Muslim Activists Push Back Against the Extremists
They know violent radicals target them first
Jan. 7 was a terrible day.
Islamist radicals murdered 12 people at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. On the same day, Boko Haram slaughtered 2,000 civilians in and around Baga, Nigeria. It was the terror group’s bloodiest attack yet.
It’s all making 2015 look pretty grim.
Debates about Islam and extremism are dominating headlines and airwaves. This comes after the explosive growth of Islamic State, the Taliban’s assault against children and Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Nigerian school girls.
But there’s a reaction against this wave of violence coming from within the Muslim community. A growing number of people are simply fed up with terrorists, and Muslims far outnumber non-Muslims in the death toll these groups create.
As Islamist groups become more dangerous—and perhaps desperate—the voices condemning them in both the West and the Middle East are getting louder, and bolder.
Here are a few stories of people fighting against the radicals—and some who died doing so. Some are soldiers and fighter pilots. Others are peaceful activists and comedians.
In 2007, police in the United Kingdom arrested a group of men with Al Qaeda ties. They plotted to capture and behead a soldier. But not just any soldier—their plot centered on a British Muslim who’d joined the Army and served in Iraq.
The plotters wanted to demoralize British troops, and punish a man they saw as a traitor. The group hoped to terrorize Muslims into staying away from the military.
They knew—and feared—the fact that Muslims have a long history of serving in Western armies. In the U.S. military, there’s at least 3,700 practicing Muslims on active duty, including chaplains. Religion is voluntarily reported, so confirming hard figures is difficult.
These soldiers have lent their cultural and linguistic skills to military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.
One of the best known Muslim soldiers of the post-9/11 era is Cpl. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan from New Jersey. As a teenager, Khan was a member of Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and had a life-long interest in the military.
His parents told reporters their son swore on 9/11 that when he was old enough, he would join the Army and fight. He kept that promise, becoming a soldier assigned to the 3rd Stryker Brigade.
“He was an American soldier first,” his father Feroze Khan told the McClatchy news agency. “But he also looked at fighting in this war as fighting for his faith. He was fighting radicalism.”
Khan deployed to Iraq in 2006. When searching a house in the town of Baqubah in August 2007, an insurgent-planted bomb detonated. Khan and four fellow soldiers died. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
A photo of his mother visiting his grave appeared in The New Yorker. Khan’s story later entered the public consciousness when former Secretary of State Colin Powell mentioned seeing the photo. Later, Pres. Barack Obama honored Khan at the annual White House Iftar dinner — a tradition begun under the George W. Bush administration.
Perhaps the most infamous Muslim soldier in the West is Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan. Hassan’s story is far less heroic than Khan’s.
On Nov. 5, 2009, Hassan—a military psychologist—went on a shooting spree after shouting “Allah Akbar” at a medical center for returning soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. He killed 12 fellow soldiers and a civilian physician assistant.
Investigators determined Hassan had become radicalized, and discovered communications between him and radical cleric Anwar Al Awlaki — who died in a CIA drone strike in September 2011.
The attack in the heart of one of America’s largest military installations rattled many Americans. Some pundits and politicians suggested that Muslim service members should be more heavily scrutinized. Others demanded they all be purged from the ranks.
Military leaders disagreed.
“Our diversity, not only in our Army but in our country, is a strength,” then-Army Chief of Staff George Casey said after the massacre in an interview with NBC. “As horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.”
One of the first responders to Hassan’s shooting was a combat medic named Fahad Kamal—also a Muslim.
“As a Muslim and an American—one who loves this country and all that it has done and does for me—I was disappointed to hear that this man, 15 years my senior, could destroy harmony that existed,” he told Illume Magazine.
The presence of militants in the West is very real. It’s of particular concern to Muslim communities which radicals attempt to infiltrate.
“They live in the West, eat in the West, earn their living in the West but they hate the West,” explains missionary Ansar Raza in a phone interview with War Is Boring.
