Sarah Haider, co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America. (Photo: Screenshot from video)
Who is doing the ground work in the struggle against Islamist extremism? A lot of the people tackling radical Islam don’t get as much press time as the jihadists they oppose. We want to introduce you to five Americans who are making a difference.
Anila Ali is the founder of the American Muslim Women’s Empowerment Council, which works on the ground with law enforcement and interfaith leaders to counter radicalization. The goal is to build capacity in the Muslim community so they can be the first line of defense against radicalization.
She also promotes community engagement and supports South-Asian peace through the arts through another group she founded, the Irvine Pakistani Parents Association (IPPA).
Other organizations she is involved with include the Council of Pakistan-American Affairs (COPAA), the International Leadership Foundation and Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), all of which promote active engagement of the Pakistani community in American life and dialogue between cultures.
For her work she received the Volunteer Service Award from President Obama in 2011.
Read our interview with Anila about her work here.
Mohamed Amin Ahmed
Mohamed Amin Ahmed is a Somali-American who runs a gas station in the Twin Cities. When he grew sick of the repeated cases of radicalization in his community in Minneapolis, he decided to do something about it. So he founded the ‘Average Mohamed’ organization to counter the extremist message through short animated videos.
“The extremists are having their conversation with our youth,” he told Clarion Project in an interview last year. “No parent talks to their kids about extremism because no parent believes their child can become one. Average Mohamed is about bridging that gap, getting that conversation by guiding it.”
The videos focus on issues like being comfortable with multiple identities and highlights peaceful messages within the Islamic tradition.
His organization is also engaged in direct community outreach, visiting schools, mosques and madrassas, as well as events like the Somali Independence Festival.
Check out his website to see his work.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz
Stephen Schwartz is an Islamic scholar and Sufi Muslim who has dedicated his career to exposing radical Islam. He is the Executive Director of the Washington based Center for Islamic Pluralism, which puts forward a moderate and tolerant approach to Islam as well as highlighting the activities of extremists.
He has a special section on his website entitled “Wahhabi Watch” where he critiques the spread of the austere Saudi-backed form of Islam known as Wahhabism and which, when implemented in the political sphere, results in human rights abuses.
Check out his website here.
Muhammad Fraser-Rahim has over a decade of experience working for the U.S. government in roles countering extremism, including for the Department of Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center, on highly sensitive counter-terrorism matters.
He has also worked throughout the Middle East and North Africa, most recently in the Horn of Africa for the U.S. Institute for Peace as an expert on countering violent extremism and as senior program officer.
He is a PhD candidate specializing in Islamic Thought, Spirituality and Modernity at Howard University.
Now he has joined the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation to head up their operations in North America.
Quilliam produces high-quality research aimed at combating the extremist narrative as well as conducting outreach to the Muslim community and speaking out against extremism in the media.
“As a descendant of the indigenous African American Muslim community, whose families made great sacrifices in America, our story is one built on resilience, the fostering of trust and of dialogue across multiple viewpoints,” he said on accepting the role which he started at the beginning of April. I look forward to furthering this time honored tradition, rooted in my historical past and envisioning it further in the future with Quilliam.”
Sarah Haider is the co-founder of and director of development for the Ex-Muslims of North America.
The group “advocates for acceptance of religious dissent, promotes secular values, and aims to reduce discrimination faced by those who leave Islam.”
It provides a support network for those who choose to leave the faith and helps the fight against the discrimination they may face from family members and former friends who are angry at their decision.
“We started with the goal to build communities for ex-Muslims and that remains one of our main goals” she told Areo Magazine in a December 2016 interview. “As you may know, it’s difficult for apostates to be open about their lack of belief. They face a lot of social stigma from friends and families and from their broader communities. Many of them are immigrants themselves so it’s difficult for them to fit into the broader American culture.
“When you leave religion there is a loss of both your religion and to some extent your cultural identity. We wanted to mitigate this sense of loss, so we decided to have in-person meetings to foster community. We screen people before they come in to protect privacy and provide anonymity. The goal is to provide them with a support network where they can feel comfortable being themselves. Since then, more people are coming out and being open about their apostasy. Recently, we’ve embarked on a project to make videos about people who want to come out as open apostates and share their experiences. We want to show the wide variety of ex-Muslims and their experiences.”
Her work however does not aim to take on Islam in general, and Ex-Muslims of North America states unequivicoally “We do not wish to promote hatred of all Muslims. We ourselves were Muslim. Many of our families and friends are Muslim. We understand that Muslims come in all varieties and we do not and will not partake in erasing the diversity within the world’s Muslims.”
This grassroots work is largely unpublicized but has made an invaluable difference to the lives of many ex-Muslims.
Check out their magazine, The Ex-Muslim, the only one of its kind.