Countering violent extremism [Commentary]

Earlier this month, 28-year-old Todd Wheeler Jr. of Glen Burnie was arrested on charges of making explosives. Had they detonated, the radius of the blast could have caused extensive damage, deaths and injuries.

Also this month, Ellicott City resident Mohammad Hassan Khalid was scheduled to be sentenced for conspiring to aid terrorists. Mr. Khalid was a bright teenager with a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University at the time of his arrest two years ago. His attorney said Mr. Khalid's actions were influenced by his youth and mental health issues.


Messrs. Wheeler and Khalid represent a small but concerning segment of the population who have conspired to commit or aid in committing terrorist acts. There is no easy answer for what compels people like them to venture out on the dark path that leads to destruction, loss of life and prison. But the more important question is: "How can they be stopped?" This requires frank dialogue, and not only examination of factors that promote terrorism, but also our individual and collective roles in preemptive intervention.

Radicalization leads to extremist ideologies. However, it is important to note that the main threat to our national security is when radicalism translates into violence or acts of terrorism. Biased media reports have helped shape the false perception that Muslims are more likely to engage in acts of terrorism because Islam is a "violent religion." Yet, of approximately 180,000 murders committed in the U.S. between 9/11 and Jan. 1, 2013, just 33 can be attributed to Muslim-American terrorism.


Terrorists comprise different religions and ethnicities. Terrorist mastermind Anders Breivik, responsible for the 2011 Norway terror attacks that claimed 77 victims and injured 151 others, identified himself in his manifesto as a "Christian crusader" who aimed to preserve Norway's traditional Christian values. The tired narrative recycled through media and public discourse that paints the biggest threats to our national security as foreign or Islamic entities must be laid to rest.

Specific passages in holy texts are often cited as proof that organized religion encourages violent behavior. However, cherry-picking verses and isolating them without proper context to justify terrorist acts committed for political or personal gain is unethical, inaccurate and misleading. Comprehensive education regarding religious doctrines is crucial to understanding any faith. Religious leaders and trusted figures of authority must vocally condemn loss of innocent life and emphasize living in harmony.

Unethical counter-terrorism strategies must be examined and revised. Warrantless surveillance of law-abiding citizens and racial/religious profiling have become standard practices employed by federal agents. As a result, houses of worship — once safe havens — are emptying under scrutiny. Parents fret for safety of children in a society increasingly hostile toward specific minority groups. Rather than employing ineffective tactics that alienate marginalized communities and instill mistrust, fear and resentment, government agencies must work with them to secure our nation's safety.

People who feel disempowered are susceptible to radicalization. U.S. foreign policy toward Muslim majority countries has long been a source of bitterness and frustration throughout the Muslim world. Our leaders must act responsibly to end drone strikes in countries like Pakistan and Yemen that claim innocent lives casually deemed collateral damage. Waging wars that demolish infrastructures, deplete resources, and destroy lives ultimately creates enemies who wish us harm. The prison at Guantanamo Bay is a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations that incites hostility against America. Those detainees cleared for transfer must be released, and others given their day in court so justice can be served.

Individuals of diverse races and religions suffer from mental illness. Many refuse or are unable to seek treatment. Recently, a Virginia politician's mentally ill son attacked him after discharge from a hospital that lacked beds. Educational campaigns are effective tools to counteract stigmatization. Need-based funds should be allocated to hire competent counselors and psychologists who can provide behavioral modification therapy. Our broken health care system must be fixed; not simply camouflaged to conceal its wounds, but thoroughly healed to prevent re-infection.

Everyone has a responsibility to help combat a global threat that endangers people from all walks of life. We must work to eradicate terrorism while safeguarding the rights of law-abiding citizens. Dialogue, education, and extensive outreach are key components to any strategy implemented to secure our nation's safety. But in order to be successful, the confidence, dignity, and trust of our communities must be maintained. If we can preserve these ideals and adopt a holistic worldview today, then we will be better prepared to protect our cities and meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Zainab Chaudry is a Maryland native. She is the co-founder and a representative of the Maryland chapter of CAIR, the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. She can be reached at

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