The Fort Hood shooting in November and the arrest of five Virginia young men in Pakistan in December have shocked many Americans in a different way than 9/11 did. The terrorists in the 2001 attack were Islamic extremists from abroad, but the suspects in the two recent cases are American Muslims raised and educated here in the States. Even though it’s not clear whether the Fort Hood suspect was motivated mainly by his religious belief, the case with the five Virginia Muslims is definitely clear: despite their middle-class upbringing and higher education, they are still susceptible to twisted logic of extremism and the recruitment effort by terrorist organizations. Why?
To find out how American Muslims and their communities are wrestling with the question, I talked to Farha Tahir, a graduate student at the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been actively involved in the national American Muslim community since high school. She was a recipient of the Gamaliel Chair in Peace and Justice in 2003 for her interfaith work.
In the first part of our conversation, Tahir talked about her coming-of-age after 9/11. Born in India in a Muslim family, Tahir grew up in Milwaukee and attended the Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, an all-girl Catholic high school. She was a freshman and had just started wearing a headscarf when the Trade Center attacks happened. It was an important moment for her in part because it forced her to think “OK, whether I like it or not, I am now defined by this group in some ways. How do I change that to let it be something positive rather than negative?” She started to be active in the interfaith interaction in Milwaukee, especially with the Jewish communities.
Interview with Farha Tahir, part 1 of 3
In the second part of the interview, Tahir discussed her struggle to understand the Fort Hood shooting and the Virginia case. The Qur’an itself should not be blamed for the suspects’ actions, she insisted. “If I sat down and read exactly the same text as they did, I know I will not find anything justifying what they did.” The problem is with the way they internalize the text and their experience. “We need to make a more explicit effort to address these things from a young age so that people understand that this [terrorism] is not OK by any means.”
Interview with Farha Tahir, part 2 of 3
In the final part of the interview, Tahir talked about the self reflection at the community level among American Muslims. She admitted that there was an it-can-never-happen-to-us mentality in the community. The Virginia case “was a reality check for us, just as 9/11 was a reality check for us as a country.”
Interview with Farha Tahir, part 3 of 3
How do you understand the Virginia case? How should American Muslim communities and non-Muslim communities respond? We welcome your comments and questions.