‘Average Mohamed’ Ahmed is working to counter jihadist propaganda
by KEVIN KNODELL
“I came to America with ideas in my head, and I got a chance to fulfill most of those ideas,” Mohamed Ahmed says. A Somali American and proud Minnesotan, he’s talking on the phone from Massachusetts where he’s been giving talks to students.
He’s the creator of the web cartoon series Average Mohamed, which he developed as a counter message to jihadist propaganda that has targeted young Muslims in the west. He has an exhausting workload balancing his regular job while spreading anti-extremism messages in classrooms in the United States and abroad.
Ahmed arrived in the United States in 1995 at the age of 18. He’s also fiercely patriotic and thankful to his new country. “I’m a man with a family now, I work for a corporation … and I’m also an activist. That’s an American story, that’s America for you,” he says.
That’s why like many Americans, Ahmed was alarmed reports of young men from Minnesota attempting to join terrorist groups overseas. As someone who had come from a country torn apart by war, an immigrant to the United States and a faithful Muslim, he was angry and alarmed.
“It pissed me off that some of my community members, Minnesotans, were willing to join Islamic State. It truly pissed me off,” he said.
“It pissed me off because I know they have opportunity, I know they have access to health care, to education, access to become anything they want to become in this country. And they chose to go join people want harm.”
“I thought to myself ‘what can a citizen do?’”
Ahmed decided to fight against the ideology which he said is sneaking its ways into communities. While many worry about infiltration through the movement of people, it’s over the internet that ideology spreads most readily.
The Islamic State has used social media and slickly produced videos to sell directionless youths a life of action and adventure — as well as a sense of purpose and a path to paradise.
“I’d be the perfect, ideal candidate,” he says, reflecting on the way terrorist recruiters think. “International passport, living in the West, practicing Muslim. So why not [me]? Because of the ideology [itself], it holds no appeal for people like me.”
“I live in a community, I don’t just live in it I engage in it,” he continues. “Just look around you, the people are decent. The majority of Americans are just decent people. All they care about is, can we do business? Can you pay your taxes? Can we live in peace, will you not harm me? And that’s it.”
“It doesn’t get better than that.”
Ahmed’s adjustment into American society was relatively seamless. But he also understands how others have struggled. “They don’t think they fit in, they may not believe there’s opportunity,” he says.
Minnesota is a friendly place and many Somalis like Ahmed have become business owners and entrepreneurs. But in other corners, a segment of young Somalis have formed gangs and sparred with white gangs such as the All American Boys.
Ahmed says that some first generation Americans who are confused about their identities can be susceptible to extremist ideology. “Isolation [is part of it], Islamophobia pushes it, mental health can be an issue, misunderstanding their faith … a lot of smart people are trying to figure this out.”
That was the birth of Average Mohamed. Ahmed works with a team of volunteers to put the short and simple cartoons together. The videos are aimed at young children and teens.
“My background is corporate, so we’re looking for something we can do that is cheap and that we can get the most bang out of,” Ahmed explains. “The cheapest medium we could find was cartoons.”
The videos tackle a number of themes with straightforward, forceful messages delivered by the character “Average Mohamed,” narrated by Ahmed. For instance, he tells kids that suicide bombing isn’t noble and that the intentional killing of civilians will send them to Hell.
He preaches gender equality, the importance of diversity and coexisting with people of other faiths and backgrounds. He defends free speech and says it protects everyone — even those we disagree with.
Production wise, they’re very different from the extremist videos he’s trying to counter. Ahmed doesn’t have the financial resources that terrorists — backed by shadowy financiers and augmented by black market enterprises — attained at the peak of their power in Iraq and Syria.
“I’d love to make live action videos, but those are so exorbitant … they’re so time consuming and require capital,” Ahmed says.
Outside the videos, Ahmed does lectures at schools and community centers, and does video conferences reaching students abroad. Principally, he wants to counter propaganda that often outlives the jihadists who created it.
Anwar Al Awlaki, an American citizen and Al Qaeda member who died in a controversial drone strike ordered by Pres. Barack Obama has been one of the most effective recruiters despite his death in 2011. His propaganda has played a role in the radicalization of several Western jihadists, including those from Minnesota.
Ahmed, though disdainful of Awlaki’s jihadist message, speaks with a sort of grudging respect for him as an ideological adversary. The English-speaking preacher was readily able to exploit the insecurities of young Muslim men who feel caught between worlds and confused about who they are. Awlaki and other jihadist propagandists present an absolutist Salafi ideology.
Ahmed says that he talked to two youths in Massachusetts who had been watching Awlaki videos. He told the boys that Awlaki was selling them a lie.
