The Obama administration has voiced its intentions to promote outreach efforts with Muslim communities abroad. But in light of the recent Times Square bomb plot thought to have been perpetrated by a Pakistani-born American citizen, is this administration directing its efforts in the right place?
Above: Obama speaks to Muslims worldwide from Cairo.
“We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written,” President Obama said in remarks at Cairo University. Image: Associated Press, www.america.gov.
As part of its outreach efforts aimed at Muslims, the Obama administration has created the Office of Special Representative to Muslim Communities. An office in the State Department, the initiative is part of President Obama’s efforts to build bridges with Muslim countries and create dialogue with Muslims abroad. But in light of the recent Times Square bomb plot perpetrated by an American citizen of Pakistani descent, is this administration directing its efforts in the right place? Or should it perhaps prioritize the communities to which it reaches out? With alarming reports of terrorist plots unfolding in its very own backyard, it may be time to consider whether this administration would be better off focusing its outreach efforts on the American Muslim community rather than Muslim communities overseas.
Although details of the suspected bomber’s life and contacts are only slowly coming out, understanding what motivated him is crucial not just for the government in its counter-terrorism efforts, but also for the American Muslim community, which has the most to lose by this development.
The American Muslim community is estimated at about 1.4 million and consists of first, second, and third generations of immigrant Muslims from diverse ethnic backgrounds. These individuals, or their parents or grandparents, have struggled to leave behind their homes and adopt a new language and culture, all while trying to find their place in a new society. But do the recent cases of home-grown terrorism have the potential to threaten their progress? The most damning bits of evidence in the recent case were that the suspect was well-educated, had a decent job, and was a naturalized U.S. citizen. The questions most American Muslims will ask is whether this evidence has the potential to put everyone, even well-adjusted immigrants, under the cloud of suspicion.
Thus, American Muslims have a large stake in how the facts surrounding the would-be bomber will shape opinions about their community. For the American Muslim community, this perception is even more critical in light of the direction the Muslim diaspora has taken in Europe. Increasingly radicalized and marginalized to the fringe of society, European Muslims continue to struggle to find their place in European countries, but are often faced with negative responses. So far, American Muslims have had the luxury of feeling comfortable that their community has been more successful at integrating. But it is events like these – American Muslim citizens acting out violently and hoping to aid foreign terrorist groups – that have the potential to cause the American Muslim community to fear that their relative success at integration could soon be threatened.
The fact that the individuals in the past three domestic terrorism cases have been successful and educated American citizens (check out the article in the NY Times) is also alarming because it throws what we previously thought we understood about the roots of terrorism out the window: theories relating to poverty and a lack of alternative and meaningful opportunities for education and advancement appear to make no sense when applied to these individuals. These may just be isolated incidents of individuals with personality issues. In that event, it would be difficult to identify a trend and formulate a means to address it. But if they are not isolated events, we must ask ourselves, what is motivating these American Muslim citizens to seek out foreign terrorist groups with hopes of aiding them? Is it a result of increasing alienation or not feeling part of the society in which one lives? Is it retaliation or retribution for what they view as the foreign policy atrocities of the United States? Perhaps it is a combination of these factors. Addressing them will require a combination of tools aimed at integration and dispelling ignorance.
Even mere public relations efforts by the Obama administration to bring Muslims into the fold of American society – to show that Muslims are accepted and appreciated as part of this country’s fabric – could go a long way to dispel myths Muslims abroad (and perhaps some here at home) have that Muslims do not have a place in this country. The government must work to increasingly integrate Muslims and dispel that myth so violent actions like these will no longer make sense to those looking for a target for their anger. Individuals will be less likely to act out violently against others if they feel they would be harming people with whom they share a common affiliation and kinship.
Criticism of America’s foreign policy, such as the “retaliation” for drone attacks in Pakistan that was cited in the Times Square case, is another argument, however, and one that’s more difficult to tackle. But somewhere along the way, the suspected Times Square bomber thought his was an acceptable way to express his foreign policy grievances. It is this notion that the American Muslim community and the government are going to have to work together to dispel. If American Muslims have gripes about foreign policy, maybe the opportunity to discuss these issues will show that at least this country’s leadership is willing to listen to that segment of its constituency. Working on bringing Muslims into the fold and into that discussion might be this administration’s best bet at combating the potential alienation of American Muslims that will prove to be crucial in this war on terrorism.
But what may prove to be even more effective is a public coordination of efforts between the government and the American Muslim community to root out these violent crimes. American Muslim communities have worked with law enforcement in counterterrorism efforts in the past. Such cooperation would go a long way to show that violent actions are not sanctioned or condoned by the American Muslim community and that individuals who choose to act violently will not be able to count on finding sympathy or support from their community. The best chance at bringing the American Muslim community and the government together is by more publicized efforts by the Obama administration to reach out to American Muslims. The good news is that the Obama administration has already taken steps toward creating that vehicle. It is just a matter of refocusing the priority in his Muslim outreach campaign to the American Muslim community. —SANAA ANSARI
Sanaa Ansari received her J.D. from the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. She has previously worked on American Muslim civil rights issues and currently works for the Virginia judiciary.