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Why Young Muslims Need To Hear From Former Extremists


The United States and its allies have all but eliminated the Islamic State. To be precise, they've taken almost all the territory once controlled by ISIS. But the extremist group still exists, and a former U.S. representative to Muslim communities warns that the seeds of extremism have been widely spread. Farah Pandith worked in both the Bush and Obama administrations. She spent time meeting a younger generation of Muslims abroad.

FARAH PANDITH: No matter where in Europe I went, the one data point that connected young Muslims who grew up post-9/11 was that they were having a crisis of identity. They were asking questions that their parents and their grandparents didn't ask about what it meant to be Muslim.

INSKEEP: How can the United States reach out to protect younger people from radical ideologies? In a book called "How We Win," Pandith promotes some unconventional spokespeople.

PANDITH: The most authentic voices to stop a young person from joining a group like ISIS are those people who have already been there and have come back. So former extremists of all kinds can be used. Their own narratives, on a one-to-one level, can be used to help dissuade a young person from finding that ideology appealing and understanding the real deal, if they actually join a group. We have an opportunity here to be able to do far more with their own stories and their own narratives in an online space, by using their narratives and connecting them when people are doing searches for how to be a better Muslim or how do you join a group like ISIS, their answers are there and available. Those algorithms that we use to sell you jeans can be used to actually bring new ideas forward.

INSKEEP: Do Silicon Valley firms respond when you tell them things like this?

PANDITH: The technology companies have understood far more than they have said in recent days. They have put some money into the ideological components of this war, to give them credit, but they can certainly do far more to scale the kinds of programs that they have tested and they know work as well.

INSKEEP: When you say, understood far more than they have said - or done, I guess is what you mean, right? That they have deep knowledge on this subject but have not necessarily committed to deploying it in ways you would like.

PANDITH: Cultural listening and social listening is something that these companies know how to do. The behavioral data that we have on how humans live their lives is so fierce right now, and it doesn't just come from technology companies. It comes from everything that we see around us because people are collecting that kind of knowledge - why you do something, how you lean in a particular direction and you want that thing, as opposed to the other thing. That kind of knowledge can help us understand, when young people are having a crisis of identity, how they can move in a different way, as opposed to finding what the bad guys are doing appealing.

The bad guys know how to make it relevant for the people they are trying to recruit. Whether it's a female, whether it's a male, how old that person is, they know what they're doing. Why aren't we doing the same? Where is our ideological army?

INSKEEP: Are you saying that all the data that tech companies are gathering that makes people feel really uncomfortable and disturbed - do you feel that data could be turned into a force for good?

PANDITH: Absolutely, and I think that we have to understand that the nonprofit organizations around the world that are doing the meat of this work, they need support. They need financial support by philanthropists. They need curated understanding of behavioral information that companies of all kinds have, not just the technology company. Why is it that we are not helping those people at local communities that are trying to fight hate? I don't understand why we would turn away from that kind of responsibility.

INSKEEP: So what is the role the United States government, then, if you really want local people, NGOs and so forth to be doing this work?

PANDITH: The United States government can be a leader by giving the kind of money to the ideological war that is needed so that our embassies around the world can work in partnership with NGOs that are doing this kind of thing. The American government can also scale every single program and initiative that they have tested and tried since 9/11 and, most importantly, to understand the role that Saudi Arabia has played in how they have put forth this idea of a monolithic Islam and what they are trying to do around the world. In every part of the world that I've gone to, the presence of Saudi Arabia has been a central component to this ideological fight.

INSKEEP: What are the implications of that, given the closeness between the Saudi government and the United States government?

PANDITH: Well, let's be very clear. Congress has talked about the role Saudi Arabia has played, and I'm really grateful for it, but I think that they are skimming the surface. I don't think they quite understand how much more is actually happening, whether it's eradication of cultural heritage sites so that Muslims who have a history of seeing diversity of Islam are no longer seeing that, whether Saudi Arabia has played a role in the way in which people are absorbing their religion by spreading translations of the Quran that push forward an us-versus-them way of thinking, whether they are training imams in Saudi Arabia that are spread around the world that take young kids and teach them that they have to push away hundreds of years of their own history and heritage and absorb something brand new.

And you're seeing that manifest in the way young Muslims live out their identity now. It's interesting. They're looking at Islam sort of like a lifestyle brand - how they dress, how they eat, what they think about, what they listen to, what they watch. These kinds of messages that are playing into here come in in a very strong way through the resourcing and the agency that has been put in place by Saudi Arabia for decades.

INSKEEP: But you're telling me that Saudi Arabia is the ideological rival here, almost the enemy, on an ideological level. And yet, Saudi Arabia is a country that Israel, under Benjamin Netanyahu, has tried to make an ally. The Trump administration is very close to the Saudi royal family, as we have learned, and is depending on Saudi Arabia to help confront Iran. Are we moving in the wrong direction here?

PANDITH: The American public needs to understand that the role of an us-versus-them ideology that the Saudis have put out has been deployed in such a way that young kids are thinking about themselves differently. And I think if we are able to defeat a group like ISIS, it will only be because we are working really hard to make sure that that monolithic, very strident, very precise way of defining what it means to be Muslim isn't generated from Saudi Arabia. It is going against what it is that we say we want to do. We want to win this. You can't win it if Saudi Arabia is still able to do the kinds of things that they're doing globally.

INSKEEP: Farah Pandith is author of "How We Win." Thanks for coming by.

PANDITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.