Countering religious violence a challenge

Written by Peter Smith on .


Usama Hasan says his heart sank when he saw English-language propaganda from the self-proclaimed Islamic State — and realized it was quoting the English translations he had done long ago of ancient religious texts.

Today, Mr. Hasan is senior researcher at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, which works to counter Muslim extremism from within the Muslim community.

But it was a long journey to that point for Mr. Hasan, who grew up the son of South Asian immigrants who were alienated by the increasingly secular and sexualized climate of England of the 1980s.

He told a University of Pittsburgh audience Friday he had memorized the Quran by age 11. He rallied around the ideology of Muslim supremacy, opposing against what he and his comrades perceived to be a decadent and oppressive West. He translated Arabic religious texts and helped spread the ideology of Salafism, a puritanical form of Islam, and even fought briefly in Afghanistan against Soviet occupiers.

But bit by bit, his extreme views faded. The idealism of the Afghanistan resistance crumbled as jihadis turned fiercely on each other. He began to see extremist Islam as oppressive of women and minorities.

The Sept. 11, 2001 murders of thousands of Americans deepened his soul-searching, as did the brutal murders of schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia, in 2004.

Then came “7/7” — terrorist bombings on the London transit system on July 7, 2005 by Quran-quoting suicide bombers.

“Not only was it an attack on my city, it was an attack on my religion, on its most sacred symbols,” Mr. Hasan said. “For me that was the last straw. I had begun speaking against extremism before, but after 7/7, I realized there was no time to sit back. We have to take on the extremists openly.”

Mr. Hasan spoke at the the conference, “Countering Violent Extremism in the United States and European Union,” held at the Twentieth Centurty Club in Oakland Thursday and Friday. It was organized through the European Union Center of Excellence and European Studies Center, part of Pitt’s University Center for International Studies.

The conference brought together leading scholars from North America and Europe in the growing field of countering violent extremism — which even has its own acronym, CVE, among those in the field — along with government employees and Muslims working to within their own communities, from Pittsburgh to London.

“It’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn from these people,” said Michael Kenney, associate professor of international affairs at Pitt and organizer of the conference. “We want to increase awareness without creating hysteria.”

Multiple speakers agreed there’s no easy way to identify a potential terrorist who claims to act in the name of Islam.

Of those radicalized in the West — still a small minority of Muslims and even rarer in the United States than in Europe — some are deeply religious, some aren’t. Some are converts, some aren’t. Some have criminal records, some don’t.

And experts pointed out that many people, like Mr. Hasan, embrace extreme ideologies without ever engaging in terrorism.

Mr. Hasan said Muslims need to do their part in cultivating a religion that comes to terms with modernity, including the scientific method and democracy.

“Islam is a beautiful religion and has many things to offer the world, but so does Western society,” he said.

Targeting Muslims and mosques with blanket suspicion, is counter-productive, speakers said.

“As much as looking at radicalization is important, we need to keep in mind the numbers are extremely low, and a focus on radicalization might actually increase biases against Muslim communities in the U.S.,” said Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor of political science at Haverford College near Philadelphia and a researcher into radical religious groups.

He said the United States may not be able to solve the roots of terrorist groups in the chaos of such lands as Syria, Iraq and Libya. But he said the nation needs a strategy.

“If the U.S. really wants to make a difference, it needs to think really hard about what it's doing in the Middle East,” he said.

Photo by Bill Wade/Post-Gazette
Moderator Michael Kenny, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, left, and Usama Hasan, senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation in the U.K., and a former radical salafi activist, listens to another speaker April 10 at the Countering Violent Extremism in the United States and European Union conference by the University Center for International Studies and held at the Twentieth Century Club.


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