N.Y. bomb plot: What radicalizes some converts to Islam?
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
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
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 a member of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding Board of Advisors and 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).
This article was published by The Washington Post on November 21, 2011. Read it here.