Winning the War of Ideas Against Extremism

By Ibrahim Rashid, Guest Writer

In a recent piece in the American Moderate, Fairooz Adams makes an attempt to outline how we can best confront homegrown violent extremism, particularly in the Muslim community. And while his piece is thoroughly researched and makes some excellent points, his recommendation for an effective counter terrorism policy is both limited and counter-productive.

Towards the end of his piece he writes that:

Legal discrimination and a culture of exclusion will exacerbate problems and absolutely must be discouraged, and yet people must not be fearful of being labelled as bigots for taking extra caution… Indeed, while not everyone that looks like me [Fairooz] will engage in this violence, too many people that look like me do. There exists a fundamental difference between being able to recognize this fact and harboring actual hatred and malice towards certain racial minority groups. Ultimately, this comes down to a philosophical question. How many people is it worth offending for the sake of stopping the miniscule possibility of losing lives? I would say the number is incalculable.


Adams is right to highlight the tension between being labeled an Islamophobe and taking genuine precaution to safeguard our communities. All communities must practice vigilance, and Muslims are of no exception to this rule. However, he is wrong to suggest that the antidote to confront extremist ideology relies solely on individuals being unafraid of being accused of bigotry. The problem with Adams’ analysis is that his approach focuses solely on deterring extremism through community policing rather than preventing it from taking root in the first place. The problem is not that we American Muslims are at risk for extremist ideology simply by virtue of our faith, but rather, we are at risk because Jihadist propaganda specifically targets and exploits the fractures within our community in hopes of swaying individuals to their violent cause.

American Muslims who have gone abroad to fight in Syria and Iraq have come from the margins of society. In their lives, they experienced all sorts of alienation, failure, and hardship and saw in ISIL’s perceived message one of hope, opportunity, meaning, and adventure. So the greatest challenge that Muslims currently face is this: How do we weaken the fractures in our communities and empower moderate voices who can delegitimize extremist messages?

The reality is that for the past few years, particularly since the end of the 2016 presidential election, hate crimes against Muslims have risen, our places of worship have been vandalized, our women have been harassed, and our ‘Americanness’ and patriotism have been questioned.

This has made achieving the aforementioned objectives all the more difficult given that the culture of Islamophobia that we find ourselves in today have widened the fractures in our communities and have pushed many of us, particularly new immigrants and their children, towards the margins where they feel isolated and unwelcome. And when that happens, the messages of extremists can resonate and take root.

So to fight this, our counter terrorism strategy has got to be all-encompassing with the focus set on reducing the appeal of extremism in the first place at the local level. And the only way that we can do that is by empowering the American Muslim community and treating them with dignity and respect, rather than viewing them with suspicion and scorn.

For example, we can do this by:

  1. Strengthening our ties with the Muslim community. Faith groups can host a joint Shabbat-Iftar dinners during the month of Ramadan; Churches can invite Muslims to participate in their services and vice versa; universities can host community events discussing the historical ties between Hinduism and Islam; and so on. There’s a lot of ground that can be covered through interfaith work and as a Bostonian myself, I was very encouraged by the interest expressed in the Out of Many, One event hosted at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center where 700 people of all faiths, along with Mayor Walsh and Senator Warren, came together for a call for dignity and solidarity in the wake of the election.

  2. We need to empower the voices of moderate Islam. That means that as private individuals, we should give space to figures such as Qasim Rashid, Reza Aslan, Ilhan Omar and Wajahat Ali. We can follow them on Twitter and Facebook, share their content, and talk about them. There are pages out there like the Secret Life of Muslims or My Muslim Friends that seeks to break misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam through storytelling. There are even comic books, like Ms. Marvel, an incredibly popular series about Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American, that has become one of Marvels most popular characters and breaks stereotypes by portraying the (very average) lives of American Muslims.   

  3. Actually listen to what Muslims are saying. When us Muslim activists complain about excessive surveillance in our mosques, aggressive policing in our communities, or the discriminatory nature of the No Fly List, take us seriously and have a conversation with us. On a case by case basis, some of these claims might be unfounded and be the product of a lack of communication, but we don’t solve any of these problems without dialogue and sustained engagement.

Extremism can develop in any community and that there can’t be an overarching governmental policy that can prevent extremism from developing in every community without putting a strain on law enforcement resources and curbing civil liberties through omnipresent government surveillance.  And if we’re being honest, the number of people who die by extremist violence annually is so small that establishing such a vast law enforcement apparatus is not worth the cost or resources. As a result, the responsibility needs to shift towards the private citizen.

Within the American Muslim community, the voices that say that “We will not let prejudice and discrimination prevent us from participating in the betterment of this society” need to be amplified against the voices of victimhood, alienation, and despair. Ultimately, by empowering moderate Muslims, we can reduce the fractures in our community that are being exploited by the extremists, delegitimize their message, and strengthen trust between communities, law enforcement, and government officials.

Addressing Adam’s earlier points, effective community policing can only work when there is trust and strong relationships between all members of a society. Without that trust and sustained engagement, we put ourselves at risk of letting our biases and prejudices cloud our judgement, resulting in individuals being accused of terrorism simply for practicing a different faith or speaking a foreign language.

Not only does this waste valuable law enforcement resources to investigate such baseless claims, but it alienates the Muslim community, giving way for extremism to develop and making it difficult for law enforcement cooperation. If someone feels that they will be treated differently by the law simply because of the color of their skin, they might think twice before confronting law enforcement when there is a problem.

Adams is right to say that we shouldn’t let political correctness prevent us from practicing vigilance in our communities. But if we want to minimize the instances of false reports and actually fight the extremist narrative, we need to work with the American Muslim community, rather than against them. Failure to do so will only give the extremists a monopoly on the narrative that puts us all at risk.