On the night of September 11, 2001, Omid Safi feared for the lives of his wife and two young children. A Muslim American living in upstate New York, he knew he could become a target for retribution because of his Iranian ancestry. “People were shooting Sikhs, and the first person to be killed was an Egyptian Copt, a Christian,” Safi recalls. “That night in Chicago three hundred people surrounded a large mosque, shouting, ‘U-S-A, U-S-A.’ But the people inside were also Americans.”
Those were scary days, says Safi, now a religious studies professor at UNC. The numbers bear him out. According to the U.S. government, there were 481 reported hate crimes against Muslim Americans in 2001, the vast majority coming after 9/11. In 2000 there had been twenty-eight. Since 9/11, there have been at least one hundred reported hate crimes every year. These cases have received little press. Homegrown terrorism, on the other hand, has become a hot topic.
But what risk do Muslim American radicals actually pose? And what, if anything, are Muslims doing to thwart radicalization in their midst? Researchers at UNC and Duke decided to find out.
According to UNC sociologist Charles Kurzman, the kind of radicalization that leads to violence is much less common in the United States than in Western Europe. One reason could be demographics. Europe has a large population of working-class Muslims, many of whom immigrated for guest worker programs. They are less educated than most Europeans, poorer, and sometimes sequestered in ghettos. By contrast, Muslims typically have migrated to the United States for higher education or professional jobs, Kurzman says. Most foreign-born Muslims living in the United States are as educated — or better educated — than the average American, and they live intermingled among our citizenry.
But such broad-scale demographics can’t explain everything, Kurzman says. He teamed up with Ebrahim Moosa, a Duke Islamic studies professor, and David Schanzer, a public policy professor at Duke and UNC, to dig a little deeper.
They found that 139 Muslim Americans since 9/11 have committed violent terrorist acts, have been convicted on terrorism charges involving violence, or have been arrested with such charges pending. Fifteen of the 139 were successful in their attack. And twenty-five of the 139 were successful in leaving the United States to join a foreign fighting force.
The findings proved the researchers’ thesis: compared to Europe, there aren’t that many Muslim radicals in the United States. There had been about 136,000 murders in the United States since September 12, 2001; Muslim American radicals committed thirty-one of them.
“Statistically, Muslim American radicals are far less likely to kill you than a member of your own family is,” Kurzman says. “That said, the problem is still serious.” Domestic terrorism, as it relates to Muslims, wasn’t as big an issue prior to 9/11.
Before they began this project, Kurzman, Schanzer, and Moosa knew of some examples of Muslim Americans trying to limit radicalization in their communities. They decided to find out more. They secured a grant from the National Institute of Justice, the independent research branch of the U.S. Department of Justice. With help from Moosa’s contacts and legwork by UNC and Duke graduate students, they interviewed 120 Muslim Americans in Buffalo, Seattle, Houston, and Raleigh-Durham. They wrote case studies and documented their findings in a 2010 report titled Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim Americans, which also recommends steps that the researchers think would help curtail radicalization. The report has been circulating at the Department of Justice and in Congress since January, and Schanzer has briefed several top officials in the Department of Homeland Security. They’ve also made efforts to bring the report to the attention of Muslim groups.
Since 9/11, leading Muslim Americans have been denouncing violence — publicly, in mosques, and in private conversations. This is vital work, the report states, though Kurzman points out that it isn’t often covered by the media. The list of public denunciations is a long one, and the report states that Muslim Americans should continue to denounce violent acts publicly as often as possible.
Second, Muslim Americans self-police their communities. They often confront fellow believers who say radical things. They help youth identify peers who might need counseling. They bring concerns to local police and the FBI. But the report indicates that Muslim Americans would benefit from professional training that would help them identify people with mental illnesses. Most people who radicalize are perfectly healthy, the report states, but there have been some notable exceptions.
The report also suggests that law enforcement officers could consult better and communicate more with Muslim Americans, especially about how police use informants to root out criminals.
Third, Muslim Americans have become more politically active. They are organizing like other groups to defend their rights and interests as minority citizens. They are channeling grievances through the political system instead of letting frustrations fester. This limits radicalization. The report states that politicians should embrace these efforts, reach out to Muslim Americans as they do to other groups of citizens, and take a cue from President George W. Bush, who regularly visited mosques and hosted annual Iftaar dinners at the White House (a tradition President Obama has continued).
Lastly, community building, especially of youth programs, has helped limit radicalization. “It’s the lone wolf who typically commits violent acts,” Kurzman says. But according to case studies in the report, Muslims sometimes shun people who espouse radical ideology. In lieu of guidance, Kurzman says, youth often turn inward or to the internet, where all manner of extremist dogma propagates. Even though focusing on youth will help, some loners will likely slip through the cracks.
Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, the former UNC student who drove an SUV into a group of students in 2006, was such a loner.
“He had very little connection with the local Muslim community and was not participating in any organizations on campus,” Kurzman says. “No one, not even his family, knew what was going on with him.”
