Op-Ed: Help Young Muslims Resist 'Jihad Cool'

Huma Mian and her husband, accused Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, come from successful, middle-class families. Asra Nomani believes that common trait is cause for concern. She says the West fails to provide disenchanted young Muslims with alternatives to the temptations of "jihad cool."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the Opinion Page.

Every day, it seems we learn more about Faisal Shahzad, the accused Times Square bomber. We know that he comes from a successful family in Pakistan, became a naturalized citizen and married the American-born daughter of another prosperous Pakistani family.

And in a piece for The Daily Beast, Asra Nomani tells us what she learned about the would-be bomber's wife, Huma Mian, from her profile on a social networking site, including what she lists as her passion, shopping, and her favorite TV show, "Everybody Loves Raymond." Hardly what you'd expect from the wife of a would-be terrorist, but Nomani writes, that's a cause for concern because somehow in the West we are failing to give disenchanted yet talented young Muslims nonviolent avenues for protest to lure them away from the temptations of jihad cool.

Well, we'd especially like to hear from our Muslim listeners today. How is your culture reaching out to young people? What are you teaching them? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Asra Nomani joins us here in Studio 3A. She's a contributor to The Daily Beast and author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Nice to have you back in the program.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Contributor, The Daily Beast): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And what do you mean by jihad cool?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, you know, jihad cool is this phenomena inside of our Muslim community now where young men, especially, think that it is cool to go fight for the jihad, to get on a plane from here in northern Virginia and go to a training camp in Pakistan, to join al-Qaida at the frontier territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan against this American aggressor that is in Afghanistan. It has unfortunately become popularized through YouTube, Facebook and all of these wonderful techniques of social networking that is being - that are being used by these clerics like Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen to lure our young boys, especially, to the dark side.

CONAN: Yet, this was not a young boy. This was an educated man, as you mention in the article, the son of a vice marshal in the Pakistani Air Force. His wife also, again, from a very successful family, hes American-born and owned a house in Connecticut, seemingly had a pretty good career.

Ms. NOMANI: You know, it's true that he wasn't a boy of teenage, but you know what's happening is that this is a kid who - he was 30 when he did this - it takes years, you know, to develop the kind of sympathies that end up becoming -materialize in something like buying an Isuzu and lacing it with explosives, as crude as they may be, and putting it in Times Square. He got drawn, and I think so many young kids are being drawn to this idea that the West is the dark path, even while their families are getting all of the advantages of migration to the West.

We're hearing it in our mosques. I can tell you that in my mosque in West Virginia, I heard it every Friday from these sermons that would be spoken by PhD graduate students, by engineering professors, folks who were getting all of the advantages of our open society and yet, on Thursday night downloading from Saudi websites sermons that basically said, don't imitate the path, the disbelievers, meaning the West. And this is exactly that slippery slope that ends up with something like this Times Square bomb attack - attempt.

CONAN: And more about the wife here in just a moment, but you said that it's important that we provide, well, non-violent ways for them to - there are a million ways to express protest in this country.

Ms. NOMANI: I know. And I - the other part of my piece also said that I felt like our inner side, our Muslim community, we are not educating and empowering our youth to take advantage of those non-violent ways.

I honestly believe that if we turn the page back on history and look back at the Civil Rights Movement, you know, this was the same moment that African-American leaders faced when they to try to encourage their youths to civil rights protests that were peaceful, instead of protests for radicalization and the bombing of buildings. I mean, this is exactly where we're at in our Muslim communities. And what we do too often, I believe, is allow people like this Anwar al-Awlaki to roam freely through our mosques and go uncensored when he preaches things as he has done over a decade in America when he was here. And unfortunately, we are not also filtering, for our young kids, their messages as they're getting them through the Internet now.

CONAN: And it leads to what you described as a bifurcated life illustrated by this social networking site and what this young woman posted.

Ms. NOMANI: You know, my heart just breaks for the story of Huma Mian, the wife of Faisal Shahzad. She could be me 20 years ago. She could be my younger sister. She is the immigrant girl next door. She probably didn't get to go to her high school prom like I didn't get to go because it wasn't what good Muslim girls do. But, you know, she lived this successful life in America and she got that marriage that she was expected to have.

She seemed madly in love with her husband. In this photo in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, she, you know, just puts a caption, Faisal and I. You know, in another photo, she says, what can I say, he's my everything. And the one that just really broke my heart was she put her newborn daughter in a onesie...

