongst the community. This is the clear message, that you've got to get the message right on the media, because you are officially the spokesperson of security for this capital. Get the message right.
And also, speaking to a few friendly journalists in the BBC and other local channels, saying, please do not go to the loudmouth. We have various media-hungry Muslims, I'm sure you've got them in America as well, who love the attention of the media. And they will talk.
(Inaudible) -- was one of them. Abu Hamza (ph), the one-handed "Captain Hook" it was named on the tabloid, they love talking rubbish. And do not go to them.
But then the question was, who is -- you know, who do we go to? So I mean, I couldn't say, come to x, y and z. But I said, look, do not go to the obvious. It was a two-way thing.
I think the media needs to be a bit more responsible, because whatever you put out on the TV has an effect, an immediate effect on the community, but also the community itself needs to self-police itself and put responsible, good people in the media to kind of portray and give an accurate interpretation of the Muslim community, whether it be in Britain or in the United States.
KHAN: I'd like to add to that, and that is, there has been a change for the worse, particularly in the American discourse, when it comes to issues related to Islam and Muslims, unfortunately on my side of the aisle, amongst conservative groups, particularly.
The questions I used to get 10 years ago, or even a year after 9/11 about Islam and Muslims are very different from the questions I get now. And that is because of several factors, including the fact that there have been several homegrown terrorist attempts on our country. No doubt about it.
But also that there is an industry out there with a very distinct business model that stirs up hate and distrust against Muslims and Islam, in general. And you know, you can name names. I mean, the guys are out there, whether they're Pam Geller or Frank Gaffney or other folks like that Robert Spencer who really drum up a narrative.
And in many ways, it's very much a mirror of what al Qaeda is promoting, and that is that Islam and the West are inherently at conflict, that there's no way that a Muslim could be loyal in a democracy, there's no way that a Muslim could ever follow a Constitution where there's human rights and freedom; and therefore, there's an inherent conflict.
And whether that's coming from somebody like al-Awlaki, bin Laden or from somebody like Frank Gaffney, that is very much not only an issue that misinforms the public and causes mistrust and can just -- not just want to be politically correct or hurting somebody's feelings -- but it really does jeopardize our national security in that it reinforces a very hostile narrative, that when you have some young youth who are susceptible, whether they're unemployed or having trouble getting married or getting a job, or whatever the issue might be, they might turn to this narrative.
You see the bomber, the Times Square bomber, he was upset about drone attacks in Pakistan, goes on the net. Al-Awlaki is right there, ready to begin dialoguing with him, grooming him, much like you have in a child predator. And then grooms him, and then one step leads to the other, and he's parking a car full of explosives in Times Square.
Those are step-by-step processes. And when you have an outside narrative in the country, that we are at war with Islam, that Islam is a threat, from people who are otherwise responsible political actors and voices out there -- we saw these voices coming to a very shrill pitch around the controversy around the mosque at ground zero -- that unfortunately drives home that message that you are the other, you'll never be considered an American. And therefore, why don't you go into the arms of the extremists?
So I think -- and where government comes into play is standing up against those voices, standing up against those voices, including if they are political voices.
I think when General Petraeus came out and said to the pastor in Florida that burning the Quran is not only an issue of just hate or of anger towards a religion, but a national security threat, because you will jeopardize our troops in the field, that's where government really can come alongside and make a very powerful statement.
WHITLOCK: Good. Let's -- another question. Yes, sir.
Could you stand up.
QUESTIONER: My name is Douglas Smith. One of the purposes of this event today, I think, is to alert people in the United States about certain trends which may be coming your way from the U.K. or in parallel with things that have happened in the U.K. And to that end, I've got a question I want to ask Ed, which is about the rise of an organization called the English Defense League, which is, in many ways, a mirror image of many of the radical Muslim groups that we have seen.
And the English Defense League is a street army, a far-right street army, that has mobilized in towns and cities across the U.K., has got itself involved in many pretty violent confrontations with younger Muslims, who themselves feel that they are coming out to defend their communities.
There was a case back in, I think, the 1960s, some of my American friends will be able to give me the exact reference, where the American Nazi party marched through a heavily Jewish area close to Chicago.
WHITLOCK: Skokie, Illinois.
QUESTIONER: Skokie? Was it Skokie? And what the English Defense League has been doing in the U.K. as a result of the anti-Muslim feeling that has been stirred up by radical Islamist preachers and loudmouths, as you correctly called them, people like -- (inaudible) -- are ready to go on television at the drop of a hat and feed this perception of Muslims as wild-eyed radicals spewing hatred.
What the English Defense League has been able to do is mobilize large numbers of young, disaffected, white, working-class youth to cause really quite serious disturbances which have the potential to cause huge community tensions.
And so my question for you, Ed, is, what is it we can do in practical terms to try and prevent this polarization between those people on either side of the divide who would like to drive people apart?
