N.Y. bomb plot: What radicalizes some converts to Islam?

View Photo Gallery: Jose Pimentel of Manhattan is being held in police custody on numerous terrorism-related charges. The case of Jose … Continued


View Photo Gallery: Jose Pimentel of Manhattan is being held in police custody on numerous terrorism-related charges.

The case of Jose Pimentel, an “al-Qaida sympathizer” accused of plotting a bomb attack in New York, has once again focused our attention on why converts to Islam appear to be so fascinated by violent jihad. Is there something in the act of conversion that transforms normal citizens into messengers of death?

For the answer, let us look at the pattern of converts to Islam in the West. In the last generation we have had many high profile converts such as Yusuf Islam, a.k.a Cat Stevens, Sheik Hamza Yusef, Ingrid Mattson, and of course, one of the most famous of them all, Muhammad Ali, the great boxer. Each one of them brought their extraordinary talents to Islam and promoted better understanding between Muslims and non Muslims.

The generation before them did the same. Although those Muslims converted when European colonial powers still ruled in the Muslim world, their message was always one of understanding and harmony. Muhammad Asad and Marmaduke Pickthall are two outstanding examples. Both translated the Koran into English and thus have become immortalized in the eyes of millions of Muslims who still read their translations.

So what has changed today? Why are we seeing a number of American
converts to Islam
plotting against this country? In order to answer this question, I travelled recently for almost a year through the United States with a team of young researchers. We published the findings in Journey into America (2010). What we found was a Muslim community that very much appreciative of being in the United States as proud citizens, but was also sharing a sense of being under siege after 9/11. They saw their religion, culture, and traditions mocked mercilessly. They were conscious of the attacks on mosques and women wearing Islamic dress.

The problem we found was not only the widespread Islamophobia. We also, to our dismay, saw a Muslim leadership that was unsure of its strategy and directions. Muslim leadership was often divided along ethnic and sectarian lines and not able to create an overarching vision for the community in the United States. In particular, religious leaders seemed largely disconnected from the cultural environment in which many young Muslims grow up. In the absence of a clear message emphasizing the peace and compassion which lie at the heart of Islam, the strong messages of confrontation and violence coming from religious leaders like Anwar al-Awalaki filled the void. To compound matters, some senior American political figures are either hostile to Islam or indifferent to it.

This rather bleak landscape is also influenced by the unending American military entanglement in several Muslim countries stretching across Africa and Asia. America’s war in Afghanistan appears unending and has become its longest war in its history. In countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, anti-American sentiment is at a peak.

It is in this environment that the young Western male or female converts to Islam. Bringing their own notions of justice and human rights, they identify strongly with the suffering and injustice they see around Muslims. Lacking clear guidance from the local Muslim leadership, they are often seduced by the message of men like al-Awalaki. From there, the step towards plotting to detonate a bomb is a small one.

Concerned about the possibility of someone slipping through the administrative net and actually exploding a bomb which could kill a large number of Americans, we had recommended several steps which need to be taken urgently. While there have been vigorous interfaith activity and attempts to create a greater understanding among religions, too many preventive measures not been taken, we note with regret. In order to avoid possible future men of violence from succeeding, a vigorous exercise that combines political and Muslim leadership, along with the media, needs to be planned and implemented. It is well to keep in mind that about 50 percent of Americans in poll after poll confirm what we found in the field: they believe Islam is incompatible with being American. The matter is both urgent and serious. Unless immediate steps are taken, we may well see more Jose Pimentels in the future.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (Brookings Press, 2010).

About

  • SiddiqueMalik

    There we go again! This is a standard blame-the-victim reaction from Muslim intellectuals. In Pakistan, when rape victims report the crime, they are arrested for fornication, because they cannot produce a witness, while the rapist is let go with a slap on the wrist. Once, a deaf and dumb 20-years rape victim was sentenced to death for fornication, because she could not provide a witness. It was only the hue and cry of the “satanic” West that saved the poor soul’s life. And of course, the world knows how Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. treat non-Muslims.
    The writer’s blaming America for this new would-be-bomber’s conspiracy to cause death and destruction is all a part of propaganda strategy to create smoke screens. Well, if you “love” the country, why can you not work to change policies through peaceful, democratic means? If you cannot influence public policy through peaceful means in America, where are you going to do it — in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? So when someone like the writer rationalizes the conduct of a sick man like Pimentel, he does no service to his community. Stop rationalizing terrorists’ acts.
    The problem is not that a nutcase convert tried to become a “mujahid.” The Problem is that Muslim communities have disproportionate levels of backwardness, illogic, bigotry, hatred, self-conceit and hate-America feelings. Therefore, a convert to Islam has a high probability of turning into a bomber. So what are “intellectuals” like the writer of this article doing to confront these attitudes? Blaming the victims is easy; standing up to rigidity among one’s community is difficult. Hence, the writer’s exercise in playing with words.
    Self-glorification is easy, self-criticism as a result of which many in your community might hate you and consider you an infidel and an apostate requires courage.
    Siddique Malik, Louisville, Kentucky.

