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Experts Say Strong Muslim Communities Help Prevent Radicalization

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Three men from Raleigh, North Carolina, went on trial September 19 on charges of plotting terrorist attacks overseas. They are among around 200 Muslims who have been arrested in the United States on suspicion of terrorism since the September 11, 2001, attacks. One research group says that strong mosque-centered communities may be more effective than law enforcement in preventing radicalism.

Abdulrahman Asal, 4, is all over the playground at the Islamic Center of Raleigh, after a day of pre-school here.  And he gets encouragement from his father, who is an imam at the center's mosque.

Egyptian-born Sameh Asal came to North Carolina three years ago after theological training at the Al-Azhar university in Cairo.

Asal says the Islamic Center of Raleigh is a place of peace, not a training ground for terrorists. He says it tries to combat radicalism by educating well-rounded Muslims.

"It's not just educational, we have sports going on, we have social activities, we have picnics sometimes, we have youth camps, so the youth do not feel alienated," he said.

Some think a sense of alienation is what landed three young men who attended this mosque in court.  Mohammad Omar Aly Hassan, Ziyad Yaghi and Hysen Sherifi are accused of plotting terrorism overseas.

A fourth man - Daniel Patrick Boyd, the alleged ringleader - has pleaded guilty. Prosecutors say he left the Raleigh mosque because he felt it was too moderate.

As a result of the terrorism-related arrests of nearly 200 Muslims since 2001, some Americans are wondering what goes on inside of mosques.

Inside the one in Raleigh, Imam Sameh Asal preaches about charity.

"To feed the poor and the needy, and to help others out, is also an act of worship that brings us closer to Allah," said Asal.

He says Islam teaches acceptance of other faiths, and obedience to the law of the land.

It is a message that researchers at the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security near Raleigh say is taught at mosques throughout the country.

Duke University professor David Schanzer is one those researchers. He says strong communities can do more to prevent radicalization than law enforcement.

"So a lot of things that are done whether it be opening community centers, education, food banks, things of that nature - you build a stronger community, a broader network, that's going to help make sure many people don't fall through the cracks, become isolated, and then maybe subject to this kind of open radical narrative," said Schanzer.

Since 2001, Schanzer says, many mosques have grown into multi-faceted community centers like the Islamic Center of Raleigh.

And he points to research that shows that Muslim communities themselves have been the largest source of initial information leading to the arrest of Muslim terrorism suspects in the U.S.

Schanzer sees that as evidence that the frequent condemnations of terrorism by Asal and other American imams are not just for public consumption.


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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