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Homegrown Risk Worries U.S. Muslims

July 25, 2005|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

In the wake of London bombings that point to homegrown terrorists, American Muslim leaders are increasing their efforts to determine why some Muslim youths are drawn to violence and how to divert them from radical influences.

Muslim leaders here worry about a backlash if domestic terrorism is spread by U.S. Muslims. It was easier to distance themselves from the violence, they said, when the terrorists who flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, turned out to have come from foreign lands.

"This is different. It turns out that these are children of parents who left their home countries to live in the West for a better life for themselves and their children," said Nazim Karim, a member of the board of the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies at UCLA. "The public [in Great Britain] now believes that these terrorists are among them right now."

While the educational and cultural circumstances facing Muslims in the United States are in many ways different from those in Great Britain, American Muslims are concerned about a backlash, according to Akbar Ahmed, formerly Pakistan's high commissioner to Britain and now a professor of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

"Today in America we are at a very dangerous point in community relationships," Ahmed said. "If, God forbid, there is some terrible strike [by] some stupid or misguided kid, who has been seduced or induced to do something stupid, then the reaction could be horrific and could lead to a lot of violence."

U.S. Muslim organizations and leaders have long disavowed terrorism and the killing of innocents as alien to mainstream Islam. Just this month, for example, the Council on American Islamic Relations announced yet another public relations campaign to denounce terrorism, this one with the theme, "Not in the Name of Islam." But that message is chiefly directed at the U.S. public.

Since the July 7 London bombings that killed 56 -- including four British Muslims presumed to be suicide bombers -- and Thursday's similar but less damaging attacks, Muslim leaders said they would focus directly on their own young people and why a small minority may be attracted to a virulent interpretation of their faith that has abetted terrorism.

Muslim leaders are also examining other reasons why youths may be disaffected. On Saturday, for example, an estimated 120 Muslims listened intently at a forum at Cal State Northridge that grappled with a major dilemma faced by many second-generation Muslim youths -- "American or Muslim." Chantal Carnes, a 30-year-old American convert to the faith, spoke of a generation gap between many Muslim youths in the U.S. and their parents that makes it difficult for young Muslims to fully integrate into American life.

"Some parents need to recognize their kids are part of this society," she said. "They need to pass on their Muslim identity but recognize the American identity is there also," she said in an interview.

Muslim youths, she told the audience, do not sit on the boards of most mosques or other Muslim organizations. Most of the 1,800 full-time Islamic parochial schools in the U.S. do not require their students to be involved in community service projects, such as volunteering at soup kitchens, as do many public schools and parochial schools of other faiths.

"Our presence in the world is to be an active, positive presence," she told the group.

Similar efforts are underway elsewhere. In Virginia, the Muslim American Society said it would intensify its work with youths and expand youth training programs to encourage volunteerism, community service and overall civic engagement.

The Muslim Students Assn. said last week that it had begun to forge closer ties with other mainstream Islamic groups, including the Muslim Public Affairs Council, based in Los Angeles, and the Islamic Society of North America. At the urging of the Los Angeles group, the student association issued a statement pledging to be "steadfast in combating this ideology of hatred" among its own constituency.

Jordan Robinson, chairman of the student group's political action task force, said he anticipated expanding the number of youth forums to hammer the message home. Robinson, 20, a convert to Islam, is a journalism student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

Muslim high schoolers plan a summit in Chicago in association with the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America, which is expected to draw up to 40,000 Muslims from around the country in September.

Meanwhile, youth forums around the nation led by Aslam Abdullah of the Islamic Society of Nevada are being changed to reflect the violence in England. A program Friday in Las Vegas, for example, originally had been scheduled to address the issue of "prayer and character building." Instead, the topic became "Islam and nonviolence."

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