  • SiddiqueMalik

    There we go again! This is a standard blame-the-victim reaction from Muslim intellectuals. In Pakistan, when rape victims report the crime, they are arrested for fornication, because they cannot produce a witness, while the rapist is let go with a slap on the wrist. Once, a deaf and dumb 20-years rape victim was sentenced to death for fornication, because she could not provide a witness. It was only the hue and cry of the “satanic” West that saved the poor soul’s life. And of course, the world knows how Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. treat non-Muslims.

    The writer’s blaming America for this new would-be-bomber’s conspiracy to cause death and destruction is all a part of propaganda strategy to create smoke screens. Well, if you “love” the country, why can you not work to change policies through peaceful, democratic means? If you cannot influence public policy through peaceful means in America, where are you going to do it — in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? So when someone like the writer rationalizes the conduct of a sick man like Pimentel, he does no service to his community. Stop rationalizing terrorists’ acts.

    The problem is not that a nutcase convert tried to become a “mujahid.” The Problem is that Muslim communities have disproportionate levels of backwardness, illogic, bigotry, hatred, self-conceit and hate-America feelings. Therefore, a convert to Islam has a high probability of turning into a bomber. So what are “intellectuals” like the writer of this article doing to confront these attitudes?

    Blaming the victims is easy; standing up to rigidity among one’s community is difficult. Hence, the writer’s exercise in playing with words.
    Self-glorification is easy, self-criticism as a result of which many in your community might hate you and consider you an infidel and an apostate requires courage.

    Siddique Malik, Louisville, Kentucky.

  • CLEdwards

    I submit what is causing Muslim converts to become “radical” is taking the Quran, Sunnah and Sira of Muhammad literally and seriously. I also submit the reason other Muslims are not radical, is because they don’t take the Quran, Sunnah and Sira literally and seriously. Bottom line the root of the problem is not “American” its Islam, America did not exist when Muhammad conquered Arabia, nor when Muslims poured out of Arabia and conquered non-christian nations all across the M.E and North Africa. Will America still exist when Islam’s Mahdi arrives with the Muslim version of Jesus who comes to break the crosses and kill the Jews? People are getting sick and tired of the Islamic victim card.

    CL Edwards of http://www.callingmuslims.com

  • sweetjasmine

    “They were conscious of the attacks on mosques and women wearing Islamic dress. ”

    Where these immigrants came from/in the muslim countries, there are REAL attacks like killings, burning of churches, etc, etc,

    Why don’t these people tell their people back home to desist from persecuting non Muslims???

  • DieHardInfidel

    Mr Ahmed is just another apologist for Islamic terrorism, despite his undeserved reputation as a “moderate” Muslim. He even exposes himself with his last few sentences of the article:

    “It is well to keep in mind that about 50 percent of Americans in poll after poll confirm what we found in the field: they believe Islam is incompatible with being American. The matter is both urgent and serious. Unless immediate steps are taken, we may well see more Jose Pimentels in the future”.

    So Ahmed is telling us that if we non-Muslims dont “wake up” & accept Islam as compatible with being American, more Muslims will try to KILL more Americans. But the reason why so many Americans view Islam as incompatible with being American is because Muslims so QUICKLY turn to violence and murder when their demands are denied..

  • ccnl1

    From the Land of Loading More Comments

    To the nitty-gritty:

    What instigated the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? And what drives today’s 24/7 mosque/imam-planned acts of terror and horror?

    The koran, Mohammed’s book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means. Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed. Then we can talk about the safety and location of mosques and what is taught therein.

    Until then, no male Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere…………………………….

  • Kingofkings1

    Mr Ahmed, are you proposing that we ban conversions to islam in America?
    That’s how I understand your essay’s message

  • ThomasBaum

    Akbar Ahmed

    You wrote, ” It is well to keep in mind that about 50 percent of Americans in poll after poll confirm what we found in the field: they believe Islam is incompatible with being American. The matter is both urgent and serious. Unless immediate steps are taken, we may well see more Jose Pimentels in the future.”

    It is well to keep in mind that islam is incompatible with the ideals of America if one takes islam seriously.

    It is also well to keep in mind that those that say the God of Judaism, the God of Christianity and the god of islam are one and the same, either know not what they are talking about or are purposefully trying to deceive.

    Judaism does not recognize Jesus as either a Prophet or God-Incarnate.

    Christianity recognizes Jesus as God-Incarnate.

    The god of islam gets mighty upset if anyone says that Jesus is God-Incarnate or the Son of God or if anyone says that there are a son/daughter of God which is exactly what Jesus instructed us to accept as “gospel” truth, so to speak.

    The god of islam, claims Jesus as his prophet which is just what satan would want us to believe and that is exactly who the god of islam is.

    The True, Living, Triune, Triumphant God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof.

    It is God’s Will that ALL BE SAVED, and God’s Plan which God has had since before creation, will come to Fruition.