HUSAIN: I thought Pauline Neville-Jones hit the nail on the head this morning when she -- Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones -- when she spoke about those on the extreme right wing that make the argument that Islam itself is to blame, that it's scripture, it's Muslim history that gives rise to terrorism and not a contemporary reading of it that's perverted and modernist.
So there is that on the far right of mainstream political discourse increasingly in Britain and increasingly here in the U.S.
I think there is a U.S. equivalent of the English Defense League called Stop the Shariaization of America, or something on those lines. So the trend is already coming this way.
And on the Muslim far right, you have the -- (inaudible) -- and others who make that exact argument that the English Defense League make, but couched in their misreading of scripture.
And to my mind, that's a symbiotic relationship; they both depend on one another. Without the Anjem Choudarys -- and for my sins, I turned up at the event that took place just outside the White House about three weeks ago, where an organization was claiming that Sharia was a stealth jihad, and Sharia was creeping into America, and it was a responsibility of all Americans to stop this stealth jihad and increased Sharia law being introduced in states here in the U.S.
And there, people were repeatedly -- there were people from the English Defense League, but there were also people from the U.S. equivalent. And repeatedly, the great imam that they were quoting and citing from was Anjem Choudary. Anjem is no imam. He doesn't speak English. And yet he was repeatedly referred to in such terms by, you know, his symbiotic partners on the other extreme.
And I think the most coherent response, Doug, can be, and forgive me for sort of saying this, but, you know, can be the political center-right and the center-left come out clearly against both extremes. And there is a tendency, I think, among people on the center-left, at times, not to speak out against Islamist extremism for fear of being seen to be either racist or Islamophobic and what have you.
That then leads to the center-right talking about it for causes that are almost nationalist or religion-based or an understanding of religiosity that leads to this agenda becoming a right-wing agenda.
And I think one of the things that a previous speaker spoke about this morning was, taking the politics out of this, that this is something that's important for center-right and to the center-left; and thereby, we marginalize the far right and the far left, but particularly the far-right among the Muslims and among mainstream politics.
So I think the answer is to build mainstream political consensus in the public space that says, you know, clearly the kind of names that you mentioned, Suhail, are on the far right of the Republican Party, and the kind of names that you spoke about the English Defense League, have nothing to do, absolutely nothing to do with mainstream, center-right, conservative thinking in the U.K.
And often, I think people try and muddle the two, and they ought not to. And the answer is to consolidate the political center.
WHITLOCK: Yes, sir.
QUESTIONER: Good afternoon. I'm Arif Alikhan. I'm on the faculty of National Defense University. My question is, what I've learned about the PREVENT program in the U.K. in comparing it to the United States is a very different approach and strategy in terms of funding and supporting religious groups.
So in the U.K., money can go directly to groups that are religious, to provide them an opportunity to be a moderate voice and to challenge the al Qaeda narrative, especially interpretations of the Quran.
The United States, we don't do that. And for many reasons, that's because of our long tradition of not doing that.
Aside of the difference, though, my question is, is do you think, for those in the U.K., that is an effective way to do it, that government support of certain groups to engage in a religious discussion actually is an effective way? And if not, what are the downsides?
And I should, in the interest of full disclosure, Suhail and I did grow up together. We never had this discussion when we were kids. (Laughter.)
MIRZA: Can I answer that?
MIRZA: I mean, the situation in Britain is that the expectation of the public to be engaged via their religion or their ethnicity is much greater than it is in America for obvious reasons. And there's a greater sense of the common citizen or the national identity, I would argue, in America.
And as I've said, I think that the multicultural approach in Britain has created in the minds of Muslims this idea that there are groups that represent them, even when it's very clear that they don't.
So in the research that I did in 2006, 2007, the team that I led, we asked the 1,000 Muslims to name an organization that represented them. And at the time, only 6 percent named the Muslim Council of Britain, which was, at the time, regarded by the government as the official body representing Muslim opinions. It was only 6 percent, so I think it shows that this notion of representation and community leaders is a flawed one.
So I think the PREVENT strategy and the general strategy of community engagement, I think, needs to be taken apart a little bit. But obviously in Britain, we are where we are. And the expectation is there.
And you know, you asked earlier, what is it that government can do? And I think that actually to ask the question the other way around, what government can stop doing and politicians can stop doing is engaging with more extremist voices and assuming that they are representative. I think that's something that has been learned in recent years. And trying much harder to recognize Muslims' aspirations and concerns as being ones that are shared by other groups.
And what extremists tend to be very good at is, take the structure of community engagement and hijack it and use it for their own ends to push a particular agenda in the public space, which has been fairly effective.
And foreign policy is one way in which they've been able to galvanize support. The other is Islamophobia. And in Britain, there's a lot of concern that there's Islamophobia in the media, in political discourse.
Actually, I would argue that that's a fear that has been played upon, that's been used to exploit young Muslims and to make them feel that they need defense, they need protection.
