NEW YORK—It was possible that A’amash, a Pakistani-American man in New Jersey with two master’s degrees, would have left the United States to fight for an Islamic militant group if the wrong person had talked to him at the right time.
“I could have and it’s true,” said A’amash, a 30-year-old business analyst for a major telecommunications company. (A’amash is a pseudonym given to protect his identity).
“I could have gone to Iraq, or Syria, or the Taliban,” A’amash told the Epoch Times. “I would have been like these people who are idiots.”
A’amash, who holds masters’ degrees in transportation and information systems, is fully bearded and wears ittar, a natural perfume oil derived from flowers, herbs, and spices.
Dressed in sandals and the loose white trousers of traditional Middle Eastern attire, he sat down to tell his story on a vernal Sunday afternoon.
He would no longer consider extremist ideas today; A’amash’s transition from an extreme to moderate understanding of his religion provides a rare perspective on what attracts people to radicalize, and how to prevent it.
The vast majority of American Muslims find a violent interpretation of the Quran repulsive. And among those who do fully radicalize, most cannot return if they were to regret their decision because they are seen as terrorists.
The National Counterterrorism Center estimated in February that more than 150 American citizens and residents have either traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to become foreign fighters. Since then several more have been arrested by authorities before they could succeed in aiding the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), including four men in Brooklyn, and two women in Queens who plotted to detonate homemade bombs.
“These two women were U.S. citizens, I’m upset to hear that,” said Nusrat Qadir, a representative for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. “Why would you take your freedom away to do harm? There is something inside of these women that has caused them to leave behind something most of us would never dream of giving up.”
A’amash, however, believes he knows what caused them to do it, and how to prevent it from happening.
A’amash grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, a city filled with poets and regal, Mughal-era architecture. His father owned a hotel, and he received his education in the British international school system.
He has the ingredients for a prosperous future: money, a good education, and a naturalized U.S. citizenship. But he felt that there was something missing.
Upon asking which extremist group he would have joined, A’amash’s large, hazel eyes stared off into the distance and he gave the question some careful thought.
“Definitely not this al-Baghdadi guy,” he said, referring to the leader of ISIS. “Maybe the Taliban. They are defending, as in they’re fighting for their land. I would have helped them fight for their land.”
But he said he would have regretted his decision upon arriving. “Innocent people think they’re joining a spiritual army,” he said. “Then they see they’re just vicious animals.”
It is critical to understand how A’amash got to that point where he could have considered it, though, for it seemed that he assimilated quickly in the United States.
After arriving in New York at age 19, he got copious piercings, and joined a band, where he played an electric semi-hollow guitar.
He left Islam to explore other religions, and even leaned toward atheism for a period of time. But he could never find anything to fill an internal emptiness that he felt.
He eventually returned to Islam, where he said he found serenity in the peaceful passages of the Quran.
He especially identified with the concept of renunciation, the sacrificing of one’s physical comfort and wealth for spiritual ascendence. Twice, he made spiritual treks through Bear Mountain State Park in New York at night.
But there were certain verses in the text that were violent, and he did not know what to make of those passages initially.
Most Muslims do not have literal interpretations of those passages. They read them as parables, or simply parts no longer relevant to their lives in modern day.
Those verses should be read in their full, historical context, A’amash explained. If such passages are read out of context, radicals can twist the words to justify violence.
There are passages in the Quran that speaks about a call to fight. And if an extremist had quoted parts of the text out of context, it could have put A’amash at risk of radicalizing.
“If the right narrative was not there, I don’t know what I would have done,” he said. “I was going to fight if there was a call to fight.”
Fortunately, A’amash did not encounter any extremists to convince him to do so.
By thoroughly reading the Quran in its entirety, and discussing his questions with moderate Muslims, he came to understand that it is incorrect to “call everything Jihad.”
In Islam, fighting is is only justifiable if it is defending an innocent, he said.
“It cannot be aggressive, like the way ISIS interprets it,” he said. “Also, people must have been persecuted for religion or faith in order to take it up. This country welcomes everyone, so there is no reason to pick up a sword.”
He decided he would no longer consider extremist thoughts.
And for the last five years, A’amash has been countering radicals in his own, well, radical way.
He has grown out his beard and wears his full Middle Eastern attire during religious events and holidays.
“I’m taking the look back from the Taliban and ISIS,” he said. “I’m bringing it back in style.”
People stare. And he is glad that they do. “It gives me a chance to shatter the stereotype,” he said.
Growing Initiatives in American Muslim Communities
A’amash’s experience highlights the importance of being part of a positive Muslim community, because the Quran can be difficult to read if the right guidance is not provided.
Muslim American communities throughout the United States are working on providing resources and support systems that counter radical interpretations.
“You can’t win this war by material means. You can only win by intellectual means,” A’amash said. “I’d love to have an intellectual debate with ISIS.”
Muslims are the ones who can best make arguments from their religious text. And many groups are working on precisely just that.
“American Muslims are critical on this front. In the Muslim world, we are that bridge of understanding,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national Muslim American organization.
