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Muslims part of US social fabric
Scholar says Muslims have integrated into the US and are fighting back against 'extremism'.
Last Modified: 23 Dec 2009 07:51

American Muslims are not only integrating into the social fabric of the US but some, like Keith Ellison, the Democratic Congressman for Minnesota, are participating in the political system [EPA]

The recent arrest of five young Northern Virginia men in Pakistan on suspicion of terrorist activities has precipitated dire warnings.

Some charge that there is now an emerging pattern which challenges long-held assumptions that European Muslims are more susceptible to radicalisation than better-assimilated Muslims in the US.

This charge clearly leads us in the wrong direction. While there must be zero tolerance for terrorists, it is important to remember that the American Muslim community is a valued and much needed partner in countering extremism.

Just as Muslim countries differ significantly from each other and in their relations with the US so too do Muslims in Europe and America differ markedly.

The majority of European Muslims have been labourers and blue collar workers, educationally and economically disadvantaged, and often socially marginalised. In contrast, the vast majority of American Muslims came to the US with an education and skills or acquired the degrees and abilities they needed to become more integrated.

American Muslims reject extremism 

While some pockets of poverty exist in the US, unlike Europe, there are no "Muslim ghettos" in America. A 2007 Pew Research Center study found that most Muslim Americans are "decidedly American" in income, education and attitudes, rejecting extremism by larger margins than Muslim minorities in Europe.

Similarly, a 2009 Gallup report found that 70 per cent of American Muslims have a job compared with a national average of 64 per cent. Muslim men have one of the highest employment rates of religious groups; Muslim women are as likely as Catholic women to say that they work.

After Jews, Muslims are the most educated religious community in the US. Muslim women (unlike their Jewish counterparts) are as likely as their male counterparts to have a college degree or higher. Forty per cent of American Muslim women have a college degree as compared to 29 per cent of Americans overall.

American Muslims are as concerned about extremism and terrorism as other citizens. Their families and friends in "the old country" have been the primary victims of terrorist attacks. Like other Americans, Muslims were also victims; they too lost loved ones and friends in the 9/11 attacks.

Moreover, they have seen their religion, not just the terrorists, vilified and as a result those in the mainstream majority have been victims of profiling, discrimination and hate crimes.

Major civil liberties organisations have identified a host of serious abuses including racial profiling; overzealous and illegal arrests and detentions, surveillance, and wiretapping of Muslims, undercover infiltration of Muslim civic and religious organisations and trials using "secret evidence". 

Yet, despite these extreme measures, as the FBI and Homeland Security have stressed, the majority of Muslims remain an integrated part of the American mosaic; many of their religious and community leaders and organisations work to fight extremism by co-operating and continuing to work with government agencies.

Families turn in suspects

It is important to stress that the families of the five men accused in Virginia were the ones who reported them to the authorities.

What about the four other cases reported in the media in the past year?

Esposito says many Muslims co-operate to combat extremism [GALLO/GETTY]
In addition to the Northern Virginia case, four previous arrests last year are cited: Najibullah Zazi, the Denver airport shuttle driver charged with testing explosives for an attack; Bryant N Vinas, an Hispanic American convert, who pleaded guilty to receiving training from al-Qaeda in Pakistan; David C. Headley, a suspect in the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai; and the Minnesota American Somali youths accused of joining an Islamist insurgency in Somalia. 

Each of these cases is unconnected to other cases; each involves a very small number of radicalised individuals with no apparent connection to domestic al-Qaeda networks.

It is useful to remember that a leaked February 2005 FBI internal memo admitted that the FBI had not identified a single al-Qaeda sleeper cell in the US. Almost nine years since 9/11, no al-Qaeda related terrorist networks have been discovered in America.

Moreover, in a Muslim population estimated at 4-6 million, the number of arrests and convictions for terrorism has been very small. Of course, this does not detract from the ongoing need to remain vigilant and guard against potential domestic terrorist attacks.

Seeds of radicalisation

Home grown extremism must be aggressively contained by law enforcement agencies, but done without brush-stroking local Muslim communities that notify and co-operate with them. In addition, the conditions that contribute to radicalisation and recruitment must also be addressed.

Like other American ethnic and religious groups, many Muslims do identify with unjust or oppressive conditions in their ancestral land or with the plight of other Muslims globally in Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan, Chechnya and China (Uighurs).

A critical distinction has to be made between those that are nationalist struggles and those that are terrorist, between those that constitute a direct threat to the US and those that do not. In recent years, Irish and Jewish Americans have supported and some even fought in wars in Northern Ireland and Israel. Few if any have been prosecuted.

We must also distinguish between what are seen as struggles against injustice versus acts of terrorism. Most American Muslims, like their fellow citizens, express opposition non-violently.

A very small minority, like some Somali American youths, may be attracted to fight against what they perceive as illegitimate, oppressive governments and their supporters: whether they are Ethiopian, American, British, Russian or Nato forces.

The primary target of the accused in all of these cases has not been the US; their focus has been international.

Not surprisingly, foreign struggles and the US' extended presence (now and possible permanent bases in the future) are exploited by jihadist ideology and jihadist Internet sites.

But as we have seen so far, the end product is not a well trained and equipped warrior with broad support at home but naive and misguided wanna-be jihadists.

John L Esposito is a professor of Religion and International Affairs, professor of Islamic Studies and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

He is the editor-in-chief of the six-volume The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, and has written more than 35 books, including 'Who Speaks for Islam?', 'What a Billion Muslims Really Think', and 'The Future of Islam'.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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