Profile: Generation Change
by Sheila Musaji
Back in 2009, Shahed Amanullah wrote Confronting Online Radicalization of Muslim Youth in which he said:
The recent arrests of five American Muslim youth in Pakistan on suspicion of attempting to join militant groups there has provoked deep concern about the existence of homegrown extremism among Muslim American youth. Until recently, it was believed that this was a problem confined to other Western countries such as the UK. The fact that several Muslim Americans have recently surfaced in Somalia and Pakistan among militant groups demands immediate action by the Muslim American community.
The good news is that those Muslims who espouse militant ideologies no longer find a physical home in mainstream Muslim America. For example, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born imam who cheered on the Fort Hood shootings, became ever more radical in his ideology and teaching after leaving the United States and colluding with Yemeni extremists. Similarly, the New York-based al-Qaeda supporting extremist duo that calls itself “Revolution Muslim” has been reduced to heckling mosque-goers from the sidewalk.
The bad news is that after being chased out of the Muslim mainstream, those Muslims leaning towards extremism have found sanctuary on the Internet. There, militants have been able to exploit visitors’ religious illiteracy and social alienation better than their moderate brethren and recruit people to join their cause.
Those Muslims who have found themselves immersed in radicalism have two primary traits in common: a strong aversion to U.S. policy in Muslim countries (which, it must be stressed, is in and of itself not extremist) combined with a profound “identity complex” with respect to what it means to be a Muslim American. The combination of the two creates susceptibility to extremist interpretations that both provide both an identity and a means (albeit violent) to push back.
The best possible antidote then, to Muslims falling prey to extremist thought is to craft and propagate a compelling Muslim American narrative that instills pride and purpose among susceptible minds, and to connect them to mainstream efforts to address U.S. policy in Muslim countries.
Those Muslims exploring violent tactics need to be convinced that it is more effective, moral, and Islamic to defend Muslims overseas through lawful means, and this education needs to happen where they spend the most time searching for answers - namely, the Internet. While Muslim Americans should be commended for moving towards a zero-tolerance policy towards extremist rhetoric in their mosques, they have unfortunately not fought these ideologues on Internet forums where anti-radicalization efforts are most needed.
It is understandable why mainstream Muslims haven’t engaged extremists on the Web. For one, it is distasteful and difficult work, and it is easy to fall prey to the notion of “out of sight, out of mind.” Second, there remains widespread fear that ordinary Muslims who participate in dialogue on extremist websites may themselves be targeted by authorities on suspicion of terror-related activities. I have discussed this dilemma with the highest levels at the Department of Homeland Security, and while there is consensus that this perception is a problem, little has been done to date to address it.
However, there are also other ways to confront aggressive ideologies online. First, we can cultivate an online Muslim presence that is far more sophisticated and engaging to those Muslims who are exploring their identities. Second, we must create online venues where those Muslims troubled by U.S. policies in the Muslim world can join together and engage constructively with lawmakers to help bring about the changes they seek. Third, we must shake any fear of being somehow “less Islamic” than extremists and turn the tables on them through sound scholarship and articulation of principles that speak to the heart of Muslim youth.
It does seem unfair at times that mainstream Muslims are called upon to lead the fight against extremism in our midst. After all, similar injunctions are not made on African-American or Latino communities regarding criminal elements that operate from within their communities. But those of us who believe that Islamic tradition is a noble, life-affirming one need to exhibit the same (or greater) energy as those who see it as a constant vehicle for confrontation, and take the struggle to the Internet where they now find sanctuary.
Shahed went on to help establish just such programs to counter online radicalization.
Spencer Ackerman reported on one of those programs Viral Peace in the article Newest U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy: Trolling in which he noted that:
“Viral Peace is being developed by Shahed Amanullah and uses internet trolling to to annoy, frustrate and humiliate denizens of online extremist forums. Viral Peace, seeks to occupy the virtual space that extremists fill, one thread or Twitter exchange at a time. Shahed Amanullah, a senior technology adviser to the State Department and Viral Peace’s creator, tells Danger Room he wants to use “logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them.” Think of it as strategic trolling, in pursuit of geopolitical pwnage.” Ackerman also noted that: “In an interview at a Washington coffee shop near his State Department office, Amanullah explains that online extremists have “an energy, they’ve got a vitality that frankly attracts some of these at-risk people,” Amanullah says. “It appeals to macho, it appeals to people’s rebellious nature, it appeals to people who feel downtrodden.” Creating a comparable passion on the other side is difficult. But it’s easier if the average online would-be jihadi has his mystique challenged through the trial by fire that is online ridicule.”
Viral Peace is one of the programs listed in our TAM list of programs countering The False Claim that Muslims have no programs to counter radicalization.
In 2010, the U.S. Dept. of State Official Blog published Generation Change: The Next Generation of American Muslim Leaders by Farah Pandith:
Last night, the Secretary hosted the State Department’s annual Iftar to commemorate the breaking of the day’s fast. The Holy Month of Ramadan is a time when Muslims fast from sun up to sun down, and it is period of deep reflection and prayer but also a time to do more than usual for your community.
