The Roots of Muslim Radicalism


“Too often when we think of Muslims in America we think only of the immigrant experience,” said Zaheer Ali, a doctoral student at Columbia University who studies America’s indigenous, primarily African-American and Latino, converts to Islam.  “Islam is no stranger to black art…Islam is not ‘foreign’ to hip hop.”

Ali served as an advisor for “New Muslim Cool,” a thought-provoking documentary that tells the story of Puerto-Rican Muslim convert Hamza Perez and his hip-hop group, The Mujahideen Team. The documentary was screened on Thursday, January 14, in front of an audience of approximately 100 students, professors, and members of the general public at Columbia’s Altschul Auditorium.

Sherene Razack, Professor of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, prefaced the screening with a keynote address entitled, “Western Responses to the Torture of Muslims.” While the documentary provided a powerful reminder of how religious practice can be a means to confront prejudice, drug abuse, and gang activity in the inner-city, Razack’s divisive lecture belied the more conciliatory themes of the film.

Razack began by discussing the 2004 incidents of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, insisting that the broader American public was complicit in allowing the abusive treatment of the Iraqi insurgents held there.

“Torture is permissible for people we have evicted from personhood,” Razack said, explaining that the War on Terror must be seen as an imperial project that dehumanizes its victims. “You can’t make sense of [Abu Ghraib] unless you see it in the context of imperial practice.”

Though Razack’s use of “we” would seem to imply that she also considers herself complicit in America’s “imperial policies,” she later claimed to speak for all Western Muslims in identifying with the Iraqi insurgents, not American servicemen.

“[Abu Ghraib] reminds those of us who share a culture or religion with [the Iraqi prisoners] that we are similarly valued…. We are reminded that our bodies, the bodies of our brothers and sons, are violateable [sic].”

According to Razack, torture is a “source of social integration” that is “intrinsically about engraving [Western] civilization on the bodies [of the insurgents].”  She further argued that this assertion of the superiority of Western civilization was expressed through “sexualized torture” at Abu Ghraib because of “Orientalist” claims that Arabs are “sexually repressed and homophobic.”

Razack then stated that the foundation of America’s policy in the Middle East is based on “the same old Anglo-Saxon racialist arguments that have resurfaced post-9/11 as [Samuel Huntington’s] ‘Clash of Civilizations’.”

Having conflated race and culture, Razack went on to say that the “Anglo cluster”—the US, Britain, et al.—is dedicated to “upholding white supremacy.” In this context, Razack further claimed that, “Muslim is a racial category; you can’t disassociate from it.”

Razack seemed to suggest that the current War on Terror is an irreconcilable conflict between the Islamic world and the West, with all Western Muslims identifying with the former. Ironically, “New Muslim Cool,” which was screened following Razack’s address, provided a fundamentally different perspective, portraying American Muslims as part and parcel of America’s cultural milieu.

The movie not only addresses issues in the inner-city, such as crime and drug abuse, but also promotes inter-religious dialogue. Its main character, Hamza Perez, is shown progressing from a drug dealer to an angry Muslim youth to a mature man of religion seeking dialogue with Jews, Christians, and governmental institutions.

“When I was 21 my street side died in me and I became a Muslim,” Perez tells a group of inmates at a jail in Pittsburgh at which he serves as a chaplain. At the start of the film, Perez’s lyrics voice his disdain for the establishment, with assertions like “Bin Laden didn’t blow up the projects” and “Zionist business controls America.”

However, as the film progresses, Perez finds a wife, settles down, and begins to confront his anger at the outside world. He works with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inmates, telling them, “The highest form of brotherhood is the brotherhood of companionship of people you’re with to get closer to God.” Perez explains that for him “jihad,” which in standard use means holy war, is not in fact about holy war, but about overcoming “our lower desires,” including drug abuse. The choice to include the word “mujahideen,” or practitioners of jihad, in his hip-hop group’s name reflects Perez’s own rendering of the Arabic term.

When Perez’s security clearance at the prison where he works is revoked because the FBI finds out about his earlier political activism, he realizes that he cannot escape the hateful messages he had espoused in the past. After reading a passage from an interview he gave in 2003 in which he attacked the U.S. government, Perez reflects, “I got a little raw.  That’s so young of me.”

Perez is ultimately allowed to return to his job at the prison. In a poignant scene at the movie’s end, he talks about how his moderate vision of Islam has inspired his personal progression. “The more you study the life of the Prophet [Muhammad]…the more merciful you become. If you’re not becoming more merciful and you’re becoming more harsh, then you’re not studying it properly.”

While “New Muslim Cool” periodically fails its moderate message by justifying FBI conspiracy theories and neglecting the opportunity to address the issue of radicalized American Muslims, it clearly places the onus for reform and dialogue on the leaders of the Western Muslim communities.

Razack’s message, on the other hand, portrayed Muslims, including Western Muslims, as perpetual victims of “imperial practices” and as outsiders who are prevented from integrating because of Western “racism”—a bizarre argument that took cynical intellectual acrobatics to defend. Razack’s position justifies the self-segregation of Western Muslims, which not only undermines the cohesiveness of our society, but may also perpetuate the underlying causes of homegrown terrorism.

