Reflections on the CSID Conference “The Muslim Response to Charlie Hebdo: Understanding the Root Causes of Radicalization”
On Wednesday, January 22, I attended a two hour conference organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, DC. The topic was “The Muslim Response to Charlie Hebdo: Understanding the Root Causes of Radicalization,” and it featured an impressive panel of speakers.
What follows is a brief summary of the main points discussed by four presenters, and my thoughts on the issues raised.
Nihad Awad, National Executive Director and Co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), was at the podium defended the Muslim response to the terrorism in France (and elsewhere). He cited the repeated condemnations coming from Muslim organizations that go largely unacknowledged by most of mainstream media. He also touched upon some of the internal and external factors that open the door to acts of terrorism; and, to his credit, briefly outlined some of the legitimate grievances felt by Muslims around the world vis-à-vis U.S. foreign policy.
It was a commendable presentation.
Dalia Mogahed, Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), began her remarks by citing some of the free speech contradictions emanating from the Charlie Hebdo controversy, and made mention of the attacks on innocent Muslims in the wake of the terrorist attacks in France. She noted that one of the central goals of the terrorists was the pursuit of religious and societal polarization, and that this objective was partially realized. She also made note of the marked difference in media, government and societal response to the far greater carnage committed by [European non-Muslim terrorist] Anders Behring Breivik, who took the lives of 77 people in Norway a few years ago, most of them children. Mogahed also noted the inspiration that Breivik reportedly drew from non-Muslim sources in the West! “The difference [in response] was like night and day,” she correctly opined.
Using the fictional character in the movie “Borak” as an example – a character whose blameworthy stereotypes of Jews was indicative of his social and intellectual backwardness – she noted that the cartoons at the heart of the Charlie Hebdo controversy, and French society’s defense of those cartoons, could be indicative of how backward France still is (despite what it thinks and says of itself).
It too was a commendable presentation.
Imam Talib Shareef introduced himself as a former career soldier in the US Military, and as the President and fourth imam of “The Nation’s Mosque,” – i.e. Masjid Muhammad, the Washington DC branch of “the oldest Muslim community in America” (I disagree with this characterization) – while noting the transition that took the community [formerly known as the Nation of Islam / World Community of Al-Islam in the West / American Muslim Mission] from where it began in the 1930s, to where it is today. He also referenced the Muslim Journal as the “oldest Muslim newspaper in America” – as he drew attention to the front page of the January 16, 2015, edition which features the caption: “Without Free Press There Would Be No Muslim Journal.”
Imam Shareef proceeded to read the statement that he and “The Nation’s Mosque” released in response to the terrorist attacks in France. He noted that a lot of the extremism within Muslim ranks has to do with “the fall of the Muslim world,” as exemplified by high illiteracy rates, poverty, political oppression, etc. He also noted that both “desperation and provocation” are rampant within the Muslim world, and that “proper attention is not being given to those who are suffering.” He advised the media that the perpetrators of terrorism should be designated as criminals (not Muslim terrorists, jihadists, etc.).
While this writer agreed with almost everything Imam Sharif said, it was the things left unsaid that left me more than a bit troubled. (Insha’Allah, I will come back to this later.)
Dr. James D. Le Suer, professor of history at the University of Nebraska (with familial roots in France), was the final speaker on the panel. He cited some of the socio-economic factors that feed the radicalization process in parts of France – specifically in the “projects” which, by his description are dismal and dangerous places, producing alienation, criminality and violence in large swaths of the French-Muslim population. He noted that while second and third generation Muslims are more integrated than widely perceived, they are not integrated enough.
During Q&A this writer was one of the last tier of folk in the room to raise a question (or comment). I referenced the legitimate grievances that Muslims around the world have with U.S. policy, citing the cases of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and Mohamedou Ould Slahi – a Guantanamo Bay prisoner held for the past 12 years without charge (and under release orders!) – as examples. I then raised the question, shouldn’t more organizations and individuals of good will (both Muslim and non-Muslim) be drawing more attention to these types of issues that factor heavily into the “radicalization process?”
I really appreciated Dalia Mogahed’s response. She correctly opined that, “The terrorists haven’t hijacked Islam, they’ve hijacked Muslim grievances. We need to own them and give people peaceful and legitimate means to address them.” She also noted that Muslims (especially our young) need better “Islamic literacy.” She referenced the “moral rage of the Civil Rights Movement” as being something good; as being something that we [Muslims] must utilize and channel effectively.
I couldn’t agree more. As the sister was concluding her remarks I thought about the just released movie “Selma,” and how beneficial it would be for Muslim leaders in America (especially immigrant leaders, and young, clueless, indigenous leaders) to study the movie carefully and extract valuable lessons from it.
As the only African American on the panel, and as someone representing a community that in its original construct (NOI) was known for its biting criticism of America’s domestic and foreign policy, I hoped for a more balanced and forthright presentation from Imam Shareef (not one way condemnation). Given our people’s unique sociological experience, I believe that African American leaders (of all stripes) bear a special responsibility to speak truth to power whenever the opportunity arises, as effectively as they possibly can. We are uniquely positioned to open up doors of dialogue on some of the most difficult and contentious issues of the day…and we must.
Despite the fact that I began my journey to Islam through the community that Imam Shareef represents [i.e. Nation of Islam / World Community of Al-Islam in the West / American Muslim Mission], and still maintain ties with members of that community throughout the U.S., I have been politely but repeatedly rebuffed in my attempts to deliver a human rights presentation on the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, and the equally important peripheral issues that surround her case.
This writer has consistently maintained (and I’m not alone) that Aafia’s case is one of the saddest, most unjust and precedent-setting “war on terrorism” cases in America today – and that it represents a litmus test for committed Muslims throughout the world! The refusal of the leaders of “The Nation’s Mosque” (Masjid Muhammad) to open the door for dialogue on this Muslim woman’s case, and on how the campaign for her release can be assisted by members of this predominantly African American community, can only be described as callous and negligent.
I believe Imam Talib Shareef is fundamentally a good man, who’s better angels are being held in check by his US Military-related life experiences and the prism through which he views the world; and that other leaders within his community may be blindly following his lead. (ALLAH knows best.) What I know is that “The Nation’s Mosque” is in a strategically important city, and it should not be viewed as The Government’s Mosque. This community has a rich history of struggle and service, and this legacy of struggle should not be sacrificed on the altar of expediency. To whom much is given, much is required.
On a final note, also present at yesterday’s media conference was one of the veteran soldiers on the front line of Islamic struggle in America – Imam Latif Abdul Lateef of New York. Citing the huge demonstration that recently took place in France, he opined that we need to have a Million Muslim March on Washington, and that indigenous Muslims should lead the charge. (I couldn’t agree more!)
In the struggle for peace thru justice,
El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan
THE PEACE THRU JUSTICE FOUNDATION