Ahmad Musa Jebril had a shady reputation that preceded him, yet he was still a mystery to many in suburban Detroit’s Muslim community.
The son of a local imam who had been dismissed by his mosque because of his radical views, the younger Jebril had also been barred by some area mosques for his own extremist rhetoric. So when Jebril started coming around to Masjid Umar Bin Khattab in Brownstown Mi. in the summer of 2003, officials at the mosque warned younger congregants to stay away from him, thinking that if they banned him outright without witnessing an actual transgression, his appeal might increase.
But unbeknownst to mosque officials, Jebril, now 36, had already attracted a group of five to 10 teens and twentysomethings by delivering passionate, teary-eyed lectures about Islamic spirituality and the earliest Muslims while they sat mesmerized on the floor of a spare prayer room in the mosque’s basement.
“He approached us as someone trying to get more involved with the youth of the [mosque],” said Jawad Khan, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, who was 19 when Jebril came “out of nowhere.” Like his peers, Khan was initially impressed with Jebril, and disregarded the warnings. After all, Khan reasoned, the talks were about spirituality and Islamic history. “He was a very powerful speaker. He could really get your emotions going.”
Many Americans worry that it is just such a combination--a radical leader and impressionable youths--that can lead to the creation of homegrown terrorists, like the 24 British Muslims (three of whom were recent converts) arrested in early August as suspects in a plot to blow up several planes with liquid explosives flying from Heathrow Airport to the United States.
And the reappearance of Yahya--a youth believed to be California native Adam Gadahn--on an FBI list of most-wanted al-Qaeda suspects last spring was a sobering reminder of what happens when an isolated youth is not steered away from extremist rhetoric. Gadahn, who converted to Islam nine years earlier, had no friends and quickly fell in with a group of Muslims overly critical of all things Western, according to a recent article in The Washington Post.
While suspicion in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 tended to focus on extremists from the Middle East or South Asia, recent incidents have focused attention on local recruits, such as the four British Muslim suicide bombers who attacked London’s subway and bus system in July 2005. The arrests of young, North American-raised Muslims in California, New Jersey, Virginia, Toronto, and elsewhere since 9/11 have for many Americans confirmed, or at least fueled suspicions that mosques and other Islamic institutions breed terrorists.
But how real are these fears? Are many Muslim youths in the United States susceptible to radical preaching? Are terrorists being groomed here?
In Detroit, Jebril’s lectures turned into angry rants about western crimes against Muslims and he peppered his talk with invectives against Shi’a Muslims and called on God to turn Jewish children into orphans, Khan recalled. Khan and most of his peers stopped going, and soon, mosque officials also learned about Jebril’s clandestine lectures, and banned him from the mosque barely a month after he had arrived.
Detroit-area Muslims later learned that the FBI was investigating Jebril and his father for terrorism-related activities, and that a Hamas poster was found during a raid on their apartment. The FBI in Detroit declined to comment on whether it is still investigating Jebril on terror suspicions, or what investigators have found so far.
While danger was averted in Detroit, Khan said he has heard of mosques in New York, Houston, and elsewhere where radical messages have an audience. But at least mosque officials in this country are more careful, he said.
Islamic leaders in the United States acknowledge that they cannot completely rule out the possibility of homegrown terrorists. But they assert that their communities are unlikely breeding grounds for them because Muslim Americans, while perhaps angry with American policies in the Islamic world, recognize their freedoms, enjoy greater prosperity, and endure less racism than Muslims in Europe. On the contrary, Muslim Americans, like those from Masjid Umar Bin Khattab, have little tolerance for radicalism, they say.
“Any incident, big or small, weighs upon anybody who’s visibly a Muslim,” said Nadwah Khan, 24, who wears a headscarf and has been active in her Toledo, Ohio, mosque since childhood. “We all worry about it, and we all try to prevent it.”
“As long as Muslims have that feeling that, ‘in spite of everything, things aren’t so bad for Muslims in the U.S.,’ there aren’t going to be those high levels of disenchantment and resentment that allow radicalism to thrive,” said Muqtedar Khan, a political science professor at the University of Delaware and author of “American Muslims.”
But Freedom House in Washington D.C. reported last year that some mosques are stocked with vitriolic literature denigrating other faiths or have links on their websites to Islamic clerics who have made racist statements. In July the Canadian government barred Sheik Riyadh ul-Haq, a British cleric known for vilifying Jews, Hindus, and homosexuals, from entering the country to attend a youth conference organized by the Islamic Foundation of Toronto.
But conference organizers broadcast his speech via teleconference. In newspaper interviews, some conference attendees dismissed the accusations against the cleric, claiming he focused more on spirituality, while the Canada chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations accused the Canadian government of a double standard for not barring Franklin Graham, who has vilified Muslims, from speaking in Winnipeg this October.
It’s these perceived double standards, along with images of Muslims suffering at the hands of foreign armies in places like Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia and Chechnya, that can anger Muslim Americans.
“There’s a deep feeling of hurt and loss that Muslims here feel because anybody who sees him or herself as a Muslim understands that a core concept in Islam is community, and when one person in the community hurts, the whole community hurts,” explained Junaid Afeef, a researcher with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, an Islamic think-tank in Detroit.
In a worst-case scenario, the “hurt” can boil over into violence, as it did in March when Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar plowed a rented silver jeep into a crowd at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, injuring several people. The 22-year-old Iranian native, who graduated from UNC in December, told investigators he was avenging the death of Muslims all over the world. University officials said Taheri-azar acted alone.