Such radicals are often called religious extremists, but according to the UNC-Duke report, they don’t have a solid understanding of their own religion: “Most of those who engage in religiously inspired terrorism have little formal training in Islam and, in fact, are poorly educated about Islam.”
The report recommends that Muslim Americans continue to work hard to improve religious literacy within their communities. Since 9/11, Safi has tried to do his part.
Safi, an expert in Islamic history, has given more than one thousand talks about Islam in the past nine years. Each time, he gauges the religious literacy of his audience.
“People always know a lot about Jesus,” Safi says. “And that makes sense. They know less — a few stories — about Moses. Then I ask about Hinduism and Buddhism. A few people know religious concepts or about Gandhi’s nonviolence movement, but no stories. And then Muhammad and Islam — a deafening silence. This is religious literacy at zero.”
As Safi wrote his book, Memories of Muhammad, he realized that Muslims, too, would benefit from a refresher course. “We’ve forgotten so much of what’s at the heart of the Islamic tradition,” he says.
Take the story of Muhammad’s mystical transportation to Jerusalem and his ascension to heaven to meet past prophets and come face to face with God.
“I argue that this story is as central to Islam as the crucifixion story is to Christianity,” Safi says. “Yet in modern biographies of Muhammad it’s covered in one page. That’s how spiritually deficient many of the modern biographies are.” Safi devoted a chapter to the spiritual message of the ascension, one of three stories Muslims once studied well.
The second is about when Muhammad received his first wave of revelations. He doubted his prophethood and sought comfort from his wife. In the details of this story, Safi says, Muslims can see how Muhammad treated women as equal partners.
The third story is about Muhammad’s flight from Mecca and his subsequent persecution. Radical Muslims use Quranic verses revealed during this time to justify violence. And non-Muslims use such verses to demonize Islam. Safi, though, treads the middle ground.
“If our goal is to find scary verses in each other’s scriptures, then this is a game we can all play and we will all lose,” he says. All holy books have scary verses. As for the Quran, Safi points out that using Quranic passages to justify violence is not consistent with Muhammad’s eternal spiritual teachings or the prophet’s deeds.
Muhammad did not seek war, Safi says. When threatened, Muhammad fled Mecca for Medina, where he gained followers. Meccan leaders, though, tracked him down and attacked. Bloody battles ensued. And Muhammad did allow his followers to defend themselves when attacked by the oppressors — the Meccans who worshipped idols at Abraham’s temple and strove to keep a caste system in place. During this time of war, Muhammad preached that women and children were not to be harmed. And suicide was forbidden.
Most important, Safi says, is that people today — including too many Muslims — forget what Muhammad did after he returned to Mecca victorious.
“By the weight of Arabic tradition and biblical legacy, when you conquered the enemy you were entitled to kill their men, enslave their women, and confiscate their property,” Safi says. “But Muhammad didn’t do this. He declared full amnesty for his enemies.” He set up a constitution, the Charter of Medina, that included Muslims, Christians, Jews, and the pagan tribes that had persecuted him.
“Real mercy,” Safi says, “is when you have the power to gain revenge but you choose forgiveness.”
But Safi doesn’t see himself as a Muslim apologist. He says he just wants to show that Muhammad’s religion is compatible with American democracy, and that the term Muslim American is not an oxymoron.
When U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim from Minnesota, was sworn into office in 2006, he chose to place his right hand on a copy of the Quran. Pundits were outraged. But that Quran, borrowed from the Library of Congress, had been Thomas Jefferson’s.
“Jefferson’s interest in Islam was no passing fancy,” Safi writes in his book. “He studied Arabic and bought many books on the history of Islam and Muslim civilization. He supported the establishment of academic programs for the study of ‘the Orient.’” Safi found several instances where Founding Fathers made positive comments about Muslims and Islam.
Safi says that Ellison’s use of Jefferson’s Quran was a deft statement: If Jefferson could study Islam, why can’t we?
“We are so religiously illiterate in this country, and part of the reason is that we’re afraid of religion,” Safi says.
He greatly admires Martin Luther King Jr., whose books and sermons line the walls of Safi’s office. “We should understand that Christianity has helped shape our history,” Safi says. “And if we want to understand Chinese history, then we have to look at Confucianism. If we want to look at Muslim civilizations’ contributions to humanity, then yeah, we have to look at the Islam in the background.”
Otherwise, he says we’ll continue teaching our kids a watered-down history, and current events will make no sense.
Ultimately, Safi agrees with Schanzer, who says that Muslim Americans should become more involved in public discourse. This is why Safi gives so many talks and why he felt so strongly about writing a biography of Muhammad, even though HarperCollins had contracted him to write a different book.
He also says that this discourse can be very informal. “It’s about sitting down with your neighbors,” Safi says. “It’s been my experience that when people eat together, when they visit in each others’ homes or work together on a community project, some amazing barriers are broken down and real changes take place.”