So I think that even though the strategy could be modified and can be improved, and there are things that can be done to make PREVENT better than it was, I think it's important to take a step back and look at the actual strategy more generally and ask if community engagement in the context of America, there might be lessons to be learned by not going down that road and not trying too hard to elevate community leaders or religiosity as a form of engagement, but rather perhaps to, as Ed's already said, to recognize the incredible asset of a shared national identity, and that political engagement at the local level with groups across ethnicity, across religious identities, is a very powerful thing.
WHITLOCK: This gentleman here, he could ask the next one.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Jonathan Brown, Georgetown University. Not to imbue to you some intention in the statements, but Ms. Mirza, you said that sort of identifying as Muslim first and foremost was sort of this unintended byproduct of government engagement.
Mr. Abdal, you said that -- you suggested that sort of if someone starts doing their prayers on time, this might be indication of a problem.
I mean, I don't think, you know, performing all your prayers on time or identifying as a Muslim before anything else is necessarily extremism. Certainly, we wouldn't say that for a Christian who did all his prayers or her prayers and identified as a Christian above all other things.
And where do you draw the line -- this is anybody on the panel -- where do you draw the line between the good, acceptable Muslim and the radical, extremist Muslim? I know that's a big question.
MIRZA: I don't think that being religious or being devout is the same as being an extremist. And I think that confusion has been made in the British media, and it's a real problem. And that's where the concern about the simplicity that the media has in Britain is justified.
But I think that clearly there is a cultural problem in Britain where -- and I would say that it's a problem in that a younger generation of Muslims are increasingly disconnected or disillusioned with the other kinds of collective identity that may have existed in the past, political identities, national identity. You know, your connection to a political union or a political party, organized religion, all those things have tended to fragment over the last 20 to 30 years.
And what's occurring now is a more politicized form of religious identity that younger Muslims are adopting, and which is something that their parents don't recognize either. Their parents are quite concerned about it.
And that doesn't necessarily mean that the people who are more concerned about identifying politically as a Muslim are even more religious. They may not be. So in the research that we did, we would ask young Muslims how they felt about foreign policy or what you would regard as their sympathy for al Qaeda or more extreme groups. And the people who would respond with sympathy for al Qaeda weren't necessarily the ones that prayed five times a day. They might have been the ones who were actually the least religious, but they felt an identification with Islam, which was really born from their sense of the victimization of Muslims.
And that was a very powerful and compelling narrative for them, which is something that I think is exacerbated, encouraged by a wider political culture in Britain, which is of grievance, more generally.
So I think it's possible to make a distinction between highly religious people or people who have a strong sense of being a Muslim, from those who are identifying with a politicized identity and who have a very strong sense of the grievance and the victimization of Muslims, who might then, a small minority of those, might then go on and become more sympathetic to al Qaeda, and then perhaps themselves go on and commit or try and commit terrorist acts.
ULLAH: Can I just sort of -- I'd also give you another sort of similar in terms of the identity. If you look at the South Asian -- and I can speak very (clearly ?) about it, because it's my, sort of, family background. In the '60s, late '50s and '60s, our father's generation came as migrants to sort of lead a better life, to earn and to send money for home.
My generation and the generation after are now classified as British Muslims, British Bangladeshis. They see this as their homeland. And a lot of them are looking for new identities. And I think, you know, the political identity is one of them, but also in terms of their own grouping.
And I think, you know, we talked yesterday night about grouping in terms of people who, you know, coming out of prisons, they seem to be devout Muslims because they found a spiritual life in that sort of way. But this new group of young British Muslims are also finding an identity, whether it be the clothing -- I mean, when we were at college, the hijab was not a common sign, but now has become the common sign on the streets of London.
In fact, one statistic says one in 10 of the population in London is of Muslim background. However, young people are wanting to see whether it be Asia, North Africa, Somalia, and what unites them when they're standing in the bus stop is that they are Muslim. Whether it be they go to the college and so forth, it doesn't mean they're devout or praying on time, it's this is an automatic thing that connects them.
And I think for some certain commentators, they find it sort of a bit discomforting because all of a sudden there's a grouping, whereas before in the '80s it was a political grouping. If you were an ethnic minority in a country where your politics was (black ?), but no, these people wanted to now identify themselves as Muslim.
We've just done the census on the 27th of March -- I did it later. But this will show a category. I mean, population of Britain, about 2 million, maybe more, of people who identify themselves as Muslim. That's going to be a powerful voice for political parties, political groupings to either exploit or to service and meet the needs.
So I think it is an interesting time. And I think in America, and from what I read, I'm seeing similar kind of thing, people who are converting to Islam, whether in prison or just generally, are seeing there's a common thing, you know, well-to-do American Muslims whose children are now re-examining their belief or re-kind-of grouping their identity, because they see themselves as Muslim first.
And I think that's just going to be an interesting debate. And commentators might find it uncomfortable, but it's how you engage with that. And I think that's the big thing about engaging and nurturing that energy and talent.
WHITLOCK: Actually, I've been given the hi sign that we have to cut things off.
But I don't mean to deprive you of that, but maybe we can pick it up afterward.
But thank you audience for some terrific questions. And thank you for the panelists for a riveting discussion. Thanks very much.
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