Muslim leaders try to counter radicals' influence on youths

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009

The adults thought they'd done all they could. They had condemned extremist ideology, provided ski trips and Scout meetings, and encouraged young people to speak openly about how to integrate their religion, Islam, with the secular world.

But five college-age Northern Virginia men were arrested in Pakistan this month after allegedly being recruited over the Internet to join al-Qaeda, and many Washington area Muslims are questioning whether condemnation is enough.

Mustafa Abu Maryam, a Muslim youth leader who has known the arrested men since 2006, said he was alarmed by their decision to go to Pakistan after allegedly exchanging coded e-mails with a recruiter for the Pakistani Taliban. "I always thought that they had a firm grasp on life and that they rejected extremism or terrorism," Maryam said of the Alexandria men.

Mosques and Islamic organizations across the United States regularly issue statements rejecting violence and fringe ideologies. But after the arrests, Muslim leaders have been scrambling to fill what they describe as a gap in their connection with young people, searching for new ways to counter the influence of the extremists whom young people might encounter, especially online.

"I'm really concerned about what the Internet is doing to my young people," said Mohamed Magid, imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling. "I used to not be worried about the radicalism of our youth. But now, after this, I'm worried more."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, as American Muslims have seen repeated arrests of young European Muslims on terrorism charges, many in this country came to believe that the stronger integration of young American Muslims in the United States would help immunize them against the disaffection that leads to extremism. Magid said he has met in recent years with other Muslim leaders to talk about social networking to counter radicalism in Europe, "but we never thought about it for here."

Now, Magid said, "I have to be a virtual imam," meaning that Muslim groups need a larger and more effective online presence. Referring to extremists, he said: "Twenty-four hours, they're available. I want to be able to respond to that."

Seeking a counterweight

Until now, many Muslim leaders have focused on what they considered external threats to young people, such as Islamophobia or the temptations of modern, secular life. Now they say it is time to look inward, to provide a counterweight to those who misinterpret Koranic verses to promote violence -- and to learn what rhetoric and methods appeal to young people.

Radicals "seem to understand our youth better than we do," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. "They use hip-hop elements for some who relate to that." Bray said "seductive videos" gradually lure young people, building outrage over atrocities committed against Muslims. Extremist videos "play to what we call in the Muslim youth community 'jihad cool' -- a kind of machismo that this is the hip thing to do."

For some, a new approach cannot come too soon. Zaki Barzinji, 20, a Sterling native and former president of Muslim Youth of North America, said mosques are "sort of in the Stone Age when it comes to outreach. Their youth programs are not attractive, not engaging . . . . They're shooting in the dark because it's always adults who are planning this outreach."

Nor is the threat limited to the Internet, Barzinji said, adding that groups of "traveling Muslim proselytizers" sometimes appear at Virginia Tech, where he is a senior, often attracting foreign students, who tend to be more socially isolated.

"They go to the dorms, look for Muslim-sounding names, knock on the door and say, 'Hey, we'd like to talk to you about hellfire and how you're heading that way,' " Barzinji said. "All they're offering is social connection and acceptance."

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