Five college-age Northern Virginia men were arrested in Pakistan this month after allegedly being recruited over the Internet to join al-Qaeda, and many Washington area Muslims are questioning whether condemnation is enough ...
Since Sept. 11, 2001, as American Muslims have seen repeated arrests of young European Muslims on terrorism charges, many in this country came to believe that the stronger integration of young American Muslims in the United States would help immunize them against the disaffection that leads to extremism. Magid said he has met in recent years with other Muslim leaders to talk about social networking to counter radicalism in Europe, "but we never thought about it for here."
Now, Magid said, "I have to be a virtual imam," meaning that Muslim groups need a larger and more effective online presence. Referring to extremists, he said: "Twenty-four hours, they're available. I want to be able to respond to that."
Until now, many Muslim leaders have focused on what they considered external threats to young people, such as Islamophobia or the temptations of modern, secular life. Now they say it is time to look inward, to provide a counterweight to those who misinterpret Koranic verses to promote violence -- and to learn what rhetoric and methods appeal to young people.
Radicals "seem to understand our youth better than we do," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. "They use hip-hop elements for some who relate to that." Bray said "seductive videos" gradually lure young people, building outrage over atrocities committed against Muslims. Extremist videos "play to what we call in the Muslim youth community 'jihad cool' -- a kind of machismo that this is the hip thing to do."
For some, a new approach cannot come too soon. Zaki Barzinji, 20, a Sterling native and former president of Muslim Youth of North America, said mosques are "sort of in the Stone Age when it comes to outreach. Their youth programs are not attractive, not engaging . . . . They're shooting in the dark because it's always adults who are planning this outreach."
Nor is the threat limited to the Internet, Barzinji said, adding that groups of "traveling Muslim proselytizers" sometimes appear at Virginia Tech, where he is a senior, often attracting foreign students, who tend to be more socially isolated.
"They go to the dorms, look for Muslim-sounding names, knock on the door and say, 'Hey, we'd like to talk to you about hellfire and how you're heading that way,' " Barzinji said. "All they're offering is social connection and acceptance" ...
Barzinji said Muslim groups should create online forums where young Muslims can find answers from authoritative sources. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman at the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he spent a recent day at work with a copy of "The Social Media Bible," trying to figure out how to do just that.
One idea: a Web portal offering video explanations of Koranic verses that are sometimes misinterpreted by radicals, as well as suggestions of what Hooper called "positive things you can do to rectify injustice."
Many Muslim parents said they don't worry about the influence of radical strangers on their children. "I just don't see it as a very widespread phenomenon," said Bob Marro, a Great Falls father of two college students who were active in their high school's Muslim Student Association. "I know for my sons and their friends, if they got a message like that, they would find it just laughingly funny. . . . If you've been open with your kids and talked to them as they were growing up, they'll have enough of a sense of their own value and their place in the world."
His son, Nicolas Marro, 19, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, said the five young men's decision to go to Pakistan "seems like such an anomaly, especially in this area, where people take their studies so seriously."
Whenever he has seen radical rhetoric on a public forum, he said, it has usually been shouted down. "There will be a plethora of responses: 'Are you crazy?' 'Is something wrong with you?' " he said.
But if even a few young people slip through the cracks, the results can be devastating for the community. "They ruin it for the rest of us," said Azraf Ullah, 15, of Herndon, who was attending a Scout meeting at the All Dulles Area center this month. "We have to work harder to show that we're not that."
"The impression is like, 'Every Muslim youth is involved with this thing,' " said Syed Akhtar Alam, a father of three in Ashburn. At an interfaith youth group Alam is involved with, parents from other religions approached him after the arrests in Pakistan. "They just wanted to know, 'How could this happen?' " he said. "It just happened randomly. Bad people are everywhere. . . . It is parents' responsibility to tell their kids, 'This is your country, and you need to protect it.' "
Relatives of the five men have declined to speak to reporters.