Muslim leaders in U.S. facing challenges inside and outside the faith

Published: Monday, May 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

A boy stands next to his father during a prayer service at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, Mass. on Friday, April 26, 2013.

Robert F. Bukaty, AP

Soon after two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on April 15, Muslim groups joined others in denouncing the deadly violence.

When the suspects were identified as Muslims, those same groups, along with family members of the two young men and other individuals, further decried the violence as a misrepresentation of Islam.

Their proclamations that Islam preaches peace and protection of the innocent haven't changed the perceptions of many Americans who believe Islam encourages violence.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center, taken just after the Boston Marathon bombing, found that 42 percent of Americans said Islam was more likely than other faiths to encourage violence — nearly the same proportion as 10 years earlier, when 44 percent held the same view.

The poll underscores the challenges Muslims in the United States face both outside and within the faith. Muslim advocacy groups have focused their efforts on countering a non-Muslim campaign of Islamaphobia. But some scholars and followers of Islam say leaders need to turn more attention internally to eradicating a strain of extremism that exploits the faith and undermines their public relations efforts.

"It's nice to have some high-level thing that might make people feel good about Islam, but that can be reversed any given day by two guys with backpacks," said Richard Bulliet, a Columbia University history professor with an expertise in Middle East studies and experience analyzing terrorist recruitment material.

Bulliet is referring to brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who used backpacks to carry the homemade bombs that killed three and injured more than 260 bystanders at the marathon. News accounts have said 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote on the inside of a boat he was hiding in before his capture, "When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims."


Tsarnaev reportedly said he and his brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police three days after the bombing, learned how to make the bombs and were influenced in their views by jihadist websites.

His comments have heightened awareness of so-called "self-radicalization," in which frustrated, angry Muslim youth surfing the Internet can become influenced by militant groups anywhere in the world espousing extremist views and calling for exacting revenge for injustices committed against Muslims.

The men's uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told reporters after his nephews were identified as suspects that their alleged crimes had more to do with Tamerlan's troubles and frustrations with finding his place in America than with religion.

"Anything to do with (blaming) Islam, with religion is a fraud, is a fake," he said.

Bulliet agrees, saying the recruiting videos and material he has examined for law enforcement over the years have few or no religious messages. He described a recruiting video produced by a group in Algeria that depicted a glorified camping trip where young men bonded with each other by singing songs and firing and repairing weapons.

At the end, a split screen showed photos of martyrs alongside videos of those same young men alive and socializing in camp.

Other videos show Palestinian women being roughed up by Israeli soldiers.

"You don’t recruit people by explaining a religious position, that’s taken for granted," Bulliet said. "They are recruiting off feelings of exclusion, being demeaned, underemployed and disrespected. They offer solidarity and meaning to those who don’t expect to have a job their entire life and get them to think they can have meaning just once if they wear a suicide vest."

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