CONAN: Mm-hmm

Ms. NOMANI: ...much like I put my son when he was born. This one was a bunny rabbit. And her caption was simply bunny wabbit. She was a girl who was not what you would think would end up in this kind of narrative, and yet this is exactly the story of her life - a woman whose husband attempts to do this bombing.

CONAN: Have we heard anything from her since she moved back to Pakistan, since her husband moved her family back?

Ms. NOMANI: I have not been able to find her yet. And I tell you, I have got my cell phone filled with every Mian phone number in the Denver area because I'm trying to find that first cousin...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NOMANI: ...that knows exactly where she's at. And I hope we do hear from her because I think that America, and I think the world wants to understand how something like this happens.

CONAN: Her family is from Aurora, a Denver suburb.

Ms. NOMANI: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Asra Nomani, and we'd like to hear from our Muslim listeners today. How was your culture reaching out to young people? What are they being taught? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And Sabia(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - with us from Winter Springs in Florida.

SABIA (Caller): Sabia.

CONAN: Sabia, okay.

SABIA: Okay. You know, like I just mentioned to the person who picks up that we have, like, three young children. We make a point of taking them to Sunday school to the mosque. And I remember that the central mosque in Orlando had the imam do like the (unintelligible) during - before the Friday prayers. He made a special point of talking about jihad and young Muslims going to America to fight jihad and, you know, being found fighting jihad some place else and all, and how that clearly goes against the Muslims who are living here in America, who believe in, you know, tolerance, and living with other religions and living peacefully.

And so he was sort of warning and all that stuff, warning all the other Muslims who were congregated and all that stuff. And that is kind of the environment that my kids go to to the mosque, and all that stuff. And I think that, you know, if they were preaching otherwise, if they were saying that, you know, you should fight for your - for Islam or jihad and, you know, what is good and all that stuff, what you should be involved in, we wouldn't be taking our kids there.

So there's maybe a choice that the parents make, also, and all that stuff, or we can probably make it now because my kids are younger. And, you know, if they were older, then I guess things would be more up in the air and all that stuff, and they'd have to make up their mind like this young boy did and all that stuff. So...

CONAN: Asra?

Ms. NOMANI: I think that the point that Sabia is making is a really good one, which is, you know, just like we want to keep our kids from drugs, right? We want to keep them from becoming criminals of any kind is our responsibility, ultimately, to watch where they're going on their websites, what kind of sermons they're hearing, what they're learning at Sunday school. To me, you know, the - our responsibilities as parents doesn't stop, also, when they turn 18 clearly. You know, we want to be able to influence them and we want to keep them from basically blowing themselves up or running off to some militant camp. What we see, though, from Minnesota to northern Virginia, to Faisal Shahzad's case, is that, alas, we are losing some of these boys.

CONAN: Does that worry you, Sabia?

SABIA: Yes. It is very worrying and I think that's another point that was made earlier, adds to it, that the lack of education possibly. I know, for example, like this mosque in Orlando and other mosques as well have these special SAT classes for the Muslim youth that they have every weekend because there is a growing sense that there's not enough education amongst our youth and all that stuff. And then secondly, that they don't make the careers or they don't have the career orientation or the fact that they can have a profession, be it a boy or a girl and all that stuff.

I think obviously for the girls, it's even more because, culturally, you know, you're supposed to marry and, you know, and be a part of your husband's family, but for the boys also. So I think that all adds to it also, because this gives you an alternative way of living and all that stuff, if you have not succeeded in high school or have not gone on to college or whatever and all that stuff. So they are trying to combat that with the SAT classes and getting them prepared for scholarships and colleges if, you know, the parents can't afford college and things. But, you know, I don't know how many other people are doing it in the other Muslim communities all around the U.S.

CONAN: And the other part of it is you hear about these Somali kids from Minnesota...

Ms. NOMANI: Right.

CONAN: ...and somebody, Sabia, like you might say, well, that's not me. But then you hear about the kids from northern Virginia and this young man from Connecticut, and that's a different thing altogether. I mean, that strikes very close to home, doesn't it?

SABIA: Yeah. It does. And it's been a (unintelligible), yes.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. And good luck to you.

SABIA: Thank you for giving me your time. Bye-bye.

