To fight extremism, Obama calls on US to embrace its Muslims

  • AP, Washington
  • Updated: Feb 20, 2015 00:44 IST

President Barack Obama has argued that in the fight against violent extremism, the US has one thing going for it that Europe doesn't: a tradition of embracing its immigrants, including Muslims.

With the Islamic State group spreading and terrorists gaining strength in the Mideast and Africa, Obama has sought to use this week's White House summit on violent extremism to urge the world to broaden its response far beyond military interventions.

US airstrikes have managed to blunt some of the militants' gains in Iraq and Syria, but they don't address the extreme ideologies that underpin deadly groups such as IS, al-Shabab and Boko Haram.

"If we're going to prevent people from being susceptible to the false promises of extremism, then the international community has to offer something better - and the United States intends to do its part," Obama told the summit on Wednesday.

He planned to speak again on Thursday when delegates from about 65 countries gather for the summit's closing session at the state department.

But not all Muslim-Americans feel like full members of American society, and security experts warned against assuming the U.S. is impervious to those who seek to recruit and radicalize.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the US has largely been spared the terrorist assaults that have hit cities in Denmark, Belgium and France, growing out of radical interpretations of Islam. In the weeks since the Charlie Hebdo newspaper shootings in Paris, Obama and other U.S. figures have portrayed the U.S. as being at a lower risk.

Speaking on Thursday morning, Secretary of State John Kerry decried a "silly" media debate over what must be done to fight violent extremism, saying that all approaches from killing extremists on the battlefield to improving opportunities for disaffected youth are required.

Ample evidence suggests that Muslims in America do feel more integrated into society than those living in Europe. Often marginalized and relegated to poorer neighborhoods in European cities, many Muslim immigrants to the US have flourished as doctors and scientists and in other white-collar professions. Middle-class, predominantly Muslim or Arab-American enclaves have cropped up in places such as Dearborn, Michigan, and Minneapolis.

"That's the story extremists and terrorists don't want the world to know: Muslims succeeding and thriving in America," Obama said.

There's also reason to believe that sense of successful assimilation has offered a degree of protection against the allure of extremism. In 2011, a Pew Research Center survey of American Muslims found that just 2 in 10 Muslims in the U.S. thought there was a great deal or a fair amount of support for extremism among Muslim Americans. Roughly 80 percent said suicide bombings and other violence against civilians was never justified to defend Islam from its enemies, compared to just 8 percent who said it was sometimes or often justified.

Europe, where many Muslims or their ancestors emigrated from former colonies, is host to a much larger Muslim population. There were about 1,350,000 self-identified Muslims in the US in 2008, the last date for which Census data is available. France, by comparison, has an estimated 5 million Muslims - about 8 per cent of the total population.

In the UK, 2011 census data counted about 2.7 million Muslims out of a population of 63.1 million.

But within America's smaller Muslim population, not everyone feels they've been fully embraced by society.

Jamila Nasser, a high school student, said she rarely sees good news about Muslims in the American media. She doesn't expect a positive reception once she ventures outside of Dearborn, which has elected Arabs and Muslims to many local offices.

"For being a Muslim American growing up in America, I really don't feel a part of it," she said.

For decades, Abdirizak Bihi has been a leader in Minneapolis' large Somali community, but his work in countering terrorist recruiting didn't take hold until his nephew was recruited by the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabab and was killed in Somalia in 2008.

Bihi said Somali expatriates in the U.S. have fared better than their counterparts elsewhere.

"We have done well - better than Europe - but we have not done as much as we ought to do," Bihi said.

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