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To Fight Extremism, Don't Alienate Troublemakers At The Mosque


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. It's time now for Faith Matters. That's when we talk about issues of religion, spirituality and, of course, faith. The New York Police Department says it will end its surveillance program that targets mosques and Islamic community centers. Those programs started shortly after the September 11 attacks but were widely criticized. And one Muslim group says the Islamic community can help fight extremism in ways that law enforcement can't. Salam Al-Marayati is the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. He joins me now from member station KPCC. Salam, welcome.


HEADLEE: This is called the Safe Spaces Initiative, correct?


HEADLEE: What's the concept here? You're trying to identify somebody who is already extremist, or are you trying to identify someone who could become extremist?

AL-MARAYATI: It's more of the latter. However, this is more about spiritual safety and preserving the spiritual sanctity of the house of worship and in this case, a mosque. In other words, we want to people to feel freely in mosques. Free thinking should really be predominate in the culture of each and every mosque. So if someone has political grievances, if somebody has issues personally with their lives, they should be free to talk about it and not fear, number one, being scrutinized or being investigated or being violated, in terms of their spiritual authority to discuss any and every issue inside the mosque.

The second part of Safe Spaces is that the mosque should be a place of public safety. So if any violent, extremist recruiter or agent provocateur infiltrates the mosque then we, as a community, should make sure that our people are safe from that kind of activity. If one of the young people who is troubled and demonstrates troubled signs, we should intervene so that number one, first and foremost, we deal with any kind of personal issue they have. Number two, if it leads to being involved in any kind of violent, extremist movement, then we're there to intervene. The case in point for us to remember - actually two cases. One was Adam Gadahn in the Garden Grove mosque here in Orange County.


AL-MARAYATI: And Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Boston. Both of them were kicked out of the mosque because they were troublemakers. Kicking them out of the mosque is understandable. We don't want any trouble, however, it was not the solution. They actually became involved in worse movements. In other words, Adam Gadahn became the spokesperson for al-Qaida, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was implicated in the Boston Marathon bombing. So if we had intervened in those cases, we believe there is a potential or an opportunity or a possibility for rehabilitating the individual. If, after intervention, these efforts did not work, then we call law enforcement - that's also presuming that there's criminal activity involved. And then they handle the situation. But the whole message of the Safe Spaces Initiative for community leaders is to intervene, not just to kick out people out of the mosque.

HEADLEE: So help me understand, Salam, exactly how that really works on the ground. I mean, for example - Tsarnaev is a good example. He was thrown out of a mosque because he started shouting during a service, correct?


HEADLEE: Then if they had been practicing the Safe Spaces Initiative program, what would the mosque have done? How would they have reached out to him instead of kicking him out?

AL-MARAYATI: Well, in this particular situation, and I think this is a good one because it applies to so many other situations, what is involved is the putting together of a team that deals with this kind of situation - a crisis intervention team. And a crisis intervention team comprises of a mental health professional, a peer counselor, a youth-group advisor and a religious advisor. All these individuals should be involved with the person of concern. What happens is nobody is involved.

So what happens on the ground is, actually, people are discussing cases. If there are any kinds of problems then - and may not even be a crisis situation. Maybe what we're dealing with is just an inventory of the situation among our young people, how they're feeling, how they're viewing their own identity, are they receiving a distorted view of religion? Because no religion calls for murder. It's only people with a distorted view of religion and a distorted view of life that go on to become destructive and take away innocent lives.

HEADLEE: Now, Salam, there are many Muslims who understandably try to put as much distance between themselves and extremists as possible. You know, obviously we've heard this many times before - those who believe that terrorism is part of the Islamic faith are the marginalized, it's a tiny minority of Muslims, which is true. That is not me. We are not them. They try to keep extremism as far away as possible. Is the Safe Spaces Initiative going to shorten that distance? Is it sort of embracing extremists instead?

AL-MARAYATI: It's embracing people. It's embracing individuals. It is countering violent extremism. We hate the idea. We cannot hate people, especially if we are people of faith. And this is a religious principle in every religion. So if there's a chance for rehabilitation, absolutely we should help that individual. That's number one. Number two, we as the American-Muslim community have to change, not only the narrative, but our orientation towards the narrative of who we are. In other words, rather than just saying that is not me, we are not them, we have to say who we are, what we are doing. Intervention is better than doing nothing.

HEADLEE: Is this particular to the Muslim faith? Is this kind of the approach that something that any church or synagogue should use?

AL-MARAYATI: Absolutely. I mean, we had a case in Kansas City this week. We had a case last week, in Pennsylvania where there was a stabbing of 16 students. We've had, obviously, a number of other cases, such as Oak Creek, Wi. So each and every group should intervene in cases where they feel someone is being led astray towards a path of self-destructive behavior or destructive behavior of their community. The fact is it is Islam that tells us, just like Judaism states, if you're able to save a life, it is as if you've saved a whole human civilization.

HEADLEE: What do you say to somebody in a mosque who's afraid that this is really a method of collecting data on people or reporting to law enforcement or that eventually this is going to end up with somebody getting arrested?

AL-MARAYATI: Well, if they've read the news, I think they've realized there's already more than enough data collected on us. So this program is nothing compared to what we've seen in terms of surveillance and spying on the Muslim community in the post-9/11 era. This is not about spying. This is about transparency, it's about intervening to help individuals and it's about really the mosque trying to work to empower its community members to develop healthy communities by understanding that they need mental health professionals. They need social service workers. They need more peer counselors. The Imam, or the religious leader in a mosque, cannot do everything himself. There's no way that any one individual is equipped to deal with these situations. They need help. And therefore, there needs to be teambuilding in dealing with this situation.

HEADLEE: Salam Al-Marayati. He's the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Salam, thank you so much.

AL-MARAYATI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.