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).