He’s a member of Canada’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community and Stop The CrISIS, a grassroots effort aimed at curbing extremist recruitment of youth. A group of Canadian Muslims organized Stop The CrISIS after Islamic State-inspired radicals murdered two Canadian soldiers.
In October, 25-year-old convert Martin Couture-Rouleau drove his car into warrant officer Patrice Vincent in Quebec, killing Vincent and injuring another soldier.
Not long after, another convert—Michael Zehaf-Bibeau—killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The attacks horrified the nation—including its Muslim community.
Imtiaz Ahmed—a Canadian imam—is the head of the campaign. In December, Ahmed encouraged Muslim students to tell the authorities if they suspect a classmate is preparing to hurt themselves or others.
Stop The CrISIS gets its message out through rallies, school events and social media. The hashtag #StopTheCrISIS caught on and quickly became used by activists internationally.
Terrorism experts have written extensively of Islamic State’s use of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to spread its message. The terror group uses a mixture of digital and human networks to radicalize and recruit.
“[They encourage] people from all over the world to travel long distances to engage in violent campaigns in the guise of piety and holiness,” says Nahrain Al Mousawi, a Morocco-based writer and educator.
“Soccer players, middle-class students, and rap artists count among the people who leave their lives behind for a cause that is basically a distortion of religion into a variety of sadistic, torturous, violent campaigns.”
Mousawi told War is Boring that these efforts, rather than building a community, has done a lot more to destroy communities in the Middle East. In Iraq, Islamic State obliterated traditionally mixed communities where Sunnis, Shias, Yezidis and Christians once lived and worked side by side.
The radicals also desecrated and destroyed mosques, temples and churches—some of which had stood for more than a thousand years. The terror group gloatingly uploaded photos and videos of these demolitions to social media.
But though extremists have proven adept at waging their information war on the digital battleground, they’re not unopposed. Public and bitter dialogues between radicals and their critics have unfolded on Twitter and other social media sites
Radicals typically accuse their opponents of being weak-willed, westernized apostates. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the extremists are fond of harassing Muslim women who raise their voices.
“They are not trying raise people spiritually,” Raza explains. He says that the goals of extremists—particularly the destruction of other faiths and Islamic State’s vision of world domination—are futile, destructive and ultimately self-defeating.
There are just too many people on the planet who aren’t Muslims—as well as Muslims who want no part of their vision—for Islamic State to ever realize their twisted agenda. Raza says coexistence isn’t just one option. It’s the only sensible one.
But though Islamic extremists probably can’t enslave the world, they can kill a lot of people. More often than not, those people are other Muslims.
In Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria, the majority of their opponents are Muslims—whether they’re soldiers in the Iraqi army, the Syrian army, Kurdish fighters or what remains of the Free Syrian Army.
When Islamic State tried to wipe out the Yezidi people, Syrian Kurdish YPG and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters reinforced the besieged Mount Sinjar. The Iraqi air force organized an airlift for the refugees trapped on the mountain.
The attack on the Yezidis prompted an international air campaign against Islamic State. Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri, the United Arab Emirates’ first female fighter pilot, was among the service members involved in the strikes —reportedly as a team leader. She became a feminist icon in the West and the Middle East.
Recently, Islamic State militants captured Jordanian pilot Moath Al Kasasbah after his F-16 went down in Syria—making him the first captured pilot in the coalition. He is reportedly a devout Muslim who completed the Hajj pilgrimage before his capture.
Islamic State’s digital English language magazine Dabiq published an interview with the captured fighter pilot. At one point his interviewer asks him if he knows what the jihadists will do to him.
“Yes,” he answers. “They will kill me.”
The Middle East can be a dangerous place to be a musician, writer or comedian. While the region has ancient literary and artistic traditions, contemporary Islamist hardliners lack an appreciation for both.
Terrorists—and often governments—silence dissent with threats, intimidation and violence. But that hasn’t made the activists stop.
The Palestinian comedy troupe that produces the popular comedy series Watan ala Watar recently created a skit mocking Islamic State, in which they portray the fighters as dimwitted, hypocritical, violent assholes.