CONAN: On the Opinion Page this week, we're talking with Asra Nomani about her piece in The Daily Beast. There's a link to it on our website. You can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's see if we got another caller in. And this is Ramo(ph), Ramo with us from Sarasota in Florida.

RAMO (Caller): Hi, Neal. I just wanted to relate to the audience my story. When I was 14 I converted - well, I didn't convert. I was raised in an Islamic family, but I began practicing Islam. And gradually as I studied the faith, I realized the overt militant message that was involved. Because it was my understanding that Islam preached peace, and practically nothing else. And as I descended into the faith, I realized that there was an overt militant message, and it caused me to turn my faith.

Ms. NOMANI: Interesting. What's your name again?

RAMO: Excuse me?

Ms. NOMANI: What was your name again?

RAMO: My name is Ramo.dsf

Ms. NOMANI: Ramo. Yeah, you know, what really frightens me and what I also feel really concerned about is not only the overt message, but the covert message. You know, I think what you're speaking about is the struggle inside of our community, where there are literal verses inside of the Koran that could be read to sanction domestic abuse, you know, that could be used to sanction lack of tolerance towards Jews and Christians, even suicide bombings, just like all of the faiths, right? And what we have, unfortunately, is both covertly and overtly messaging inside the community that sanctions those kind of interpretations.

There is, just like all religions, a possibility for peaceful interpretation of Islam, and that's what we need to have prevail inside of our mosques. Just like Sabia's story, just like what you are seeking, I believe, when you went to try to educate yourself more about Islam. And the truth is the problem is inside of Islam because it is about interpretation. And if we don't admit that inside of our community, then we're just pulling the roll over our lives.

CONAN: Ramo, thanks very much for the call.

RAMO: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Victor(ph), and Victor is with us from Bloomfield Hills in Michigan.

VICTOR (Caller): Hi. I'm listening to this conversation with much interest. I think the conversation has gone from this particular individual's action to demonizing Islam. While there are circumstances that unfortunately we have no control on, al-Qaida would mention, according to our foreign policy experts, God has been marginalized. But we see new groups like Pakistani Taliban coming up, and there is a war. There is a war that's going on and that does affect young people.

Here in Michigan, we have a militia group called Haduri(ph). Now, I mean, they take their inspiration from the Christian scriptures. No one calls Christianity in the cause of what they do. They are motivated by certain things. There are people who fly to IRS buildings because they are sad about something. No one really looks into their faith.

We here in Michigan - if you come here next Saturday - 12 of our mosques have open doors. We are advertising extensively, come and see the Muslim community. The kind of messages that I'm hearing from Sister Nomani, I don't hear that in our mosques. Our mosque is called the Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills. We are participating. We have a women's groups here that - and we're very much involved with the school district. I was elected on my school board. This Saturday, we have walk as one in downtown Detroit. We're walking with the rest of the...

CONAN: Vic, I don't mean to interrupt, we just have a little time left. I wanted to give Asra Nomani a chance to respond.

Ms. NOMANI: I appreciate what youre doing inside of the community, but I have to say I'm just shaking my head because I think that, you know, the world is just so tired of us inside of our community not acknowledging that we've got a problem. It's not a demonization of Islam. This is a recognition of interpretations inside of our faith that are being used to draw young men into militancy, and that's being used to justify suicide bombings.

I mean, as many carwashes and walks and soup kitchen moments we may have, it's beautiful because we need that. We need to be involved in our community, but we also need to take on this ideology of violence that is very real. And I invite you to go to alminbar.com. Go check out the website. Go to any of these YouTube videos that's, you know, entice our your men into violence. And we have to realize this. I mean , until the uncles and the elders realize we've got a problem, we are losing that battle.

VICTOR: (Unintelligible) focusing on just one aspect. You know, there are things that are multidimensional. And in the conflict, you are on one crack.

CONAN: Well, Victor, there's one email that agrees with you from Karam(ph) in Plano, Texas. As someone who's attended Friday prayers for probably 200 times in my 40-plus years, I have to say I never heard the types of sermons preaching radicalization that Ms. Nomani speaks of. So this is obviously something that goes in some places but not in others. So we'll have to accept that.

Thank you very much for the call. Asra Nomani, thank you very much for your time today.

Ms. NOMANI: Thank you so much, and thank everyone for caring.

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