Fighting Extremist Ideology With Targeted Education
Over 18 years since 9/11, one would think that countering extremist ideologies would be a priority for our government. As Americans, we invest in the killing, jailing, surveilling, and prosecuting of terrorists. While that work is crucial, it is also, as a strategic question, reactive. It merely buys us time to take the battle to the terrorists’ strategic center of gravity: their ideology. Unfortunately, we have barely done so. Yet, until we prevail in that battle, the struggle will continue, because the extremists’ ideology, left unmolested, will continue to enable them to recruit new adherents faster than the other counterterrorism tools we use can take them out of the fight.
You might be asking what does a businessman know about countering extremism? That is a fair question. In 2014, my community got targeted. I was a businessman, a corporate man. ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabab were sending a minimum five messages on social media each month to Muslim kids in Minnesota. The problem was there was no response to the avalanche of propaganda targeting our community. So, we created a response.
Specifically, we founded the Average Mohamed Organization for the sole purpose of countering extremist ideologies. We gave ourselves mission values:
- The first of the values we hold dear is Peace. The Islam practiced by the overwhelming majority of my Muslim community is peaceful. We intended to show it and promote it as a principle.
- The second value is our belief that, in our secular society, democracy and a common understanding that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land bind us all together.
- The third value is anti-extremism, going after the ideological underpinnings of terrorism.
With that foundation, we created, using cartoons, a malleable, cost-effective means of producing messages. Keep in mind we were competing against beheadings, action shots of Jihadis blowing things up and shootings, even soft promotion of the idyllic life of Jihadis on horseback or playing with cats. The age group we targeted was from 8 to 16 years old — the formative years of our youth.
We created simple-to-understand, even simpler-to-disseminate cartoons shared globally on social media. Each cartoon was used to counter a value of the Jihadist ideology. For example, we started with a question: “Is suicide bombing an Islamic principle?” We then created a cartoon to counter suicide bombings, using the teachings of Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) to show that suicide bombing is against Islamic principles and that suicide bombers go to hell.
We created videos espousing womens’ rights in Islam, using Aisha (peace be on her), the wife of the prophet, as an example of an emancipated woman. While knowing clearly that men and women, under the scripture of Islam, are not equal, we espoused that their respective rights to opportunity had no limitations either.
We urged that, when choosing between the bullet and the ballot, we should use democratic principles. We emphasized that the extremists’ new world order is built on a death-cult mentality. We Muslims are not fools; we should prefer the ballot and can do without the fear of extremists.
When ISIS committed genocide against Yazidis and Christians in the Middle East, we made a message decrying the genocide, telling our kids that, if they were to become extremists, the killing of innocents, including destroying the heritage of peoples, would be the main job requirement.
We were not satisfied to create content and just use social media to garner millions of views of our cartoons across the world. Teachers, imams, youth counselors and students, who saw our work, promoted it in over 1,800 media interviews globally. We had students reach out to businesspeople to come speak in classes, libraries, youth groups, youth sports teams, mosques, churches, synagogues and even madrassas (i.e. Islamic schools).
We went to our youth and engaged them in conversations. By necessity, the businessman became the teacher. What I learnt is that our kids are smart and intelligent. Come with bullshit and they will spot a fake a mile away. Nobody had ever talked to them about extremism, a taboo topic never discussed openly. We were the first to do so publicly with them. We would showcase three messages, then open the floor to questions, such as:
- “I am 16 years old and all my life our country has been at war against Muslim countries. Does America hate Islam?”
- “What about Syria? Are the Mujahideen not doing what is asked of them to protect Muslims from a bloodthirsty dictator, Assad, and Iran?
- “What is wrong with Muslims having a caliphate? America has a union of states. The European Union exists. Why can’t Muslims have a caliphate?”
- “Why are we Muslims facing serious racism for being black and Islamophobia for being Muslim? Police think we are criminals and the feds see us as potential terrorists.”
We attempted to answer these and many other questions with dignity, and with respect for the kids’ intellect and understanding. For example:
- “America got attacked on 9/11 and over 3,000 citizens got murdered. America went to war in Afghanistan for that reason, because those that did the killing, led by Osama Bin Laden, came from there.”
- “ISIS claims they created a caliphate. However, it was not built on Muslim acceptance, but instead on an abject fear of them, as they are more brutal than the dictator Assad.” We show kids the statistics of ISIS’s killing spree.
- “If Muslims themselves, every man and woman, had the right to vote in unison for a caliphate, then no power on earth could stop that, but ISIS and Al-Qaeda are about grabbing all powers just for themselves. It is a ‘califake,’ not a caliphate of the people.” We showcase that no women leaders are allowed, there are no elections, and there is no tribal support, but rather ISIS’s power to wield death made them self-appointed leaders.
- “As for the police and feds targeting you for race and religion, this is America, where any community that came to this land had their teeth knocked in. Will you work hard to be future leaders, become police officers, join federal government agencies, and be changemakers? In America, you have that right. Better for us to be on the table than on the menu.”
The above questions were the mildest of those asked. After every session, a group of kids would come up to me and say so-and-so watches a lot of Jihadist propaganda and sites. I don’t take telephone numbers out of respect for their privacy, but I make it a point to meet those kids and have further discussions in private. We have spoken to over 50,000 kids in six years.
Over time, we became a model program for countering Jihadist ideology. Through Global Minnesota and the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, we spoke to over 1,000 NGO workers, foreign government officials, clergy and women leaders about the model, program and methodologies that the Average Mohamed Organization had developed, to include leveraging social media and engaging in face-to-face outreach. As recognition of our effort and its impact, our Organization was named a 2018 Citizen Diplomat of the Year. Previous recipients included Senator Fullbright; the poet-activist, Maya Angelou; and John Richardson, the Founder of the US Institute of Peace.
A businessman applied basic profit-loss methods to extremism. Use what results in profit and discard what does not. We developed mechanisms (or rather, products), sold them (or rather, disseminated them), and advocated ideas for ideas, because our mantra is, “It takes an idea to defeat an idea” (or rather, in this instance, an ideology).
The problem is, while we have more ideas for how we can discredit the Jihadist ideology, and even though the resources required to do so are relatively small when considered in the context of what the U.S. spends on counterterrorism, we get no resources from the government to do this work. Instead, America has outsourced the process of doing what we do so well: talk about our values. Meanwhile, when we go to foundations, multinationals or institutes, their reply is, “Go to the government.” As a result, the Average Mohamed Organization does not have resources to compete against ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabab and prevent them from recruiting new adherents. These terrorist groups create dozens of messages a month in all major languages, and even have glossy magazines and “how-to-do terrorist acts 101”.
At this moment, the risk is greatest on the Homeland, because there is no caliphate where aspiring Jihadists can go, but a car or a knife is accessible for them to commit a terrorist act locally. Our enemy continues to adapt their tactics, with their efforts buttressed by their ideology, and yet we haven’t even really started to do our part.
Hopefully, these dynamics will change, so we at the Average Mohamed Organization and others like us can go on an all-out offensive against extremist propaganda, instead of playing defense and catch-up against it. Change minds and educate them to help others. In essence: change the narrative. Yep, a businessman is just what the country needs right now, along with government partners, multinationals, foundations and institutes who will step up to help.
Mohamed Ahmed is the Founder and Executive Director of the Average Mohamed Organization (www.averagemohamed.com), a counter-ideology organization dedicated to stopping extremism and hate. He is a Bush Foundation Fellow and a public speaker, and was named a Citizen Diplomat of the Year in 2018.