By Susan Schwartz, TMO
The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is an American organization that engages public opinion through Americaâ€™s numerous institutions. MPAC also encourages and enhances Muslim participation in the public square. During its long history, MPAC has developed outstanding Muslim leaders and has become to go-to group for information on current events. Now that organization has released a publication titled: Safe Spaces Initiative, Tools for Developing Healthy Communities. This is a blueprint to interdict acts of violence that may grow out of extremist philosophies. The Toolkit is the answer the American people are seeking as they face the threat of violent extremism (terrorism) in their daily lives.
MPAC has been in the forefront of efforts to combat violence and extremism and has from its inception 25 years ago worked within communities for peace and justice. This Toolkit is in many ways a culmination of this work. The Boston Bombing of more than one year ago accelerated the production of this excellent resource and guide. After the bombing the subsequent investigation into the lives of the Tsarnaev brothers raised frightening questions as to whether they could have been reached in an early stage of their move toward violence. One asked: â€œCould something have been done to prevent thisâ€?
Exquisitely researched using interviews from 20 experts in their fields, examination of research literature in relevant fields, and the scrutiny of documents in the public domain, this Toolkit, while addressed to the Muslim community, will serve as a template for any community or campus organization that may encounter violence prone individuals. Special thanks was given to Ms Heidi Beirich, Director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Ms Beirich was able to put the authors into contact with individuals who have successfully moved violence prone people from the Far Right and racist violence into normal society. It may allow at risk persons to be guided safely away from violent acts. At a later stage if the preferred prevention does not work, the Toolkit gives detailed step by step instruction on intervention and, finally, the Toolkit gives a guide to the ejection of the perpetrator as a last resort.
The Toolkit points out that while researching the many studies on the relevant issues, MPAC rejected the 2006 FBI report : â€œFrom Conversion to Jihadâ€ and the 2007 report by the NYPD: â€œThe Homegrown Threat in the Westâ€. Both studies were seriously flawed and appeared to have as their primary purpose not serious discussions of terrorism but an excuse tor surveillance of the Muslim community.
MPAC in writing the Toolkit deals with the concept of takfirism and explains and defines it and provides primary source material to the reader. This is extremely important and will be dealt with toward the end of this review.
This is a text book that teaches the three stages of violent extremism and simplifies them as Prevention (misguided ideas), Intervention (at the edge) , and Ejection (violence) or the convenient acronym, PIE. The reader learns to identify at risk individuals and further to recognize which of the above classifications he or she occupies.
MPACâ€™s approach to tackling violent extremism is based on two assumptions:
1. A personâ€™s path to violence is unique, gradual and involves many factors.
2. The path to violence can be slowed, stopped, reversed and/or prevented with proper community support.
The Toolkit provides the reader with several risk factors which include: Political and/or social grievances, contact with extreme ideology(ies), and lack of parental control.
Further risk factors that could make the subject prone to violence include:peer pressure, lack of viable alternatives for the person to access, and an emotional pull.
What can a community (or college campus) provide? A community oriented program should include Safe Spaces i.e. a place where the troubled person can speak freely on any subject even one normally surrounded by taboo; can be assured of an attentive audience; can know that he or she is free of surveillance, and can rest assured that the listener will be non judge mental. There must be parental involvement and adult mentorship. In addition to the aforementioned community aspect of the program, there should be professional management of mosques – most mosques are understaffed and under funded, and most Imams are foreign born. Lastly the mosque must expand its network of trusted contacts.
What if Prevention, clearly a first choice, fails? Then MPAC shows us how to deal with the second part of PIE: Intervention.
In the event of an Intervention, a crisis team should be assembled and must consider whether the violence is near or far distant. If the former, then law enforcement must be called. If it is judged that there is no immanent threat, then a series of 11 questions given in the text must be answered. If the answers indicate that intervention with assistance and counseling is appropriate, then that is the course of action to take. If that does not appear to be feasible, then law enforcement must be engaged.
The crisis team should consist of at a minimum a mosque administrator, a religious leader, a religious and culturally sensitive mental health worker, a religiously and culturally sensitive social worker and an attorney.
It is essential that in the event of a misinterpretation of religious ideology, counseling provide the troubled person with comfort and discuss, with follow up, his mistakes and offer scriptural guidance.
One of the outstanding attributes of the Toolkit is its scrupulous attention to detail. Like a perfectly constructed flow chart, the Toolkit provides each step of a process and also offers guidance on the many possibilities that can arise from each step.
Finally we come to the final part of PIE: Ejection.
While this is of course done with great reluctance and then only when there seems to be no viable alternative, one should know that there is an advantage and a disadvantage to Ejection. The advantage is that the troubled person can no longer disrupt or act in a confrontational manner to other members of the mosque/Islamic Center. But once the person is ejected he or she is effectively beyond the reach of any help which the Muslim community can provide. The Toolkit is also very explicit about the need to contact law enforcement when the person of interest is being ejected. Ejection can mean physical ejection.
The Toolkit gives a number of examples of Ejection one of which is the ejection in Tampa, Florida of Sami Osmakac, whose violent actions and threatening behavior led to his arrest by the FBI shortly after his ejection. The Tampa Mosque rejected his takfirism.
The toolkit also gives a glossary of terms and has an extensive appendix and a list of accessible community resources.
It would be impossible to do justice to this publication in any review. The Toolkit should be obtained not only by Mosque administrators but by any person or organization likely to confront extremist ideology and/or behavior.
MPAC has explained in this Toolkit why it settled on the term â€œtakfirismâ€. There are two reasons.
â€œIt accurately describes the pseudo-religious ideology of its followersâ€ and â€œIt highlights one of the key features distinguishing this ideology from the overwhelming majority of Muslims that America is not fighting against.â€
Religiously impacted terminology is often used by persons who suffer from Islamophobia and who have more of an interest in smearing Islam than they do in accurately describing a situation. Opponents of religious loaded terminology such as MPAC Executive Director, Salaam Al Marayati claim that: â€œavoiding religious terminology in Americaâ€™s efforts to counter violent extremism denies al Qaeda and its affiliates the religious legitimacy they severely lack and so desperately seek.â€
A copy of this essential guide may be obtained from MPAC. To do this and to find out more about the excellent and essential work of MPAC, please access the following web siteâ€ www.mpac.org.