WASHINGTON, DC — A leading Muslim affairs group in the United States marked the pending anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings by announcing a new campaign designed to actively prevent violent extremism in Islamic communities.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) on Monday debuted its “Safe Spaces Initiative,” designed in the aftermath of last year’s bombing that killed 3 runners and wounded another 264. Described as the “first national grassroots effort” to counter violent extremism in Muslim communities, the Initiative takes the form of a lengthy handbook containing a toolbox for community leaders to draw from when confronting the possibility of extremism. “Imams and community leaders have the ability to address theological, social, and familial issues much more effectively than law enforcement,” the executive summary of the publication reads. The Safe Spaces Initiative and the paper that explains it are thus “intended to proactively prevent acts of violent extremism from being born inside our community institutions.”
The crux of the initiative revolves around the concept of reaching individuals before they become radicalized to the point of violence. Leaders are encouraged to use their platforms to prevent extremism from taking root, through increasing knowledge about what the Quran actually says or providing areas to discuss controversial issues, or intervene once it seems an individual is pursuing a path that could lead towards violent actions. Only as last resort, MPAC’s model stresses, should eviction from a community occur, charging communities with working “toward safely removing that individual from the congregation and contacting law enforcement.” These three tiers of action make up what MPAC is referring to as their “PIE Model.”
The release of the new framework is particularly important as last year the right wing was quick to pounce on the news that the Boston bombers were of Muslim background, denouncing the Obama administration and what they claimed was the lack of response from the Muslim community. “Most Muslims on this Earth are good people, but they are not helping to neutralize the jihad,” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said on his program. “They are not standing up against it in any numbers. And that includes American Muslims. They largely remain silent.”
That was actually never the case, as immediately after the bombers’ background became clear, the Islamic community strongly condemned their actions. That same week, members of Toronto’s Muslim community worked with Canadian law enforcement to prevent a large-scale terrorist attack against a railway that crosses into the United States. Rather than being an entirely new concept, Monday’s release of the new handbook provides community leaders a new set of tools to draw from in the future.
In drafting the 150 page document, the study’s author, Alejandro Beutel, told reporters that he spoke with not only Muslim community leaders but other representatives of other faiths, law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, and former extremists from across the ideological spectrum. The result, Beutel said, is an “evidence-based, values driven approach” which can be used to augment existing intervention programs in communities around the country. “We unapologetically believe that faith and freedom go hand in hand and unequivocally reject the narrative of extremists that say you can’t be a pious Muslim and a loyal, productive American citizen at the same time,” Beutel said.
Haris Tarin, director of MPAC’s Washington office, said that the initiative marks a move away from an incarceration-based model to one of intervention and rehabilitation. Extremist violence is “not a dinner table conversation,” Tarin said, nor is it a huge problem in terms of numbers but the impact is has is large. “We’ve seen it work in other parts of the world … where if a young, troubled individual has problematic thoughts and ideas, and is moving towards a path of violence, there are places where you can stop them through theological help, through mental health services, through family counseling, and this is what the Safe Spaces Initiative is about.”
Tarin also did not shy away from mentioning the mistrust of law enforcement that has arisen within Muslim communities due to overreaching from the New York Police Department, FBI, and other entities around the country. The solution, he said, was working with these agencies and help them come onboard with the strategy MPAC is laying out, while still encouraging communities to work with the police and government, particularly when situations warrant the eviction of community members. “Without notifying law enforcement, it’s potentially cutting a dangerous person loose without letting the proper authorities know there’s a threat out there,” Beutel agreed.
In doing the research behind the handbook, Beutel said he found that “censorship is actually counter-productive,” particularly when it comes to trying to respond to the breadth of ideas contained online. “To counter bad ideas, you need to replace them with good ideas, responding with the free marketplace of ideas,” he said. “So this is why it’s important that communities and clergy connect with one another and talk to one another, have the safe spaces for discussion so that they things they read about online can then be openly discussed, tackled, debated, debunked even, within a forum by a figure of trust and authority.”
Religious leaders were also on hand for the launch of the Safe Spaces Initiative. Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America, directly addressed Sunday’s mass shooting at a Jewish community center in opening his remarks. Noting his “deep sadness to his friends in the Jewish community,” Magid said “attacking any religious place is attacking all religious places as all of us believe. This is just another reminder to stand together addressing the issue of anti-semitism and hate towards communities.” Magid went on to praise the MPAC document for collecting best practices in countering extremism around the country.
Imam Suhaib Webb, head of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, noted that seven times in his fifteen-year career he’d been faced with members of his community who held fringe or potentially radical ideas. “Every single one of them that I was able to counsel changed and are now living fruitful and productive lives,” Webb said. “When we approach a community from a strictly legal perspective, or law enforcement prospective we intimidate that community. People become shy, people become scared.”
In particular, Webb said, when talking to people who had found the preaching of controversial cleric Anwar al-Awlaki distributed on YouTube, he found that countering the narrative of extremism was all important. Imams and other religious leaders should all have their own presences on the Internet, Webb said, as “people are looking for a counter-narrative, it just needs to be there.”