The works of these American Muslim organizations are important because it is not necessarily difficult to convince a person to step away from extremism. Often the groups work independently, but sometimes they work with U.S. authorities tasked with the same goals.
“Group think is one of the most powerful catalysts for leading a group to actually committing a terrorist act,” Raymond Kelly, the former NYPD commissioner, wrote in a terrorism report that he drafted with academics and intelligence officials.
“All individuals who begin this process [of radicalization] do not necessarily pass through all the stages. Many stop or abandon this process at different points,” Kelly said.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think thank, recommends that there should be federal grants for community outreach programs.
And one important place that the community targets is the Internet.
“Radicalization doesn’t happen in mosques. Radicalization happens on the Internet,” said Al-Marayati.
The Brookings Institution, a liberal-centrist think tank, found that from September to December 2014, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time.
That’s where social-media-savvy Muslims like Salaam Bhatti come in.
Bhatti, a 28-year-old attorney and regional president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA’s youth association, is very active on Twitter.
Bhatti has sent out 11,700 tweets, including links to articles about “why ISIS is not Islamic.”
The youth association he leads has organized a number of initiatives to counter anti-Muslim sentiment and prevent radicalization in the United States.
One of the initiatives it run is the Stop the Crisis campaign, which gives talks at community centers and college campuses to clarify misconceptions of Islam and Muslims. So far, it has held 30 events across the country since its creation less than a year ago.
“We understand we face a radicalization problem in the U.S.,” Bhatti said. “We address youth radicalization, what Muslims are doing to combat radicalization, what non-Muslims can do to combat that.”
“If they know someone who is subject to radicalization, they can say I was at this event this is what I heard,” he said.
During these events, they promote proper teachings of Islam, and encourages Muslims to apply these teachings by participating in community service.
As an organization, The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA helps out in homeless shelters, volunteers to clean roads, and holds blood drives.
They hold an annual blood drive called “Muslims for Life,” which honors 9/11 victims.
They donated 10,000 pints of blood on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack.
A’amash ended up joining the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a moderate sect of Islam.
He said if he had not become an Ahmadiyya Muslim, it does not necessarily mean he would have definitely turned toward extremism. It’s just that it was possible.
Apart from the Ahmadiyya sect, many Muslim organizations throughout the nation are doing similar initiatives.
The Muslim Students Association focuses on educating Muslims, as well as people of other faiths. They not only discourage radicalization, but also the unnecessary fear of Muslims.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is a national organization that also promotes proper identity development and nonviolent civil engagement in its community.
MPAC has a comprehensive intervention program called Safe Spaces, which equips communities with social services and religious counselling. There is a document of over 100 pages of advice and research that is free to download on their website.
“It deals with issues before it develops into radicalization,” said Al-Marayati, the president of MPAC, about the document.
It’s also provides a guide on what steps to take to confront individuals who may be at risk of extremism.
Battling Extremism, Amid Anti-Muslim Sentiment
The responsibilities of post-Sept. 11 Muslim-Americans are heavier and more complex.
While protecting vulnerable members of their community from extremism, they face hate groups.
There are anti-Muslim posters in transportation systems in some major U.S. cities; and recently, a “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” took place “in defense of free speech” in Garland, Texas, on May 3, where two extremists went and opened fire on a security guard before getting gunned down and killed by police.
It is important for the American public to not have anti-Muslim sentiment, for that only gives more power to ISIS.
“We have ISIS that is exploiting the wars in the Middle East, and then we have people in this country who want to hold a culture war,” said Al-Marayati.
It is important for the American public not to have anti-Muslim sentiment, for that only gives more power to ISIS.
ISIS Will Fail
Some, however, believe ISIS will inevitably fail regardless.
“I don’t think ISIS will last,” said Raghida Dergham, the founder of Beirut Institute, an independent nonpartisan Arab think tank. “I’d give them two to three years.”
“Most Muslims don’t want to be associated with them,” she said. “Countries are forming alliances to destroy it. Their resources can’t be replenished.”
More and more, there have been people like Shiraz Maher, a former Islamic radical who is now a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization in London.
For four years, Maher was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a terrorist Islamist group. Today, his research provides invaluable insight on ways to limit extremism.
One idea he has it to create a system that allows people to return once they become disillusioned by ISIS. “How to dissuade young men—and some women, too—from going out at all … who is better to do this than those who have returned? Let them tell potential recruits: ‘It’s terrible! Don’t go!’ If you want to send a message, you’ve got to choose who that messenger will be. If you want to get credible messengers, you’ve got to find people with credibility,” he told the New York Times.
Interestingly, some say ISIS is not a serious issue among Muslims in the United States.
“It’s important to distinguish between the U.S. and Europe,” said Mehdi Noorbaksh, Ph.D., a professor at Harrisburg University who specializes in international affairs and the interactions of Islam.
There is some level of public fear in America, but at least Muslims are not discriminated in employment.
“Germany and France do not try very hard to accommodate Muslims,” Noorbaksh said. “But in the U.S. we don’t have this problem. The windows of opportunities are open. You see Muslim engineers, Muslims in the medical profession.”
“The media has exaggerated the situation,” he said. “I’m very optimistic about the U.S. in this case.”