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Educating Against Extremism
Muslims Reach Out to Youths Who Could Be Susceptible to Radicalism

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005

Alarmed by the London subway bombings, U.S. Muslim activists are taking a series of steps aimed at preventing young people here from embracing extremist ideas -- including producing a pamphlet on how to spot susceptible youth.

The projects, which involve many Muslims in the Washington area, are in the planning stages. But they reflect the soul-searching in mosques and in Muslim groups since the July 7 attacks, which left 56 people dead, including the four British suicide bombers.

"This is really the battle of the future. The ideological war should be won with the young," said Maher Hathout, a leader of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Los Angeles-based group involved in the new efforts.

U.S. Muslim groups have roundly condemned the British subway attack and a subsequent failed bombing attempt. They said they have no evidence of a similar threat in this country. Muslims here are generally more educated and better off economically than those in Europe, and in many cases they are more assimilated.

But the fact that several of the terror suspects in the London incidents were British-born -- including the 18-year-old son of moderate Pakistani immigrants -- has raised concern about the Muslims growing up here.

"Obviously this kid in the U.K. didn't come from extremist parents. He didn't live in an extremist neighborhood. But somebody was able to get to him and persuade him it was correct to strap a bomb to himself," said Mahdi Bray, a senior figure in the Washington-based Muslim American Society.

"We don't want to give the opportunity to extremists to get ahold of our kids."

Bray's group started working last week with psychologists to design a pamphlet on how to identify young people who could be susceptible to violent extremism. It will be distributed to Muslim parents, mosque leaders and others, he said.

His group also is stepping up fundraising to add to the nine Muslim youth recreation centers it operates across the country, he said. One new center is planned for the Washington area -- possibly in the District's Shaw neighborhood -- sometime in the next two years, he said. The Muslim American Society also will encourage mosques to sponsor more Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, he said.

To many local parents, the idea that their offspring could become Islamic extremists seems remote, said Bano Makhdoom, a Muslim activist in Montgomery County. As educated, hardworking professionals, their main worry is the same as that of other suburban parents: their kids' grades.

Still, she said, "What I am seeing is everyone more active, and saying, 'Okay, this is something we need to watch out for.' "

In the past few years, several local, U.S.-born young men have gotten caught up in Islamic extremism. One group from the Washington suburbs was convicted of attending a training camp run by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group that U.S. authorities have placed on the terrorist list. Last week, a 30-year-old D.C. taxi driver living near Baltimore, Mahmud Faruq Brent, was charged in a similar case.

In an even more dramatic case, a 24-year-old who grew up in Falls Church, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, has been accused in an al Qaeda plot to assassinate President Bush. He has pleaded not guilty.

The Muslim American Society has vigorously defended Abu Ali. Asked whether that contradicted his group's new campaign against extremism, Bray said no. His organization, he said, was concerned that Abu Ali's rights had been violated since he had been held in a Saudi prison for more than a year without charges.

Nonetheless, Bray acknowledged he might not have been outspoken enough in the past about Muslims espousing extremist views.

"It's not criminal. But it's not acceptable," Bray said. If Muslims preach intolerance, he added, "we have a responsibility to debate that person, make that opinion unpopular."

Several area Muslim leaders said they've been doing that since long before the London bombings. But now they are warning even more explicitly about any ideologies that glorify violence or portray non-Muslims as "infidels."

At the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, that message underpinned a weekly Koran class one recent night. Sheikh Rashid Lamptey, a slight Ghanaian in gold-trimmed robes, gave a spirited lecture to about two dozen rapt men and women, most in their twenties and thirties. They were a snapshot of the local Muslim community: immigrants and U.S.-born converts, their upturned faces reflecting roots in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

"Every human soul, from China, Germany, Africa . . . you name it -- that human soul comes from God," Lamptey said in a soft, lilting voice. "Every soul -- shamanism, Hinduism, Christianity -- what matters is that soul comes from God. That calls us to respect every soul."

Hating people, he added, "is not part of our religion."

Concern about young Muslims extends well beyond the mosque.

One major group, the Islamic Society of North America, is planning a special session on fighting terrorism and extremism at its annual convention in Chicago next month. The issue is also a central theme at a parallel youth conference, expected to draw thousands of people.

Among those attending will be members of a new national group focused on Muslim youth, which was formed in the wake of the London bombings. The group, which is unnamed, consists of Muslim students across the country, including a few young Muslims working on Capitol Hill.

Amin Al-Sarraf, 21, a George Washington University student, is a leader of the new group. The grandson of Iraqi and Palestinian immigrants, he works part time at the Capitol Hill offices of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

In his navy suit and crisp, pinstriped shirt, he looks like any other ambitious young Hill staffer. But he said many second-generation Muslims aren't sure whether to assimilate into the broader society -- leaving them vulnerable to an extremist message.

"Are we Muslim? Are we American? A lot of [Muslim] people see this as a zero-sum game," Al-Sarraf said.

The problem, he said, is many young Muslims are unmoored from their immigrant parents' identities. But, as members of a religious minority who often refrain from drinking alcohol and dating, Muslim youth struggle to figure out how they fit into U.S. culture.

"We don't really have a strong identity as ourselves. When someone [radical] tells us something, we can sway that way," Al-Sarraf said.

His group wants to increase civic participation among young Muslims and urge them to more critically examine extremist religious views.

"There's a sense among a lot of people we need to take charge of our own future," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company