Fighting radicalization in the West

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, March 14th, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: fighting Islamic extremism in the West.

A new chapter in the war on terror is creating a conundrum for countries around the world: ISIS brides from the West, radicalized online, are asking to return home. A British teen who joined ISIS in 2015 has attained near-celebrity status by telling her story to the media. She’s pregnant and wants her child to grow up in the West.

REICHARD: And a former University of Alabama student wants to return to the United States. The father of Hoda Muthana is suing the Trump administration for refusing her entry. He claims his daughter is an American citizen and was young when she fell prey to ISIS recruiters online. She used her tuition money to buy a plane ticket to Syria.

EICHER: Nearly 3,000 young men and women from across the West have joined ISIS. Close to 100 came from the United States. While government officials are debating what to do about them, others are trying to combat the sources of radicalization.

WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson spoke with a Muslim woman who’s on a mission to fight Islamic extremism.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Raheel Raza is a feisty mother of two and grandmother of four. She’s also a Sunni Muslim from Pakistan who’s now a Canadian citizen. She has spent more than two decades promoting human rights and scolding Western governments for failing to understand the roots of Islamic extremism.

During a 2017 congressional committee hearing, Raza told U.S. lawmakers they needed to rethink their approach.

RAZA: There is a serious error in the heart of the countering extremism policy. We must confront radicals before they become violent.

Many counter-terrorism initiatives focus on individuals who have already fallen into the hands of terrorists. Raza says we need to reach the youth before that happens.

RAZA: Once a young person or a child is on this conveyor belt towards radicalization, it’s too late, because it’s difficult, practically impossible, to de-radicalize. 

Raza travels to cities across North America to teach parents, counselors, teachers, and local officials how to prevent extremism and watch for the warning signs of radicalization.

RAZA: In the training program there’s an interview with a mother, a Calgary mother whose young son converted to Islam and eventually, over a period of time, got radicalized and went to fight with ISIS and died. And now this mother says if I had known how to look for these signs, maybe I could have done something. 

The latest research shows that Generation Z, those born from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, are especially vulnerable to extremist ideology. So are young millenials.

Extremists prey on young people who spend hours online, are disconnected from family, and discontent with world affairs. Online recruiters lure them into false promises of community, revenge, a better world, or love.

RAZA: They also look for young people who have mental health issues by the way. It was very troubling to read one paper that talked about how they’re targeting kids with autism because kids with autism can’t comprehend the larger picture around them. 

Raza says isolated Muslim communities are also vulnerable. In Minnesota, authorities arrested six Somali-Americans in 2015 for attempting to leave the country and join ISIS in Syria. According to former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger, that wasn’t an isolated incident.

LUGER: To be clear, we have a terror recruiting problem in Minnesota and this case demonstrates how difficult it is to put an end to recruiting here.

But prevention programs aren’t always well-received. Some Muslim leaders claim they promote a stereotype of Muslims as terrorists.

Last year, Raza visited Minnesota where some Somali groups were interested in her prevent extremism program. But the Council for American Islamic Relations, better known as CAIR, launched a media campaign against their efforts.

RAZA: CAIR and these organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood connections, are going to slam us no matter what we do. They have already decided any sort of criticism of Islam is Islamophobic.

Raza says bad government policies also create fertile ground for extremism. She has met with Muslim women in the UK who are victims of the country’s 85 Sharia courts. She warns governments to avoid alliances with political Islam.

She has also encouraged Congress to halt the flow of funds from foreign extremists to universities and mosques in the West.

Raza says 80 percent of mosques in Canada are infiltrated by Wahhabists, followers of a strict Muslim sect from Saudi Arabia.

Raza points to Canada as an example of what not to do about Western recruits to terrorists organizations: At least 60 former ISIS fighters returned home without trial, creating a national security risk and traumatizing many of the Yazidi women Raheel’s organization works with.

RAZA: These are women who have been raped, they have been sold as slaves, they’ve been through the whole gamut. And one of them actually saw her ISIS captor on a public bus. So you can imagine the trauma behind that.

During Raza’s two decades of work, she’s received death threats and been labeled by one website as the 6th most hated Muslim in the world.  But that hasn’t stopped her activism. Her goal, she jokes, is to become number one.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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