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Milwaukee Muslim leaders to teach disconnect between Islam, extremism

Group plans community programs to help families recognize warning signs

Jan. 09, 2015

By Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel

Jan. 09, 2015

Islamic fundamentalists descend on a school in Pakistan, murdering more than 140 people, most of them children.

Radicals storm the offices of a satirical Paris newspaper, killing 12 to avenge, according to some news accounts, its lampooning of the Prophet Mohammed.

Closer to home, Muslim teens from the suburbs of Chicago and Denver are arrested trying to travel to Syria to live or fight alongside the ruthless terrorist organization known as the Islamic State.

Islamic leaders in Milwaukee have long used tragedies like these to reiterate in their mosques and classrooms that extremism and violence are incompatible with their religion.

Now the Islamic Society of Milwaukee wants to go a step further. It will launch a series of community programs this month aimed at clarifying the teachings of Islam and helping families recognize the warning signals of those at risk of being sucked into a radical agenda.

"The emphasis on this course — and we come to this message repeatedly — is that there is nothing Islamic about these extremists," said Islamic Society President Ahmed Quereshi, an attorney who has been writing on the issue since December, after The Washington Post reported on three Chicago-area teens who had been drawn in by the manipulative recruiting tactics of ISIL, another name for the Islamic State group.

"When it comes to kids, as it does to all of us, having a sound education in one's faith tradition — and understanding that extremism and violence are outside that tradition — is a fundamental part of the education that our children and young adults must have," Quereshi said.

The format and dates of the programs have yet to be finalized, Islamic Society Executive Director Othman Atta said. But the sessions are likely to touch on ways parents can engage their children in discussions about extremism — for example, helping them understand that many of the world's conflicts are really about power and politics, not religion — and how to spot those who might be sympathetic to an extremist cause.

"Our feeling is the those who tend to go into this are the same ones who tend to go into other stupid things," Atta said. "There has to be some other issue going on. Either they're disconnected from their family or society; the parents are too rigid, and the kid wants an out; or they have an emotional or other issue going on," he said.

Lured by propaganda

No one is suggesting that anyone locally is harboring radical tendencies, but Islamic leaders say they want to address the issue in light of news accounts from around the country detailing how misguided Westerners have been lured by Islamic State propaganda.

Last year, The Washington Post reported, authorities detained at least 15 U.S. citizens, most of them Muslims in their teens and early 20s, trying to travel to Syria to join militant groups.

At the same time, the FBI has voiced concerns that al-Qaida offshoots, such as the Islamic State and others, are using social media to export their violence to Western countries.

"The sheer volume of terrorist propaganda available on the Internet... has given rise to the phenomenon we call homegrown violent extremists," FBI Director James Comey told an audience at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School in November.

These extremists, Comey said, "are people who may never meet a member of al-Qaida... but will instead be radicalized by their propaganda, equipped to engage in their Jihad without ever actually leaving their basement or their bedroom."

Robert Pape, a terrorism expert at the University of Chicago, said the Internet is just a tool, not the cause of extremism. Homegrown extremists, "black swans," as he calls them, tend to be "self-radicalized" in small groups of like-minded friends and family, then seek out propaganda that reinforces that world view, often on the Internet.

"We all know how it works in our own lives," said Pape, who co-directs the university's Program for International Security Politics. "Close family and friends get together in a normal social setting like Thanksgiving. They get all pissed off, and then some of them go bonkers, basically."

"That's why the activities of local organizations, especially Muslim organizations, is helpful." Pape said. "What it does is it creates peer pressure that goes the other way ... (and) can counteract some of these black swans."

Distortions of Islam

Milwaukee-area Muslims reject the notion that their faith is at the root of terrorist actions around the world. Radical Islamists, they maintain, distort Islamic teachings to justify their actions in what are essentially wars over land, resources and power.

That's what Bushra Zaibak of Brookfield impresses on her children when talking about events like the massacre of schoolchildren in Pakistan, and this week's killings in Paris.

"I try to emphasize that we are a faith of, what, 1.5 billion people? And there are so many other influences — cultural, political, economic — that go into the decisions people make," Zaibak said.

"When you're talking about ISIS, when you're talking about Syria and Iraq. These are political movements," she said. "These are not Islamic movements."

About Annysa Johnson

Annysa Johnson covers K-12 education in southeastern Wisconsin.

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