    God is OUR (as in everyone) Judge and many who happen to know God’s Name seem to know nothing else about God.

    God won the “keys” to hell and death (physical and spiritual) and will use these in due time.

    In other words, see you ALL in the Kingdom.

  • ccnl1

    Ahhh, Mr. Baum, the prophet Mohammed, returning in the 21st century with one exception, unlike Mo he talks to God directly not needing the heavenly agent Gabriel.

  • WmarkW

    He’ll always be Cat Stevens to me.

  • Golem

    Muslim Americans are as American, under the Constitution, as any other American. If the question is put to Americans in a constitutional context, I strongly believe that the foregoing would be the answer. The reason is that its the Constittuion that makes this country exceptional and any other view would weaken the Constitution.

    On the other hand, when Americans look at Islam world wide, they see what appears to them as 1. improper treatment of women; 2. a refusal in many Muslim countries to even allow, forget respect, other religions; 3. the desire to impose a legal system that includes stoning and amputations; 4. the lingering belief that Islam prescribes that its followers conquer the world and convert all humanity; and 5. radicals who have taken that belief as justification for a war against the West, and particularly the US, because the West, and particularly Christianity, has nullified what they believe is their god-given right to rule.

    I believe Americans reject the idea that the radicals’ attacks on the West over the last 20 years are the result of Western injustices. I think they feel, as I feel, that this is just an excuse by many American Muslims to avoid the steps necessary to allow a strong, respected presence for Islam in this country. Americans want to see their fellow Muslim Americans adjust to US ideals and stand up for America. At this point I feel many Americans feel that that’s just not happening.

  • mozeman

    I was born into a Muslim family that originated from Palestine, and I have been educated under the American (including 5 years in a Christian school) and Japanese school systems, having lived 9 years in Japan, 9 years in the US, 10 years in the UK, 10 years in the Middle East (including Kuwait and Morocco), and 10 years in Canada, with the remainder scattered around different places. I am currently living in Tunisia, after having gone through the recent revolution here.
    I spent all my life so far trying to understand who I am, including my cultural and religious identity. Having had the chance to live in so many places has given me opportunity to compare different ideologies.
    I would like to comment on a few points you raised:
    1. Muslim leadership and direction. This is a problem not just in the United States, but all around the world. First and foremost, although at its core Islam has a Universal Message, human interpretation of that message is where the problem lies. In other words, the problem is not with Islam, the problem is with the way humans interpret any message in a way to serve only their own interests. Those interpretations are also affected depending on the language and the region. Islam has been politicized and used as a tool to incite action by its very leaders. There are too many historical incidents when atrocities have been committed in the name of one religion or another. How many times have Muslim countries attacked other Muslim countries (such as Iraq’s attack on Kuwait, or the Iraq/Iran war), or have Muslim political leaders attacked their own people; at the same stating that they are acting in the name of God?
    The new generations realize that Islam is often used as a tool to control politics and society. That leads them to become cynical and although outwardly play the role of a good Muslim, inwardly they seek an individual relationship to God, or decide that God does not exist.
    Not only that, but it is far too often the case that tho

  • mozeman

    I believe that if you really did believe in God and in Islam, the answer would be “God”.

    Here in Tunisia, for example, now that Al Nahda has won a majority of the votes for the constituent assembly, there is great fear that women’s rights will be abolished. So far, Ghannouchi has stated that it is not the role of the state to impose religion on its people. Yet, once in power, will that continue to be the case? The main question is: is Islam an individual relationship with God, or should Sharia law be imposed? Do humans have the right to determine God’s wishes?

    People want order and a moral society, but they generally don’t want to be told how to live their lives; particularly by people who don’t follow the rules themselves.

    Islam lacks a credible leadership and a credible unified teaching. It’s no wonder that the youth are lost.

    2. To paraphrase and old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth billions of dollars spent on homeland defence”. Extremism is a natural reaction to injustice and political repression. As you rightly stated, the US, as a global superpower and leader, could go a long way to resolving political conflicts that lead to extremism. Unfortunately, it lacks an enlightened leadership. Or rather, its leadership has only reelection in mind. Instead of inciting and playing off the peoples’ fears, they should be encouraging tolerance and understanding. Instead of playing the geopolitical game with only short term self-interests in mind, they should seek to cooperate with the aspirations of the peoples in each region.
    In the same way that leaders with no credibility destroy the message, as mentioned above, the message of Democracy is being damaged. That’s a shame, the USA is a great country and its people have shown themselves to be generous, fair, and peace-loving. Yet, their political and financial leadership have led the country astray. The Financial Crisis of 2008 and the political quagmire in the Middle East that it now finds it

  • nsologar1

    The converts who become radicalized and violent already were bent in that direction and they were eagerly converted by Mullahs looking for easy converts for personal glory and numbers. These converts fell to the manipulating Islamic radicals and became their vassals.
    The conversion itself has nothing to do with radicalization.

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