Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2013, Page 52

Muslim American Activism

Online Radicalization: Myths and Realities

(L-r) Peter Neumann, Mohamed Elibiary, Rabia Chaudry, Peter Bergen, Haris Tarin, Imam Suhaib Webb and Rashad Hussain. (Staff photo A. Begley)

“There’s nothing exceptional about terrorists or violent extremists being on the Internet,” said Dr. Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. “They are on the Internet because everyone else is.” Neumann was speaking at a May 28 New America Foundation (NAF) panel in Washington, DC called “Online Radicalization: Myths and Realities” which was held in collaboration with the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). “What makes [terrorists] different from the public, is not how they use [the Internet],” Neumann continued. “It is the purpose for which they use it.”

Several weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings took place, the topic of online radicalization was a “very public conversation that needs to be had,” said moderator Haris Tarin, director of MPAC’s Washington, DC office. Dr. Neumann characterized online radicalization as a reality and a challenge to the traditional approaches that government and academics have taken in dealing with terrorism. Because there is “an enormous, vibrant, virtual community” online, he explained, there no longer needs to be a physical community to tie radicals together. Neumann also advised that fighting online radicalization should not focus on shutting down or blocking controversial content.

NAF Fellow and Safe Nation Collaborative founder Rabia Chaudry addressed the kind of narratives being used by violent extremists—narratives that are easily disseminated to a wide audience online. The bigger problem is thatmisleading ideas like “Islam and the West are not compatible,” and “you can’t be a good American and a good Muslim ” are being propagated not only by radicals, but also by “anti-Muslim bigots.” According to Chaudry, it is the latter’s biases that have had the biggest effect on alienating Muslim youth and influencing politicians, media, and policymakers who have backed away from interacting with the Muslim community. “We need the general public, media, politicians, and policymakers to push back on the anti-Muslim narratives being propagated by Islamophobes,” she emphasized.

Chaudry proposed helping the Muslim community understand and combat online radicalization by giving parents the tools they need to monitor their children’s activity online. Imam Suhaib Webb of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center added that “imams and scholars need to be given some leeway to engage in this problem. The fact the Tsarnaev brothers [the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings] were not able to sit down with an imam and go through counseling was our community’s fault. I need to be able to sit down with someone without being worried about being subpoenaed or held as a material witness.”

Rashad Hussain, U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, agreed, noting that “in the online space, Muslims are doing more to make sure their voices are being heard.” By working with Internet service providers to make sure that “disaffected youths” are made aware of the fact that Muslims themselves often are the victims of terrorist attacks, Hussain said that the community is trying to fight the radicals at their own game.

During the question-and-answer period, one audience member asked how the word jihad could be better understood, since it often has a negative connotation to non-Muslims. Imam Webb responded that the word is often misused by the perpetrators of violence to describe themselves, which causes the negative connotation. He also recalled a Twitter campaign where the young Muslim community chose to define the word jihad on its own terms, using the hashtag “my jihad.” Many of the tweets were humorous—for instance, “I took out the trash today #myjihad.”

Another question touched on the imam’s earlier statement about people who reach out to help those who have been “turned” and find that instead they become targets of law enforcement agencies. Hussain responded, strongly encouraging the Muslim community, parents and imams alike, to become more involved online to help dispel the untruths in much of the radical narratives and to rely on law enforcement to handle real threats of violence.

            —Alex Begley

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