The 8th floor of the Department of State was buzzing when I arrived. Many folks were out on the balcony enjoying the view and waiting to break their fast. This year’s Iftar included a special emphasis on the young generation of American Muslims. Why the generation under the age of 30? Over half of the nearly 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet are under the age of 35, and we want to do more to build stronger long terms partnerships with these young people. Our embassies around the world are focusing on engagement with this young generation of Muslims as well; whether in Muslim-majority countries, or nations where Muslims are a minority, we are finding ways to build partnerships and share ideas.
Prior to the Secretary’s Iftar, I hosted a special event for 75 young American Muslim change makers—a slice of America that I call “Generation Change” —young, vibrant, idea-filled “doers”. These Americans are poets, entrepreneurs, technology gurus, comedians, musicians, grassroots leaders, activists, and designers, to name a few. They are out-of-the box thinkers and agents of change both domestically and internationally. After several guest speakers charged with setting the mood—Naif Al Mutawa, the creator of The 99 comic books; Herro Mustafa, subject of a film called American Herro; the co-producers of New Muslim Cool, Hana Siddiqi and Kauthar Umar; and comedian Ahmed Ahmed—the group broke into three separate “think tanks” to discuss issues of religion, culture, identity, and global affairs. Hearing their insightful discussions, I was once again struck by the passion and potential of these young leaders.
Someone asked me where the idea came from to do this “Generation Change” event, and I told them about the Secretary’s commitment to reaching out to young people all over the world. In a video message created specifically for these young people and played at the “Generation Change” event, the Secretary encouraged them to become their generation’s leaders and stated her belief in their potential to change and shape the world in a positive way.
Notably, many of these youths are using technology to move ideas forward. Their ability to amplify the power of traditional community organizing with new media will allow them to lift their voices beyond their own geographic or cultural boundaries, and their ripple effect will make waves. I hear from young people in America and young people around the world that these networks of change makers can be a launching pad for action.
As we went upstairs to the Iftar, many of these young agents of change were talking to each other about how to keep the momentum going, and I was thrilled to see how excited they were about connecting with each other. Some of them were seated at the Secretary’s table and talked to her about their work and passions.
After the call to prayer and the breaking of the fast, the Secretary spoke to these young leaders and other Iftar guests about America’s commitment to values going back to the very beginning of our nation, recalling a quote from George Washington. Looking around the room, she said the “real story of Islam in American can be found in this room and rooms across America.”
It was a great day, and I feel honored to have met such a tremendous group of amazing young people. I can’t wait to see what they will do going forward.
Following the recent terrorist attack in Nairobi, I noted in an article about Muslim responses to this Al-Shabab are criminal terrorists not jihadis:
... Shahed Amanullah has sent this message. You may read about the terrorist attacks on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and think there is nothing you can do. There’s always something you can do. While al-Shabaab goes on a rampage, using vulnerable Somali youth as cannon fodder in the process, Somali youth leaders like Mohamed Ali are busy mobilizing Somalis to push back. A few weeks ago, he launched a Generation Change chapter in Mogadishu (Generation Change Mogadishu), and inspired 50 of his peers to work on projects that rebuild the country and take it back from the extremists. The Generation Change Kenya chapter in Nairobi is also doing great work in this area. Please give them your encouragement, your advice, and your support so that they can show the extremists that these youth won’t be manipulated anymore for evil ends.
Generation Change is a youth-led global network dedicated to empowering the next generation of innovators and leaders. It provides a platform for the free exchange of ideas across borders and cultures, and a community of peers and mentors who use their collective resources to positively impact communities locally and globally. Generation Change hopes to build a strong network of young leaders who… are positively influencing their communities now and will continue doing so in the years to come. This network can provide a forum for exchanging ideas and creating projects that can have impact on a global scale, both through offline events and online connections. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared members of Generation Change in the United States “unofficial ambassadors on behalf of our country.”
Shahed has a video explaining the Generation Change project on YouTube
These are the sort of programs that have a chance to compete against the destructive narrative being promoted by the extremists. See The False Claim that Muslims have no programs to counter radicalization for a list of other such creative and innovative programs being carried out by the American Muslim community.
Shahed Amanullah Engages Uganda Youth on Networking Through Generation Change http://www.thecommunityagenda.com/index.php/youth-a-woman-voices/72-american-expert-engages-uganda-youth-on-networking
Shahed Amanullah Visits Dublin to share Generation Change http://dublin.usembassy.gov/news/events-outreach/shahed-amanullah-visited-dublin.html
Generation Change Uganda Chapter Launch http://kampala.usembassy.gov/remarks_11012012.html
Muslim rappers: Inside the US campaign against militant memes, Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-10/10/us-campaign-to-fight-militant-memes/viewall
US Embassy launches Generation Change Gambia Chapter http://thepoint.gm/africa/gambia/article/us-embassy-launches-generation-change-gambia-chapter