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Professor Sheds Light on Homegrown Terrorism

By Mary Beth Wood

Muslim girl with American flag.

A Pakistani American girl wears a hijab of the Stars and Stripes during the Muslim Day Parade festivities in New York.

The Pakistani bomber in Time Square, the five American born Virginians who went to fight with the Taliban, and Major Hasan at Fort Hood all support the undeniable fact that incidents of homegrown terrorism are on the rise. But what is homegrown terrorism? What contributes to it and why won’t it go away?

Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani Ambassador to Great Britain and current Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University's School of International Service, sheds light on one of today’s most critical issues, giving practical advice to all Americans about how to prevent this problem when it comes to understanding today’s conflicting views about the American Muslim communities.

In his effort to build bridges among Christians, Muslims and Jews, Professor Ahmed and his team of five American research assistants took a one year sabbatical to learn what people think and feel about their Muslim American neighbors. Their goal: to conduct field research that would provide an accurate understanding of Muslim American communities, their experiences and the problems they face in the U.S.

“In order to understand the true meaning of ‘American identity’ and its Muslim component, you need to look back to the vision of our founding fathers. To them, America meant freedom and tolerance, without judgment, or persecution, no matter where you came from. If we want to combat issues like homegrown terrorism, we must think about people in the same way our founding fathers did and embrace their belief in the American Dream," he stated.

A Journey into America
Led by Ahmed, the team traveled to more than 75 different cities and visited more than 100 individual mosques. They conducted thousands of interviews with Muslims and non-Muslims on the subject of what it means to be an American Muslim within the context of American identity.

On their journey, Ahmed and his team visited mosques and communities that “intelligence agencies would only dream of meeting,” he states. “For the first time, American Muslims are given the opportunity to speak for themselves and non Muslims are given the opportunity to have their thoughts and concerns heard in an honest and unfiltered way. This is the heart of our research,” said Ahmed.

After they returned, Ahmed compiled his research into a new book entitled Journey into America: the Challenge of Islam, (Brookings 2010), which will be available later this month.

In his new book, Ahmed warns both Muslims and non Muslim Americans of the urgency of the problems. “By ignoring these issues, American leaders are turning their backs to the root of what causes such tragedies as 9/11. If we do not gain a clear understanding as to why these issues continue to persist, the relationship with Muslims living in the United States and their American neighbors will only continue to weaken the already fragile and volatile relationship that exists.”

“Homegrown terrorism is the result of a combination of factors. Muslim Americans feel discriminated against and misunderstood by their fellow Americans. There is a definite lack of understanding about the Muslim culture in the United States. This leads to various forms of discrimination and results in Muslim Americans feeling ostracized and frustrated,” he says.

Ahmed also believes that there is a major need for more prominent leadership for Muslim youth in America. “There is a dangerous lack of relevant leadership for young men in the Muslim community. As a result of this problem, young men are many times isolated and confused which makes them vulnerable to on-line activist groups and other anti-American extremists,” he said.   

Ahmed’s book is a follow up to his widely hailed Journey into Islam: the Crisis of Globalization (Brookings, 2007), and takes readers into the heart and minds of American Muslim communities while bringing to life an unprecedented study based on the fieldwork of Professor Ahmed and his team.