The recent discovery of attempted terrorist plots by Muslims in America has prompted overreaching accusations of radicalisation of an entire religious group. As a consequence, pressure is mounting on Muslim American leaders to engage in elusively defined counter radicalisation.
But rather than spend limited resources on programmes that assume collective guilt, efforts are better spent redirecting existing grievances towards the exercise of constitutionally protected dissent.
Focusing on counter radicalisation is misguided for two reasons. First, the current discourse on radicalisation comes dangerously close to repeating past mistakes of confusing legal political dissent with illicit activity. Second, there is insufficient evidence of systemic unlawful radicalisation of Muslim Americans.
Most people would agree that adopting violence to propagate a political agenda is radical and warrants punishment. However, in a troubling bout of amnesia, American public discourse has reinvigorated the misuse of the term “radical” to label both criminal activity and unpopular political dissent.
Let’s not repeat past mistakes. During the Red Scare, following the first world war, and McCarthysim in the 1950s, immigrants and religious minorities were scapegoats for fears of communism. After being labelled as radicals, many were deported and imprisoned en masse.
Since the 11 September terrorist attacks, the Muslim American community has been the subject of heightened scrutiny by the government and the public. And with each new allegation of a few individuals’ terrorist activity, the collective suspicion of over six million Muslims in America grows.
Take, for example, the case of the Somali American youth who, unbeknownst to their parents, returned to Somalia to fight in the civil war on behalf of a terrorist organisation. These are only 20-some individuals out of nearly 100,000 Somalis in America. Nonetheless, the bad acts of a handful from a minority religious population have led some government officials and members of the public to conclude systemic radicalisation among Muslims.
Consequently, Muslims are experiencing increased profiling at airports and surveillance in their mosques. Some believe their religious leaders are targeted for deportation or coercive tactics by law enforcement and, in the case of Detroit-based Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, unlawfully killed.
Many Muslim Americans feel they are treated as a fifth column as their loyalty to America is questioned merely because of the bad acts of a handful of young men. Indeed, their fears are reasonable in light of a new Gallup Poll in which over 50 per cent of Americans held a “not too favorable” or “not favorable at all” view of Islam.
In another unrelated case, five young Muslim men flew to Pakistan to allegedly join a terrorist organisation, again unbeknownst to their families. Their behaviour refuelled charges of radicalisation among Muslims in America.
Putting aside their guilt or innocence, is it fair to impute their acts on six million individuals who also happen to be Muslims?
Of course not.
Such collective punishment undermines the fundamental American principle that individuals should be accountable for their own behaviour and not acts committed by others of the same ethnic, racial or religious background.
This principle was upheld after the uncovering of the Unabomber and the arrest of Timothy McVeigh. All white males were not suddenly suspected of criminal activity. Thus, concluding systemic radicalisation of Muslims based on unrelated bad acts of a handful of individuals demonstrates a glaring double standard.
Moreover, labelling people accused of unlawful activity as radicals, as opposed to criminals, risks confusing unpopular political viewpoints with illegal activity. The First Amendment protects dissent, especially unpopular dissent. Being a radical is not illegal so long as one does not violate a specific law – a distinctly American tenet currently upheld by the aptly titled “tea partyers” actively opposed to US President Barack Obama. While Muslim Americans who criticise American policy on whatever grounds, religious or otherwise, are as protected as their outspoken compatriots, Muslims may fear their dissent will be mischaracterised as indicia of unlawful radicalization.
Rather than hastily proclaim widespread radicalisation and demand youth who have no direct link to those accused of engaging in terrorism be targeted for counter radicalisation initiatives, we should be training youth of all backgrounds how to express dissent.
These are difficult times for the American people. Americans of all stripes are frustrated with, if not disenfranchised by, their government. Our country is spending billions of dollars on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The unemployment rate is the highest in decades, most profoundly among youth. Many Americans, including Muslims, oppose our military involvement abroad on political or religious grounds while others oppose it because they believe the money is better spent on our economy and job creation. However, unlike their compatriots, many Muslim Americans may not feel at liberty to express their grievances in light of suspicions of their collective radicalisation.
Hence community leaders concerned with the alleged terrorist activity of a handful of Muslim youth in America should focus their efforts on teaching youth to channel their grievances into legitimate dissent. Encourage them to speak out and speak freely about their views on the war, the economy and other policies. Teach them how to legally organise, protest, contact elected officials and participate in grassroots campaigns.
And when they do, the government should not misinterpret their dissent to create a 21st century version of the Red Scare.
* Sahar Aziz (email@example.com) is a civil rights lawyer with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee in Washington, DC. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.altmuslim.com.