It would have been an horrific act of mass murder. A Nigerian man allegedly attempted to ignite an explosive device aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit, but the device failed, and he was quickly subdued by other passengers. I thank God the plot failed, and I commend the bravery and heroism of those passengers who risked their own safety to help avert a potentially terrible terrorist attack. An investigation into the alleged plot is currently underway.
This latest incident shows that our country, while much safer now, still faces threats both abroad and at home. Just recently, five young American Muslim men were arrested in Pakistan after attempting to join a militant group to fight American troops in Afghanistan. This was on the heels of the horrible mass shooting at Ford Hood. Although these incidents are serious and disturbing, one should not jump to the conclusion and blame all of Islam and Muslims for these plots and attacks. These men, if what is alleged against them is true, are criminals and must be prosecuted and punished as such.
As a matter of fact, the Muslim community has been instrumental in helping to stop some of these and other plots from coming to fruition. In the case of the five young Muslims from Virginia, one of the men’s parents alerted the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, after learning their son was missing and finding a “farewell” video. CAIR, in turn, notified the FBI, which led to their quick arrest in Pakistan. In addition, the father of the Nigerian man warned American officials of his son’s extremist beliefs and terrorist connections. In fact, his name was added to a terrorist database, but he was not placed on a “no fly” list. Already, members of Congress are vowing to hold hearings over how and why this happened, and the government may also order a review.
The fact that these would be terrorists were all young and from well-to-do families highlights the need for increased study of why such people become radicalized and what needs to be done about it. Again, the Muslim community has played an important role in this respect. The Muslim Public Affairs Council has conducted a very important study about how young people become radicalized. It is freely available on their website (www.mpac.org), and their findings provide an important tool in helping combat radical extremism. In addition, American Muslim organizations have pledged to redouble their already extensive efforts to combat extremist thoughts and ideologies, especially online.
Shahed Amanullah, editor of the prominent online Muslim news site “altmuslim,” recently outlined how this can be accomplished: “First, we can cultivate an online Muslim presence that is far more sophisticated and engaging to those Muslims who are exploring their identities. Second, we must create online venues where those Muslims troubled by U.S. policies in the Muslim world can join together and engage constructively with lawmakers to help bring about the changes they seek. Third, we must shake any fear of being somehow ‘less Islamic’ than extremists and turn the tables on them through sound scholarship and articulation of principles that speak to the heart of Muslim youth.”
Government can also help in this regard. One of the reasons some Muslims are afraid to engage extremists online is the fear, according to Amanullah, of being “targeted by authorities on suspicion of terror-related activities.” Amanullah has actually brought this up to officials in the Department of Homeland Security, and he said: “while there is consensus that this perception is a problem, little has been done to date to address it.” This must be rectified.
I echo the calls for an investigation and review of how the Nigerian man was able to bring in military-grade explosives onto a U.S.-bound plane, especially after his own father alerted American officials of his son’s radicalism. Yet, what is important to bring up is that — far from being “silent co-conspirators,” as some are wont to call the Muslim community — Muslims are an instrumental part of the fight against the terrorists and extremists who act in the name of their faith. Rather than send spies and agents provocateurs into their midst, anti-terror and law enforcement officials should reach out and work with the Muslim community hand in hand. They will find a willing and patriotic ally.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a physician and writer living in Chicago. He is co-author of The Beliefnet Guide to Islam (Doubleday).