Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans

Reviewed by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2011

By David Schanzer, Charles Kurzman and Ebrahim Moosa
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2010. 61 pp.

Do American Muslims Support Terrorism?

Schanzer and Moosa of Duke University and Kurzman of the University of North Carolina have garnered a fair amount of media attention for their study despite its complete methodological failure. Anti-Terror Lessons asks some good questions in assessing the level of radicalization among American Muslims and identifying mechanisms to counter radical ideology. But the authors’ approach to answering these questions evinces a lack of rigor that renders the report’s conclusions untrustworthy.

The problems begin with a failure to define terms. A report about radicalization (a word that appears ninety-nine times in its pages) obviously must define that term; what constitutes radicalism is by no means self-evident. The authors’ reliance on two contradictory datasets makes this problem even more acute.

One set consists of more than 120 interviews conducted in Buffalo, Houston, Seattle, and Raleigh-Durham to gather information on American Muslims’ attitudes toward terrorism and their anti-radicalization efforts. The authors conclude from these interviews that “Muslim-Americans do not support terrorism directed at the United States or innocent civilians.” They concede that “some of our interviewees were less quick to condemn other acts of violence outside the United States,” but because the project was intended to focus on domestic terrorism, they “did not attempt to gauge the extent of this support or probe interviewees on these issues.”

The other set includes data on American Muslims who since 9/11 have either perpetrated a terrorist act or have been sought, arrested, or convicted of a terrorism-related offense involving violence. However, the study’s appendix of “Muslim-American Terrorism Offenders” includes the names of perpetrators whose acts related solely to violence outside the United States, such as the Lackawanna Six and twenty individuals involved in Somalia’s Al-Shabaab recruiting network. The failure to probe interviewees on attitudes directly related to the data set on terrorist offenses amounts to sheer incoherence.

At times Anti-Terror Lessons reads more like an advocacy brief than academic research, drawing sweeping conclusions from insufficient evidence. The report’s discussion of “public and private denunciations of violence” argues that there has been “active denunciation of terrorist violence” by “senior Islamic scholars in the United States and the Middle East.” Some denunciations of violence are indeed quoted but without providing a complete picture that might call into doubt either the sincerity or scope of these statements. For example, the very first fatwa cited in the report’s section on denunciations of violence—a document that condemns the 9/11 attacks and affirms the need to “apprehend the true perpetrators” in order to try them “in an impartial court of law”—boasts Yusuf al-Qaradawi as its lead author. Anti-Terror Lessons does not mention that Qaradawi has also proclaimed that Muslims “killed in a military operation aimed at expelling American occupation forces from the Gulf” are martyrs and sanctioned suicide bombings against Israelis.[1] Anti-Terror Lessons favorably cites the Muslim American Society’s (MAS) denunciation of the 7/7 transit attacks in London but fails to mention either MAS’s curriculum (which includes the works of such Islamist ideologues who have advocated violence against the West as Sayyid Qutb, Sayyid Abul ala Mawdudi, and Hassan al-Banna) or its publication of The American Muslim, which has published a fatwa declaring that suicide bombings directed at Israelis are “not suicide and should not be deemed as unjustifiable means of endangering one’s life.”[2] Likewise, the authors uncritically quote a condemnation of terrorism issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations without noting the group’s many ties to terrorism and extremism more broadly.[3]

The authors’ predilection simply to ignore evidence that might contradict the rosy picture they want to paint is also evidenced in their praise for the Muslim Alliance in North America’s (MANA) prisoner outreach program as an important counter-radicalization effort. Less than three months before Anti-Terror Lessons was released, one of MANA’s leaders, Luqman Abdullah, was killed in a firefight with federal authorities while resisting arrest for illegal possession and sale of firearms. The criminal complaint subsequently filed against his coconspirators (some of whom, it notes, “converted to Islam while they were serving sentences in various prisons across the United States”) accused Abdullah of “call[ing] his followers to an offensive jihad” and telling them that “they need to be with the Taliban, Hizballah, and with Sheikh bin Laden.”[4] Abdullah’s teachings may or may not be typical of MANA’s prisoner outreach efforts, but they are one of the few inside glimpses that have been afforded. The report’s decision to ignore them underscores its selective reading of Islam in America.

To laud the various American Muslim organizations cited above as bulwarks against extremism, Anti-Terror Lessons clearly needed to deal with the controversies that have surrounded them along with the evidence that suggests their stances on terrorism and extremism may be more problematic than their published denunciations suggest. The report’s failure to do so is particularly damning because Anti-Terror Lessons professes to analyze not only public messaging but what occurs in private, so as to refute those observers who “fear that these denunciations are intended solely for public consumption by non-Muslims.” Anti-Terror Lessons assures the reader that this is not the case since the researchers conducted numerous interviews and “cross-checked information with additional respondents and with digital searches of local newspapers.” After undertaking this research, “[n]o significant discrepancies were discovered.” The evidence about those groups that Anti-Terror Lessons claims do not deviate in private from their public denunciations of violence is easily accessible; thus, one has either to question the rigor with which they cross-checked their information or else doubt the authors’ honesty.

This same propensity to draw sweepingly positive conclusions without considering evidence that would disturb their thesis leads the authors to laud Salafism, stating that “the self-described Salafis that our project interviewed were among the most hostile to radical Islamic movements.” Salafism, they explain, is misunderstood by the American media as “the term is more commonly used to refer to an intense form of personal religiosity, with no political implications.” This discussion ignores the high percentage of “homegrown” Muslim terrorists who have embraced Salafism as their brand of Islam. Moreover, the report fails even to mention the most well-funded strain of Salafism within the United States, that fostered by Saudi Arabia. Even a casual reading of the Saudi-funded translation of the Qur’an leaves no doubt that this branch of Salafism is anything but apolitical.[5]

So what should the reader make of the ultimate conclusion in Anti-Terror Lessons that although “some observers are concerned” about increased religiosity among American Muslims, “our research suggests otherwise”? Quite simply, the authors have not done sufficient research to validate that finding, other than locating a few disparate data points and ignoring contradictory information. It seems the authors of this report are neither interested in providing a comprehensive picture nor in genuine academic inquiry. This review by no means covers all of the methodological and outright factual errors contained in this report, which will do far more to confuse than to illuminate future discussions of Islam in America.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross directs the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and is a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America.

[1] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, “Those Who Die Fighting U.S. Occupation Forces Are Martyrs,” Islam for Today, accessed Aug. 2, 2010; Haim Malka, “Must Innocents Die? The Islamic Debate over Suicide Attacks,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2003, pp. 19-28.
[2] Faysal Mawlawi, “Fatawa [Scholarly Opinions]: Questions about Palestine,” The American Muslim, Mar. 2002.
[3] Daniel Pipes and Sharon Chadha, “CAIR: Islamists Fooling the Establishment,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2006, pp. 3-20.
[4] United States of America v. Luqman Ameen Abdullah, criminal complaint, no. 2:09-MJ-30436 Eastern District of Michigan, Oct. 27, 2009.
[5] Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan trans., Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an in the English Language, 15th ed. (Riyadh: Darusssalam Publishers and Distributors, 1996).

See the original article here.