June 2016

Why Some Muslims Don't Speak Up

After the horrors of this month's deadly shooting in Orlando, Americans are naturally looking for something (or someone) to blame.  From gun control to immigration, everyone has a different opinion on the real reasons for this tragedy.  Sadly, some have used this event as yet another means to shame and scapegoat Muslims in America.  The argument goes that they are hiding terrorists within their ranks and withholding this information from federal authorities.  It's ridiculous to assume that all Muslims know each other or even know who the "radicals" are, but in some instances this could be true.  In those cases, it raises the question "Why don't Muslims speak up?"

1) First of all, they do

Even in the rare instance that a Muslim actually knows someone who may be on the path to radicalization, there are plenty of cases where they are in fact speaking up.  The FBI has successfully prevented several instances of radicalization and prosecuted many cases with the help of Muslim informants.  Often times, the informant is someone close to the individual who started down the same potential path, but then realized the danger of radicalization and spoke out.

One recent example of this occurred in Minnesota when a group of young men were convicted of attempting to join ISIS and commit murder abroad.  These individuals began to radicalize themselves until one of them became an informant instead.  In working with law enforcement, they were able to help close down a potential ISIS recruitment ring within the United States.  His actions were critical in preventing these men from joining ISIS and directly aided in their convictions.  But not everyone is capable of turning their friends and family in to the FBI because...


2) Most don't know radical people, while others are in denial

One of the biggest reasons people do not always speak up is simply because of denial.  Friends and family of potential radicals often don't know that someone is looking to engage in that sort of behavior.  Furthermore, those engaging in self-radicalization often do not even realize they are beginning on a path to destruction.  It is often a gradual process that begins with sympathy towards a radical cause, then shifts to active engagement with radical ideas, and finally ends with direct action on those ideas.  Though some people engaged in radicalization brag about their newfound zealotry, others are more reserved about it.  This means that even some of the closest people to potential terrorists do not suspect that anything is wrong.

Others deny that a friend or family member holds radical views or don't think that a person would act violently on them.  Denial is a powerful force.  If you ask the parents of nearly every mass shooter in recent memory, most will tell you that their son or daughter showed no signs of violence or radical ideas.  After all, it's pretty hard for parents to believe that their child might become a mass murderer. It is only natural that they would ignore the problem and hope it goes away.


3) They don't want to betray their friends and family

Imagine that your best friend started openly talking about overthrowing the government and kicking everyone out of power.  Would you be able to call up your local FBI office and turn this person in knowing that you may never see them again?  It's not something everyone can do.  Informing on someone to law enforcement would be a huge betrayal of familial and friendly trust.  Most of us would have a hard time turning in our friends or family (and friends and family of non-Muslim shooters have experienced this as well).  And if they incorrectly turn someone in, it isn't likely that such a friendship would last long.

So let's say someone does turn in a friend or family member.  The remaining family members will now be far less likely accept the actions of the potential informant.  They can quickly become ostracized by their family for breaking the close bonds of familial trust which are very important to many Middle East cultures.  And things can get even worse for the family because..


4) They fear being targeted by law enforcement

Once a potential radicalized person is discovered by law enforcement, it tends to open up a serious Pandora's box of scrutiny.  Suddenly, every interaction and discussion with the suspect is investigated and pursued by law enforcement.  Essentially, some people are worried that speaking up to law enforcement would put a target on their own backs.  After all, if they know a radicalized person, they might have similar suspicious ties even if they are innocent. 

This is one of the biggest problems facing police-mosque relations right now.  Many of them want to help, but fear being investigated themselves (even if they are innocent, much of this is about perception after all.) This is why policies designed to force Muslim communities to turn in their own members via fear and intimidation ultimately fail.  It is much easier and safer to simply kick someone out for possible radicalization and sweep the whole incident under the rug rather than run the risk of being discovered and targeted.  Unfortunately, kicking them out of their religious community often reaffirms their own increasingly radical beliefs and forces them to seek meaning and company with their radical contacts.  The best strategies are those which build trust with Muslim communities and incentivize them to maintain an open dialogue with police.


In all, the idea that we should somehow view this as a Muslim problem misses the larger point that radicalism plays in America.  The Orlando shooter was clearly disturbed and should have received intervention and therapy long before he turned to Islamic radicalism.  Someone should have spoken up about his need for mental health counseling, not just his radical beliefs.  If we treat all Muslims like suspects and potential terrorists, is it any wonder why they don't always speak up?