Still others transform their grievances into resentment. Marcia Hermansen, a Muslim convert and Islamic Studies professor at Loyola University in Chicago, wrote in an essay on Muslim youth in the book “Progressive Muslims” that she was “shocked” to find that some Muslim students on her campus “seemed to feel vindicated by the destruction and loss of life on September 11. I couldn’t understand how children of Muslim immigrants, born and largely raised in the United States, could somehow twist their understanding of their own situation and history to welcome such an event as payback.”
Muslim Americans have said the Chapel Hill case is more the work of a mentally disturbed individual than a trained terrorist, and it would be wrong to conclude that terrorism is gaining appeal among Muslim-American youth. Rather, any angry impulses Muslim-American youth may have are outweighed by their prosperity and a genuine belief in American civil society, Muslim-American observers said.
Akram Sadek, 28, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student active in the school’s Muslim Student Association recently came to the United States from London. “This country does something different. They really make you feel welcome here, like you belong here,” said Sadek, munching on Middle Eastern take-out in a campus food court one recent afternoon after finishing congregational Friday prayers that were held in a prayer room provided by the university.
“Even though [Muslim Americans] have grievances, they’re very patriotic and love their country,” Sadek said. “In England, we’re still outsiders.”
Nadwah Khan pointed to the recent Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy as an example of how differently Muslim Americans reacted. While Muslims in Europe and some Muslim countries rioted, killed, and issued death threats, Muslim Americans responded with education and editorials and condemned the violence.
“We’re taught that that’s the way to get things done here. We have that mentality,” she said.
Indeed, many Muslim Americans have little problem weaving their Muslim and American cultures. “It’s never been overwhelmingly hard to be a good Muslim and be a good American,” said Basier Aziz, a 22-year-old MIT graduate. Originally from Pittsburgh, Aziz grew up playing sports, going to movies, and watching TV, but abstained from drinking, smoking, and sex. “I never felt as though I had to choose one or the other. I just did my own thing.”
But not all Muslim-American youth are so certain about their identity and some have trouble harmonizing their American and Muslim backgrounds. Those are the people who are most vulnerable to radical enticements, warns Eboo Patel, executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based group that promotes tolerance through community service.
“You’ve got young people asking what it means to be Muslim in this society,” Patel said, likening their dilemma to what W.E.B. DuBois called the “dual consciousness” of African Americans who wrestled with “two souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.”
Muslim Americans often live in two worlds, Patel said, one religious and in which Islam is presented as a set of rigid rules, and the other, a permissive, Western youth culture. “That’s a very challenging duality to live in,” said Patel. “But a lot of Muslim kids participate in both the piety of Islam and the permissiveness of youth culture, and they develop a sense of self-loathing.”
The young Detroit Muslims who admired Jebril were angry at American policies and expressed contempt for how “dirty” American society was--with its sexual promiscuity and scantily clad women. But they also indulged in American music and television, Jawad Khan said.
“The people who are confused, they’re the ones who are easily manipulated, and they fall victim to these guys who tell them what they need to do,” Khan said.
Muslim communities need to be aware of such cases, Patel said, and be ready to intervene when, for example, they see their children drop out of their mosque and join an isolationist mosque, or hear them accuse others of not being “real Muslims.”
“Muslims have to ask, when these young Muslims get to the crossroads, who’s meeting them there, and who’s giving them a path to follow,” said Patel. “This is where moderate Muslims have to step forward. Radicals derive their knowledge in a vacuum of religious knowledge.”
Yet expelling radicals, as the board at Masjid Umar Bin Khattab did, is no guarantee that they will be silenced or deprived of supporters.
The board’s decision was validated a few weeks later on Aug. 23, 2003, when a grand jury indicted Jebril and his father on bank fraud, money laundering, felony possession of firearms and ammunition, and other charges, according to The Detroit News. But on Sept. 9, 2003, barely two weeks after his indictment, Jebril and his father were released on $10,000 bond. And despite the indictment and terror investigations, Jebril still had admirers, Khan said.
Indeed, on one Muslim listserv, a poster describing himself as a “close friend” of Jebril wrote: “How these kuffar (unbelievers) twist the truth with 100 lies to try to get the people against the Muslims. I say to all you Muslims don’t believe not even 1 thing these kuffar tell you, even if all of them come together and agree on it. They are liars!”
Jebril never returned to Masjid Umar Bin Khattab, but Khan did see him a year later at the University of Michigan at Dearborn (the heart of the Detroit Muslim community), where Jebril was attending Friday prayers and other MSA gatherings. This time, it was Khan and his friends who were warning peers about Jebril, who was still making impromptu speeches laced with the usual attacks against Jews, Shi’a Muslims, and the West.
Before long, Jebril and his followers split with the university MSA and held their own prayers and events elsewhere on campus. A few weeks later, Jebril and his father went on trial for the financial charges they were indicted on a year earlier. They were convicted, and, in December 2004, sentenced to 70 and 58 months in jail, respectively. This past February, Jebril, his father, and two other men were indicted for jury tampering in the previous trial.
Today, Khan is relieved that Jebril is behind bars and still proud that his mosque had the foresight to kick Jebril out. He believes most mosques would have done the same, but said it would be wrong for Muslim Americans to dismiss the possibility that radicalism is preached in some American mosques
“There is,” Khan said. “You can try and tell yourself that there isn’t. But I know there is.”