It’s nothing new for them. They used to appear on Palestinian Authority TV, until the network banned them for parodying Palestine’s leaders. The troupe also parodied Hamas, and a variety of other dangerous types.
“I think writers feel endangered but push through and produce nevertheless,” Mousawi says. “Artists push through beyond fears of violent retaliation or communal derision, because they’re artists and that is what they do.”
The increasingly vicious and brazen nature of Islamist terror movements has also fueled the activist reaction. From Islamic State’s slaughtering of entire villages — most inhabited by Muslims — to Boko Haram’s attacks on educators and kidnapping of schoolgirls — most of whom are also Muslims.
“I think it’s done a lot to waken the silent majority,” Raza said. He sees people being increasingly engaged and horrified by what they see —and much more willing to speak out and act.
On Dec. 16, members of Pakistani militant faction Tehrik-i-Taliban launched a bloody assault on a school in Peshawar, attacking staff and students. They gunned down 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren who ranged in age from 18 to eight years old.
Pakistani special forces launched a rescue operation, killing all of the attackers and rescuing 960 people. Pakistani military officials reported that none the dead attackers were locals — they were all foreign jihadists. Taliban leaders gleefully praised the attack.
The Sunni Ittehad Council, an organization of Sunni clerics, released a scathing condemnation published in the newspaper Roznama Pakistan.
“The terrorists are using Islam for their un-pious designs,” the declaration read in part. “It is incumbent upon the nation to support the Pakistani army, which is fighting the terrorists, the open enemies of Pakistan and Islam.”
But other clerics railed against the evils of “Western” education, and some refused to condemn the attack. Abdul Aziz, the pro-Taliban cleric that heads Islamabad-based mosque Lal Masjid said the attack was an “understandable” response to the Pakistani army’s campaign in the region.
Horrified by Aziz’s defense of the Peshawar massacre, Pakistani civic leaders, musicians and activists took the streets and surrounded Lal Masjid. They swore they would take back the mosque.
Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist Mohammed Jibran Nasir is a leading figure in the push back against the Taliban. He was one of the first to use the hashtag #ReclaimYourMosque, along with the similar #ReclaimYourReligion.
Freedom of speech
The attack on French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo horrified the world. And it’s contributed to increased suspicion toward Europe’s Muslim community.
But one of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting was Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim cop and eight-year police veteran.
In the subsequent shooting at a kosher grocery store, a store employee named Lassana Bathily — a Malian Muslim immigrant — hid several customers before going for help and relaying critical information to French police.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi wrote on Twitter “the attackers at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper shouted ‘We have avenged the Prophet Mohammad.’ Allah will denounce you, do not use your terrorism in the name of my beloved Prophet Mohammad… [the] Prophet of mercy.”
In response to other Muslims praising the attack, Khashoggi tweeted “those who justify the killing and the takfir will try today to justify the #CharlieHebdo attack… Our battle with terrorism is long, as long as some of us justify it.”
Khalaf Al-Harbi, another Saudi journalist tweeted “The killing of the journalists is a despicable crime. Words are answered with words, not bullets.”
Raza said he’s a firm believer in free speech. He doesn’t think anyone should be killing anyone else over what they may have said or drawn, even if it’s offensive. “We do mind, but we believe in people’s rights,” he says, speaking of his own reaction to the cartoons.
He says people have the right to express themselves in a free society, though he urges people to practice it responsibly. That’s why he’s concerned at the possibility of more cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed. The main reason? It just gives radicals more propaganda to fuel their cause.
He also said it makes it much harder for Muslims like him to confront the radicals. “It allows them to point and say ‘see? They are against us,’” Raza says.
But Raza adds that, ultimately, education is the key. He thinks Western Muslims need to engage people around the world, and counter the lies radicals spread about the West.
Patience, humility and the pursuit of knowledge are key parts of what it means to be Muslim, he adds. Reza’s main point is that these steps should inspire people to learn about and understand each other—and keep an open mind.