Brendan Goldman is a senior at New York University majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, and an intern at the Middle East Forum. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

  • humboldt303

    The cause of muslim radicalism is the feeling of inferiority that Muslims have when they compare what their countries achieved in terms of economic prosperity, cultural achievements, technical inventions , social progress and man/woman relations, compared to what the Western (the free World) countries achieved.____The other root that people forget is the self-apponted propher Mohemmad himself : this guy was a violent and deranged individual who filled scores of people to impose his cult.. With such a founder, there was no way that this cult avoids ending in suicide attacks and self destruction.

    • xman

      The cause of Muslim radicalism is their failure to conquer the countries you're talking about, or losing those countries after conquering them. Muslim radicalism is as old as Islam itself. Mohammed was a monstrous Muslim radical who lived to murder and rob infidels. And the reason for the lack of achievement in Muslim countries is Islam itself. Islam is a cult whose followers are obsessed with the murder of infidels, misogyny and causing misery on a massive scale to the exclusion of everything else. And Westerners are too politically correct after almost 50 years of PC maleducation to criticise Islam, lest they be accused of bigotry and racism.

  • retiredmaj

    Of course Abu Ghraib was brought up. And what happened there was wrong. I note that we punished the guilty. (Not severely enough in my opinion, but we did.)

    Daniel Pearl's slaughter was…of course…conveniently ignored. As was the slaughter of innocent Muslims BY radical Muslims via suicide bombers in open markets, through "honor" killings, direct assassination for refusing to support terrorist activities, etc.

    Oh, and please give up on the whole "Illuminati/Zionist/Secret Societies" running the world junk. If they been doing what's been claimed for over a millenia…don't you think they'd have WON by now?

    Radical Islam is just as guily of inflicting their "world view" on people as the West. The difference is we use McDonalds instead of Semtex.

  • ando
  • cjk

    Quote of Mr. Perez from the atricle:……."The more you study the life of the Prophet [Muhammad]&the more merciful you become. If youre not becoming more merciful and youre becoming more harsh, then youre not studying it properly"…….WTF!
    The 'Sunnah' of that murderous, pedophile profit is precisely the engine behind terrorism.
    This despicable SOB Perez is a racist liar who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near imprisoned criminals.

  • nojizyatax

    As long as Muslims were slaughtering Muslims in Islamic countries, no one cared. Quite frankly, I still don't. I believe that only a willful idiot could follwo ISLAM knowing it for what it is. The Muslims have been forced out of countries before and they should be forced out again. Unfortunately, the same Europen liberal (and Americam liberal) policies that let them in will fight to protect them no matter how obvious the danger. Sectarian violence is coming to America and Europe except that the carnage will be far worse than Israel. When we hit the flash point, there will be a slaughter. The politicians had best wake up. The peoples of Europe & America do not have unlimited patience.

  • Sharbat

    If I were a prisoner of sort, would I prefer Evin prison for Abru Ghraib?

    I have no muslim blood in me that I know of; but I uttered and still utter countless brief prayers for those who protested in the Iran election and were captured and put in Evin prison. Could I endure repeated rapes – daily or months or maybe years? I understand that the inmates there suffer the same fate: rape; young or old, female or male, virgin or not.

    From what I’ve read and seen on youtube, I would prefer American soldiers as my captors anytime if I were a terrorist or a student protester. It would be like a walk in the park to go to Abu Ghraib compared to Evin prison whose guards must be having a weekly feast of sexual gratification with all the young virgins they’ve scooped from the university dorms, houses, and the streets of Tehran.

    • xman

      Abu Ghraib is now run by the Iraqis, and has been for more than two years. And Abu Ghraib would still be a walk in the park compared with Evin.

  • Indioviejo

    I believe most people are still ignorant to the threat presented to our liberty and our way of life by our muslim population. Not only do most of them are complicit to subversion, but I believe that they are potentially terrorist inside our country. We need to be prepared for the coming fight in our streets.

  • USMCSniper

    Islam is a medieval and barbaric religious philosophy, one that is fundamentally incompatible with Man's existence on earth as a free and rational being and which represents a clear and present danger to all human freedom and progress.

  • Robby Ricciardone

    Do state sites that give inmate location let you know when the inmate may be released or if they have been transferred? Are transfers part of criminal records?

  • Fred Ryno

    NEWS FLASH: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE… President Obama declares MARSHAL LAW and signs Presidential Order banning the practice of Islam in America and orders the Koran and Islamic Prayer in public to go the way of the Nazi Heil Hitler salute ordering violators be given the choice of immediate deportation to the Islamic country of their choice or arrest and inprisonment in certified internment camps in various locations in the continental United States indefinately.
    Observers immediatly protest, declaring that his actions mirror those of the German Republic prior to World War Two fearing that the next step might be the actual burring of the Holy Koran. Bummer!