US & Canada

The struggle to tackle home-grown Islamic radicalism in the US

With incidents of potentially violent Islamic radicalism rising sharply in the US in the past two years, Claire Bolderson looks at the pressures on young American Muslims, and at what is being done to stop them becoming alienated from the mainstream.

Jasmin Ullah sits on her bed in her room at home in northern Virginia and tucks her feet underneath her as she starts to describe what it is like to be a 17-year-old, headscarf-wearing Muslim in the United States.

"People expect me to be quiet because I wear the hijab," she says, and then confesses with a loud laugh that she is anything but quiet.

Jasmin, one of five children in the Ullah family, was born in the US a few years after her parents emigrated from Bangladesh.

Articulate and vivacious, her tone becomes more serious as she describes being tripped up in the corridors at school or being called "towel head" by fellow students.

She says, emphatically, that she is and feels American.

"I was born here, I was taught all these America values about equality and freedom."

But she confesses that sometimes the attitudes of her fellow Americans leave her lost for words.

Like, she says, the time when she was in a book store and a man walked up to her and said "I hate Muslims", returning five minutes later to say the same thing again.

"Normally, in high school I'd speak up. But when it's an adult it's so confusing that I wasn't sure what to do," she says.

Radical activity

Jasmin is president of the youth group at her mosque and believes passionately in reaching out to other religions and building bridges to Americans who may be suspicious of the Muslim minority.

But she says Islamic communities need to do much more to address the suspicions and worries of their own Muslim youth.

In another part of northern Virginia there is a small mosque in a tiny converted house opposite a shopping mall.

The imam refuses to discuss five young men aged 18 to 25 who used to be part of his congregation.

American citizens from North African and South Asian immigrant families, they vanished overnight late last year.

They were later traced to Pakistan, where they have since been convicted on terrorism charges.

Community leaders familiar with the case say there was nothing at all in the background of the young men that suggested they might get involved in radical activity.

When they failed to return home having told their parents they were going to a conference for the weekend, the families went to the mosque for help. They did not go to the police.

Interfaith prayers

According to Nihad Awad, head of the Council on American Islamic Relations, there is a lack of trust between America's Muslims and the law enforcement authorities.

It was his organisation that told the families of the boys to alert the police. They also advised them to take a lawyer along.

"Unfortunately trust has been hurt because of so many cases in the past where American Muslims felt they had been targeted," says Mr Awad.

"Over time, that's given the Muslim community a bad taste in their mouths about law enforcement."

The government is trying to change that. So are some mosques.

At Jasmin Ullah's place of worship in Virginia, an FBI agent was one of the guest speakers at an interfaith prayers and dinner.


But a report released this month by the bipartisan commission that investigated events leading up to 9/11, said this sort of engagement has come very late in the day.

The authoritative report said that the US has been slow to take seriously the threat posed by home-grown radicals, "stumbling blindly" through the minefield of countering radicalisation.

At the Department of Homeland Security, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development Arif Alikhan denies the government has been slow.

"I don't think it's something that has been ignored," he says. "It's something we've always been vigilant about."

Mr Alikhan outlines a planned effort to strengthen ties between law enforcement and local Muslim communities.

They are the ones "who can identify those who might commit violence", he says.

But that implies parents, imams and others know which young people are being wooed to radical causes. Often they do not.

Nor are they always familiar with the many websites that stir passions with graphic depictions of Muslims suffering in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or of Palestinians fighting what they see as an Israeli occupier supported by the US.

Whether we like it or not, Muslims have become more political," says Jasmin.

"Communities should find a way for their youth to be politically active without being violent."

Claire Bolderson's documentary ''American and Muslim" can be heard on this week's edition of Assignment on the BBC World Service, on the 23 September. It will be also be available online at

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