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Q & A with David Schanzer

Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Peter King, R-NY, recently convened controversial hearings on homegrown Muslim radicalization in the United States. During the hearings, congressmen cited research by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a joint research endeavor by Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and RTI International. David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice of public policy, serves as director of the Triangle Center and has written extensively on topics of counterterrorism and national security. He is the lead author of the Triangle Center’s 2010 report “Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim Americans,” which found a number of ways in which Muslim communities actively work to prevent radicalization and homegrown terrorism in their communities. Schanzer recently spoke with The Chronicle’s Julian Spector.

The Chronicle: What is the stated goal of the King hearings, and do you think Congress will be successful at achieving it?

David Schanzer: I don’t think that Congressman King has really articulated a clear goal for the hearings, which is one of the problems. He has said that he wants to prevent radicalization, which I think is a goal shared by Muslims, non-Muslims and law enforcement. But it is not clear that the hearings, the way he’s structured them, will achieve that goal.

TC: Were the hearings necessary?

DS: Congress has held multiple hearings on this topic of Muslim radicalization. Senator [Joe] Lieberman [I-Conn.] and Representative Jane Harman [D-Calif.] held hearings on this issue, so I don’t think the topic is taboo or should be taboo. We have a problem with young Muslim Americans who are adopting this radical ideology and turning towards violence. It’s not a widespread phenomenon, but there’s a sufficient quantity for it to be of concern to the American people and therefore Congress. The question is, what’s the best way to address the problem and how can congressional hearings bring us toward solutions?

TC: How can congressional hearings bring us toward solutions?

DS: A properly conceived hearing could try to get an understanding of why people turn towards radical ideology and look at types of interventions that would prevent them from going down that path. They could explore ways to build better trust between Muslim communities and law enforcement so that information about potential violence can reach authorities before it happens. A well devised inquiry could reduce the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States that I believe could contribute toward radicalization in the future.

TC: What specifically is King doing wrong?

DS: Unfortunately, over the past couple of years he’s made a number of statements where he really conflates radical Islam, which is problematic and can lead toward violence, with the mainstream Islam that is practiced by the majority of Muslim Americans and is peaceful and nonviolent. He has made numerous statements that suggest a hostility toward the Muslim community as a whole. That really polarized the whole project, so Muslims viewed the hearings as a challenge to their patriotism. I don’t believe that was Congressman King’s intention, but it has been perceived that way, and when you start off like that it is hard to do anything productive. He spent a lot of time justifying why he was having hearings at all and backing away from previous statements—in the end it turned out to not be a particularly useful exercise.

TC: What are the effects of these hearings on non-Muslim citizens’ perceptions of Muslims and Muslims’ perceptions of other citizens?

DS: That’s a complicated question. A lot of the media coverage I saw rebutted much of what Congressman King was trying to do. He made the point that he didn’t think Muslim Americans were successfully supporting law enforcement. All the evidence that came out at the hearing proved otherwise. There were anecdotes, but the question of the behavior of communities as a whole was soundly rebutted. Our research at the Triangle Center shows that out of 120 instances of Muslim Americans being arrested on terrorism charges, in 48 of them information leading to their arrest came from Muslim Americans.

King also appeared to be attempting to give the impression that radical violent thought within the Muslim community was much more widespread than it actually is, and I don’t think the media coverage before the hearing or during the hearing supported that.

It’s all happening in a background of growing anti-Islamic sentiment in this country. Polling since 9/11 has shown an increasing dissatisfaction or uncertainty among Americans about their feeling towards Islam and Muslim Americans. One impact is that the Muslim-American community was certainly galvanized and maybe motivated to take more aggressive or more visible actions to affirming their American values and dedication to combating radicalization and cooperating with law enforcement. Ironically, the hearings could have a positive impact.

TC: In what ways do Muslim communities prevent radicalization?

DS: First, they have a consistent record of speaking out against terrorist violence, which is important—to get out on the record to Muslim communities here and around the world that violence is outlawed by and made illegal by Islamic laws. Muslims did communicate and cooperate with law enforcement in thwarting terrorist plots, building strong community organizations, engaging in political activity and providing strong Islamic education. The latter things were not necessarily undertaken for that purpose, but we believe they have a positive impact on counterterrorism.

Providing information to law enforcement about those activities is one form of cooperation. Another form is notifying authorities when individuals seem to be adapting a radical ideology that could lead towards violence. That becomes a tricky issue because holding extreme religious or political views in America is not a crime. Indeed, it is protected First Amendment activity. What do we want communities to do in this instance? That’s why building trust is so important. The communities want to save their young people and they don’t want them to face prosecution when they can still be salvaged. Law enforcement needs to know when young Muslims are headed down the wrong path, but they will not get this information unless they have many different types of interventions that do not inevitably lead to 20 year prison sentences.

TC: What is the current state of homegrown radicalization in the United States?

DS: In our most recent study, the most recent data shows 161 Muslim Americans who have either engaged in terrorist acts, been arrested in terrorist charges or joined an armed fighting group. That’s 15 or 16 a year since 9/11 who have gone down the path towards violence. That’s not an insignificant amount, but it’s not a widespread or an overwhelming social phenomenon. During that same time period, there have been 150,000 murders and 13 million violent crimes. The [violence] from the 161 has accounted for 37 deaths in the United States and 62 individuals wounded since 9/11. I don’t dismiss that [domestic Islamic radicalization] is a serious problem, but I think you have to put it in some sort of context.

TC: What do you think Congress should be doing about it?

DS: The first thing to be said is that many steps are things that could be taken by Muslim-American communities, and indeed government [involvement] would be unproductive or maybe even counterproductive. Communities need to educate themselves about signs that an individual is moving toward radicalization. They need to develop programs to intervene with young people when they see this happen. In my opinion they need to be more outspoken, not just against violence after it occurs, but to really challenge the ideology of [Osama] bin Laden and [Anwar] al-Awlaki, which purports that violent action against the West is a duty that must be undertaken by all Muslims.

On the governmental side, steps [must be taken] to continue to build trust between Muslim-American communities and law enforcement and government officials, so there is as much flow of information as possible. That is extremely important. With recent immigrants, we have to remember that many fled countries where they feared the police, so the idea of interacting on a regular basis with law enforcement is not something that comes naturally. Finally, something both political leaders and corporate and community leaders can work on across the country is reducing the anit-Islamic sentiment in this country, which is both un-American and dangerous to our counterterrorism efforts.

Our research suggests that radicalization in America is a serious issue. Addressing it will require work within the community itself but also support from non-Muslims, people of other faiths and law enforcement acting cooperatively. The extent to which we can tone down hostility, understand the limited nature of the threat and work together to find effective solutions, we’ll be the better for it.


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