Muslim leaders try to counter radicals' influence on youths

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009; A01

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."

Barzinji said Muslim groups should create online forums where young Muslims can find answers from authoritative sources. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman at the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he spent a recent day at work with a copy of "The Social Media Bible," trying to figure out how to do just that.

One idea: a Web portal offering video explanations of Koranic verses that are sometimes misinterpreted by radicals, as well as suggestions of what Hooper called "positive things you can do to rectify injustice."

Many Muslim parents said they don't worry about the influence of radical strangers on their children. "I just don't see it as a very widespread phenomenon," said Bob Marro, a Great Falls father of two college students who were active in their high school's Muslim Student Association. "I know for my sons and their friends, if they got a message like that, they would find it just laughingly funny. . . . If you've been open with your kids and talked to them as they were growing up, they'll have enough of a sense of their own value and their place in the world."

His son, Nicolas Marro, 19, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, said the five young men's decision to go to Pakistan "seems like such an anomaly, especially in this area, where people take their studies so seriously."

Whenever he has seen radical rhetoric on a public forum, he said, it has usually been shouted down. "There will be a plethora of responses: 'Are you crazy?' 'Is something wrong with you?' " he said.

Effects on community

But if even a few young people slip through the cracks, the results can be devastating for the community. "They ruin it for the rest of us," said Azraf Ullah, 15, of Herndon, who was attending a Scout meeting at the All Dulles Area center this month. "We have to work harder to show that we're not that."

"The impression is like, 'Every Muslim youth is involved with this thing,' " said Syed Akhtar Alam, a father of three in Ashburn. At an interfaith youth group Alam is involved with, parents from other religions approached him after the arrests in Pakistan. "They just wanted to know, 'How could this happen?' " he said. "It just happened randomly. Bad people are everywhere. . . . It is parents' responsibility to tell their kids, 'This is your country, and you need to protect it.' "

Relatives of the five men have declined to speak to reporters.

Magid, the imam from Sterling, said Muslim leaders should be more active on social networking sites and should create an online network of imams to talk to young people, "even addressing questions about jihad," he said, adding that it is no longer enough to rely only on mosque-based Scout troops, basketball teams and religion classes.

Hooper said some leaders are discussing an Islamic Peace Corps through which youths could help Muslims in underdeveloped countries. But some advocate a more adventuresome approach, borrowing from the extremists' methods. "A 20-year-old, he's not satisfied with a canned food drive to solve the world's problems," said a religious leader whose mosque would not permit him to be quoted by name. "You've got to give them something more, even a little macho.

"These boys who got busted . . . they want to be baaaad. You've got to be as bad as the jihadis. You've got to show them jumping out of helicopters. This ain't no Peace Corps."

Staff writer Brigid Schulte contributed to this report.

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