Yesterday I attended an event on domestic radicalization at the Center for American Progress which was co-hosted by the National Security Network that featured administration officials, a leader from a Muslim organization, a former NYPD commissioner and LAPD chief, and an academic who has studied domestic radicalization. It was the first such event I'd attended put on by a liberal organization.
The featured speaker was Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim representative elected to Congress -- and an underutilized resource on such matters. "As American Muslims, we have to tackle the moral logic that some Muslims use to justify violence in the name of religion, Ellison said. "To say glibly Islam is a religion of peace ignores the reality that there are some Muslims, to our horror, who distort Islam and advocate violence. We have to be at the forefront of correcting the record."
While emphasizing the important role that the American Muslim community has and must play in countering extremist narratives, the most vital thing Ellison did was urge liberals to take part in the conversation on domestic radicalization "because the conversation is going on anyway." He added that the conversation "will proceed with or without people who cherish liberty, diversity, and due process of law."
Indeed it has. The conservative narrative is clear: Muslim extremists are attempting to infiltrate the United States and subvert it from within, eventually turning the U.S. into a Muslim theocracy and expunging all the institutions of American democracy. Any American with a Muslim background unwilling to make broad generalizations about Islam's negative influence is suspect. The irony of the conservative view is that it mirrors the same narrative that those who commit terrorist acts find persuasive.
"They come from different backgrounds, different education levels, socioeconomic status, different parts of the country, different parts of the world even," said Pradeep Ramamurthy, the senior director for Global
Engagement at the National Security Council. "But that notion that the West is at war with Islam is a unifying theme or narrative that they buy into." This understanding is what has informed the administration's attempts of denying extremists any claim of Islamic religious legitimacy.
The lack of a liberal narrative has left the conversation to a paranoid, McCarthyist narrative that makes every American Muslim a
potential terrorism sympathizer or suspect. That approach ultimately has consequences, both for our ability to identify potential threats early and to prevent extremist narratives from spreading. David Schanzer, the director of the Triangle Center of Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University and an expert on domestic radicalization said, "I don't think there's any evidence of a cause and effect relationship here, but I am concerned about the tone of public discourse over the past nine years," which he suggested might form "barriers to Muslim youth forming a strong American identity."
Schanzer highlighted "people who are out here saying things like you can't be a faithful Muslim and an American at the same time." That's exactly what Osama bin Laden or Anwar al-Awlaki would say. And unless liberals start speaking up more, it's the only thing Americans are going to hear -- and as a result some of them are going to believe that building an Islamic center near Ground Zero is a tribute to terrorism.
UPDATE: Something that accidentally got deleted from the original version of this post is that sometimes the people in the Muslim community who are best equipped to delegitimize extremist narratives will themselves be very conservative, not necessarily the kind of liberal leaders the government likes dealing with publicly.