Politically influential Muslim activists are pushing to reduce the FBI’s role in countering Islamic terrorism and are seeking greater federal reliance on hard-line orthodox Imams.
The White House’s “Countering Violent Extremism” program “did not produce the results a lot of us were hopeful … [and] kind of collapsed towards the end of last year,” complained Mohamed Elibiary, a Texas-based advocate who was appointed to the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
“I don’t know where it is today … [but] it presents us with the opportunity to look at the question of [whether] it is right to house it within the FBI,” he said at an May 28 event in D.C. staged by the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
The controversial CVE program was boosted in 2011, when President Barack Obama directed the FBI to work with Muslim political and community groups to suppress jihadi attacks, which are dubbed as non-Islamic “violent extremism.”
But, said Elibiary, “we spun our wheels for the last two years [and] we never got the national CVE policy across all 56 [FBI field] offices.”
Instead, said panelists, the FBI has continued its traditional policy of investigating jihadis for subsequent trial and convictions.
In contrast, the Department of Homeland Security, Elibiary said, has done much good by trying to work with Islamic groups.
The CVE program has been slammed by critics for giving too large an intermediary role to small Islamic political groups such as MPAC, which portray themselves as representatives of American Muslims. The groups try to foster the growth of distinct Islamic communities.
The CVE training has also been criticized for obscuring the many orthodox Islamic strictures that spur Muslims’ violence against non-Muslims.
Elibiary’s new call for reduced policing of Islamic communities, such as Boston’s immigrant Muslims, was echoed by other speakers at the panel, which was hosted by the progressive New American Foundation in Washington D.C.
“Imams and counselors need to be given some leeway” by police, said Suhaib Webb, Imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
Webb’s cultural center is affiliated with the mosque attended by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the ethnic Chechen Muslim who along with his brother Dzhokhar killed three Americans with two bombs at the Boston Marathon. Tsarnaev also killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer after Boston police broadcast his photo on TV. The police did not contact the main Boston mosque for help in identifying Tsarnaev’s image, which was captured by videos of the explosion and its aftermath.
Webb, who was disinvited from the state’s April 18 memorial service by Governor Deval Patrick, said he can persuade young men to stay away from violence. But “I need to be able to sit down with someone and not be subpoenaed or be called as a witness” in a later terrorism investigation, he said.
To succeed, government anti-terror agencies should keep their distance from such outreach to angry youth, he said. “We don’t need to be too close to each other, because that undermines our [Imams’] street credibility,” said Webb.
In fact, he added, his influence was recently reduced when he was labelled as a “moderate.” That “undermined my ability” to persuade youths, Webb said.
Muslim organizations are apprehensive about working with the FBI’s surveillance programs, which can deter cooperation, said Haris Tarin, director of the MPAC’s Washington office. “Is there a point of diminishing returns?” said Tarin, who organized the panel and invited the speakers.
Muslims in America have grievances, and “the way to address these grievances is not with violence, but with the way Islam prescribes… that way is best prescribed by Imams, not necessarily by the U.S. government,” said Rashad Hussain, President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Muslims in America “are concerned that terrorists are killing innocent people,” Hussain said. Killing people who are innocent is “totally repulsive to their religion,” he said.
‘“Conservative and Salafi Imams are going to produce the most credible alternatives to al Qaeda” said panelist Peter Bergen, who is the director of the national security studies at the New America Foundation.
“It is going to be conservative Muslim voices and conservative Muslim scholars that will have the credibility” to persuade youth to stay away from violence, warned Rabia Chaudry, founder of the SafeNational Collaborative, a firm which offers to teach U.S. police about Islam’s blend of religion and politics.
By “conservative,” the speakers meant orthodox Imams, not free-market, small government conservatives.
One useful option, said Elibiary, would be for the government to allow young radicals an off-ramp from a pathway to jail.
Instead of running a sting operation that sends the would-be terrorist to jail, the government should warn them of their impeding collision with the law, he said.
“Sting operations… have been over-used” by the FBI, he said.
“By the time I finish here, the FBI frankly will be upset with me,” he added.
But even as they called for deference by the FBI, the Muslim panelists complained about the difficulty of persuading Muslim youths that jihad is not allowed in the United States.
Numerous orthodox Islamic clerics say the use of violence to expand or preserve the reach of Islamic law is a central part of Islam, and can be an individual duty that transcends obligation to husbands, parents or governments.
“The Jihad in Syria is a duty incumbent upon the entire people,” not just on governments, the leading Sunni cleric, Yousuf Al-Qaradawi, said in April. “There is a group [of jihadis] that has been fighting for two years … and whoever is capable must help this group [and] parental consent is not required in this case,” he said in a speech broadcast on the Al-Jazeera network on April 7, 2013.
In 2009, Qaradawi called for Allah to kill all Jews, saying, “Oh Allah, take this oppressive, Jewish Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one.”
Qaradawi was a trustee of the Boston mosque until 2000.
“In the American context, violent reaction [by Muslims in America] to foreign policy or other grievances doesn’t fall under the definition of [legitimate] jihad in orthodox Islam,” said Webb.
But it is difficult to make that case to Muslim youth in the United States because it relies on “big classical legal language that nobody understands,” he said.
Muslim parents need to watch what their youths are reading online, including “certain passages in the Koran,” said Chaudry. One of the problematic verses, she said, is verse 60 in the Koran’s 8th book.
“Prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah … whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you,” says the verse, which is believed by Muslims to be the transcribed words of Allah.
But that verse is offset by the next verse, said Choudry. “If they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah.”
However, the Koran lauds warfare in numerous verses, including six verses after Choudry’s “incline to peace” passage.”
“It is not for a prophet to have captives [of war] until he inflicts a massacre [upon Allah ‘s enemies] in the land,” says verse 67.
For the parents of Muslim youth, “numerous passages could be of concern,” Choudry told The Daily Caller. “In the same way the Old Testament has some hairy scary stuff that has to be understood in proper context, so does the Quran,” she added.
The Old Testament of the Bible, however, is somewhat supplanted by pacific injunctions in the New Testament. For example, Jesus tells his followers that “blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth,” according to the Beatitudes passage in the New Testament’s book of Matthew.
Chaudry and panel speakers repeatedly complained about critics of Islam.
“The anti-Muslim bigots also want to spread the idea that Muslim, American and Western ideas are not compatible,” said Chaudry. “It leaves Muslims in the West feeling more alienated… and makes them more vulnerable to online recruiting,” that could cause more terrorism, she threatened.