“The thinking they are going to is an extreme form, and they become extremist because they want to be ‘pure,’ and that is a false experience,” Ahmed says.
He explains that the notion of a “pure” Islam is impossible. He says that Salafists are putting forth their interpretation of what’s pure, but they can’t truly know what it was like in the early days, and as mere mortals they can’t be the final word on God’s will.
“We can’t go back to the beginning,” Ahmed says.
He points out that there is now 1,400 years of jurisprudence crafted by Islamic clerics and scholars over the centuries. Debate and reform have long been a part of Islamic history, as has adapting to changing circumstances. Ahmed says Salafists want to go back to an imagined “purity” that probably never really existed, and basically want to disregard all of Islamic history.
But that doesn’t mean Ahmed doesn’t think tradition is important. “What we see is not to lose the old culture but to accept the new culture, and the solution is create a hybrid for yourself to survive,” he says.
Being an American isn’t about wearing blue jeans and eating cheeseburgers. As Ahmed sees it, it’s about embracing and participating in democratic institutions, and recognizing the Constitution as the highest law in the land. “Assimilation does not mean losing one’s culture, it simply means expanding one’s culture.”
He points to the rich tradition of Chinatowns and other immigrant enclaves that both celebrate cultural traditions but are very much a part of the fabric of American society. “At the end of the day they are all Americans.”
However, many Americans take a much less celebratory view of America as a multicultural society. In October, the FBI arrested three men in Kansas — members of a group calling themselves “The Crusaders” — for plotting to bomb an apartment complex with a large Somali population. The men allegedly intended to carry out the attack after the election.
The relationship between the FBI and the American Muslim community hasn’t always been perfect. But Ahmed praised the work of the FBI Civil Rights Division and stressed that cooperation is actually strong.
Since 9/11 more jihadist plots have come to the attention of law enforcement from tips by American Muslims concerned about terrorist infiltration of their communities than from U.S. government surveillance programs.
“What happens is basically they are the ones promoting our security,” Ahmed says. “The people are waking up to the fact that if Islamaphobes act, the government will protect them. And it’s the same government that wants help with [Islamist] extremism.”
However, since the election there have been reports of a spike in harassment and hate crimes in the United States. President-elect Donald Trump condemned such crimes when pressed during a post-election interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes. “Don’t do it,” Trump said. “That’s terrible, because I’m going to bring this country together.”
Civil liberties advocates remain suspicious of Trump’s November 2015 pledge to register all Muslims in the United States and give them “special I.D.’s.” He also singled out Minnesota’s Somali community as a threat during a campaign stop in the state.
Trump’s incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus has tried to ease such fears, promising the administration has no plans make a religious registry. Ahmed says he is optimistic.
“We have to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Ahmed says.
He opined that that so far, he believes Trump has made moves to be more presidential and is trying to consult competent experts. “He said that he is the president of all Americans … we are in the same boat with him no matter what happens.”
Ahmed asserts that the best way for Muslims to confront anti-Muslim bigotry is to join in the fight against extremism. “Every time an extremist does these evil actions, it validates the Islamaphobe’s thinking,” Ahmed says. “So, when you’re fighting extremism, you’re fighting Islamophobia. That’s something we learned early on.”
“What we need is concerted effort,” he adds. But he said that American Muslims like him who are trying to promote anti-extremism are “shut out.”
“When I say we are shut out, we apply to foundations for funding to continue our work, and foundations tell us ‘well, you go to your government.’ And when we go to our government all our government has is kind words, they like what we’re doing, love what we’re doing, but in terms of resources we get none.”
Ahmed works 50-60 hours per week at his day job, and uses his vacation time to wage his counter-extremism campaign. He wants to do more, and is in touch with activists in Pakistan and other countries who want to set up similar initiatives.
“The exact same thing that I’m doing, and I want to help them,” he said.
But he said he doesn’t have the time or resources.
And that’s a problem, because jihadists aren’t waiting around. “If I joined Al Qaeda today they would call me, interview me, find out what skill set I have,” Ahmed said. “They would put me to use, put me to work.”
“That is a shame, because we have been missing out a lot,” he says. “The best form of defense is a good offense … We are the ones who are doing the offensive work, we are the ones being aggressive here, but the greatest challenge we have is access to resources and more importantly to networks.”
However, he says that he’s confident in Americans. He asserts that any time there is an act of violence in Minnesota, people form all communities come together — whether they be Christians, Muslims or Jews — to show solidarity.
An Imam recently told Ahmed that while the election has brought out the worst in some people, it’s brought out the best in others. “He said ever since the election, [he gets] 50 people coming to pray at the mosque and 150 people who want to come see us pray in the mosque,” Ahmed says.
“So people are rallying together. Like I said, this is America.”