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How to Combat Extremism?

By Aslam Abdullah, TMO Editor-in-Chief


The Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national Muslim organization, recently came up with a solution of the problem of violent extremism or extremism among Muslims. Its executive summary reads that “Imams and community leaders have the ability to address theological, social, and familial issues much more effectively than law enforcement,” and Muslim efforts should be “intended to proactively prevent acts of violent extremism from being born inside our community institutions.” It concludes that if all efforts fail to contain extremists only as last resort, should eviction from a community occur, charging communities with working “toward safely removing that individual from the congregation and contacting law enforcement.” 

It is a document that has good intentions and genuine concerns as well as good suggestions. But, it leaves many questions unanswered as part of the analysis is seemingly weak or naïve at times. However, as a preliminary step towards the ultimate goal of developing a genuine understanding of extremism in Islam it should be appreciated. As far as the suggestions to combat extremism are concerned, they are simply suggestions and many more can be offered by the community members if involved in discussion.

The document makes several assumptions that need to be substantiated and suggest several solutions that deserve to be critically examined. Some of the underlying assumptions are:

1.     The American Muslim community has substantial number of extremists.
2.     Many of these stealth extremist may become violent.
3.     Imams and community leaders are more effective in dealing with violent extremists than the law enforcement agencies.
4.     Muslim imams should police their own communities and engage those who are extremists in order to help them change their perspectives.
5.     If they fail to contain the extremists, they should then excommunicate such members and inform the police.


Extremism is an elusive political term and in general sense considered to be far outside the mainstream attitudes of a community or a society. Or it is also defined as a set of ideas that violate the common moral standards.

In the context of Islam, extremism is used as a set of ideas that is based on extremely conservative view of Islam that may not necessarily promote violence or the use of extreme violent tactics for achieving perceived religious objectives. But these are arbitrary abstract definitions and can be applied to define any group extremist. For instance, in the view of many Zionist organizations in this country, MPAC or Council of American Muslim Relations (CAIR) are two extremist organizations.

If this set of definitions is applied to define Muslim communities, then probably every Muslim group can categorize others as extremist or violent extremist. So, before we really talk about it, we need to develop an objective and realistic definition of extremism. Currently, our existing definitions of extremism are subjective and politically motivated. We have no consensus. FBI has a different set of definitions, CIA has different. The Republicans and Democrats have contradictory definitions and the Islamophobes have their own of set of ideas. So the first thing that should be our priority is to define extremism from our sociological, theological perspective.

The responsibility of defining extremism within the Muslim community rests with Muslim intellectuals and religious scholars. We never had the debate to understand it and define it in our social and political context. Hence each is relying on a subjective definition and that does not serve any purpose. In Islamic literature, one can easily find examples where every Muslim sect and group has been defined as extremist by fellow Muslim groups. Moreover, in the absence of an objective definition, we rely on a definition that serves the purpose of some special interest groups.

Lack of Data

Even if we use a subjective definition of extremism, there is no data to prove that the American Muslim community has extremism widely prevalent in its ranks. There is no survey and no study that suggests that. On the contrary several studies conducted by Muslims and others have suggested that the bulk of the Muslim community rarely visits Islamic institutions established to serve them One such study suggests that only 20 percent Muslims attend the Friday congregational prayers. Las Vegas seems to have a Muslim population of 15,000 to 18,000. The total number of people who offer Friday prayers in five of the city’s masjid regularly is about 1,300 including women, That is less than 10 per cent of the population. A similar pattern is visible in Arizona, Utah and California as well as other states. So before one talks about the problem one should study its dimensions and scope.

The Imam and community leaders

Of over 3,000 masajd in the US, some 80 percent have imams who are trained in foreign countries with little understanding of English, the constitution of the US, the history of Muslims in America and the social and political realities of the country. They may be well versed in Islamic jurisprudence but have no idea of the legal system of this country. In fact, their knowledge of Islam mainly comes from their sectarian upbringing. A Shia mosque has a Shia scholar coming from established Shia communities in different parts of the world and a Sunni mosque has a Sunni Imam representing a particular school of thought. Each is strict in his own traditions and often unwilling to accommodate the differences of opinion. How could such Imam who have no clue of existing conditions of their own larger communities play an effective role in combating extremism? In fact, many of them may easily be described extremists by the subjective definitions, arbitrarily used by many. The curriculum prepared by some institutions to train Imam lack any reference to the times and social matrix of the society we all are living.

Most community leaders are non-representatives of their communities. They are not elected and in many cases elected through manipulations. They may represent a particular ideological perspective without revealing that. Obviously, they do not carry lot of weight within their own communities. For instance, many Muslim community leaders still owe their allegiance to either the Jamat Islami, Pakistan, Bangladesh or India or Ikhwanul Muslimeen of Egypt or Hiz Tahrir of Jordan, or Tablighi Jamat or other similar Islamic groups

Policing the Community

In a free society, each is entitled to freedom of ideas and expression. The US allows even extremists the freedom to flourish. Amish people are considered extreme by many modernists, yet they have full rights to live the way they want to live as long as they owe oath of allegiance to the constitution and maintain law and order.  No one can police the thought process of the other. It is dangerous and amounts to vigilante. If we allow this within our community, why do we, then, object to others when they do the same to us.

Having extremist ideas is not a crime in this country. Acting on ideas that defy the constitution of the country is. KKK still exists and several groups owing allegiance to Hitler are also active in this country. Several hate groups are active without being prosecuted.

As a citizen or a community, it is within our legal right to seek restrictive orders for an individual we do not like to be part of our congregation.  But to hand him over to the police for his non-violent ideas would be against the spirit of freedom of ideas that our religion and this country promote. I should not call the FBI if I find that a member of my community believes that women should not be allowed in the masjid for some extreme reasons. Or I should not invite the police to arrest a man because he is reading a verse of the Quran that is translated by many that “Jews and Christians should be taken as friends,” I can give him my perspective on the verse but cannot force him to change his perspective. Even if he insists on a nonviolent fringe definition, that is not cause to report him to FBI and the Police. Who would guarantee that the Imams or leaders who themselves are representing a particular sect or faction would always have a fair play.

Some Proposals

Following are some of the concrete proposals that might help us handle the problem of extremism effectively.

1.     Define what extremism is. Such a definition should be sociologically and theologically founded on strong grounds distinguishing violence as a means.
2.     Have a national survey of extremism within the Muslim community based on the agreed upon definition.
3.     Have a survey of masajd and their imams and their ideas on issues identified as extremism.
4.     Effectively engage in dialogue with law enforcement agencies on efforts to prevent incidents of violence.
5.     Commission books and position papers on issues that have often been used by groups to promote extremism.
6.     Help develop democratic culture in Islamic institutions.
7.     Let women and youth occupy 75 percent of the board positions in masajid and Islamic institutions.
8.     Involve people in decision making process of Islamic institutions so that more and more people can understand the social and political environment they live in.
9.     Provide civic education to people so that they can understand their civic responsibilities and rights.
10. Organize a conference of Imams and community leaders to discuss the issue and strategies to combat violence.


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