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Muslim Leaders Grapple with How to Protect Their Youth

At one of the largest mosques in the United States, Muslim leaders are trying to create a safe haven for young people to learn Islam's lessons about peace.

Muslim leaders are trying to create a safe haven for young people to learn Islam's lessons about peace
Muslim leaders are trying to create a safe haven for young people to learn Islam's lessons about peace

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At one of the largest mosques in the United States, Muslim leaders are trying to create a safe haven for young people to learn Islam's lessons about peace. But can those leaders protect their youth from the doubts that lurk within them?   Muslim leaders renewed efforts following the arrest of five American Muslims in Pakistan who allegedly tried to join terrorist groups using the Internet.

It's a battle of bodies and for minds on this basketball court just outside Washington. It's Tuesday night at the Adams Center, one of the largest mosques in the U.S.  The young people here are hard at play, and the Muslim elders are hard at work trying to keep them engaged in positive activities.

After basketball, the younger kids meet for Boy Scouts.  And after Scouts, hundreds gather for evening prayers.

It's a tense time for the Muslim leaders, following the arrest in Pakistan of five young Americans from a neighboring community. The young men are being held on suspicion of links to terrorist groups.

Sajjad Ahmad is the sports league coordinator at the Adams Center. He describes his reaction to the arrests. 

"Happy because I think the parents and the community took the right actions but sad because members of the Muslim community, kids that I might have crossed paths with at some time, got into that false ideology," he said.

Ahmad says one of the center's top missions is getting youth involved in mosque activities.

"They need to invest in activities where the youth can come and relate in a non-religious manner so that involves religion, they know where they need to come back to.  "You know, I was playing basketball with so and so and so maybe I can go ask him or her,' and that resource gets embedded in their head," he added.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik is a Muslim community leader in the Washington area.  He says young Muslims are often confused by disturbing Internet images of their brothers in faith being killed in conflicts, and that one of his community's greatest challenges is helping young people interpret current events. 

"And that is where the Internet comes in and says, 'Your imam, your community, your youth center, your family, none of them have an answer for this," Johari said. "But we have an answer and we feel your pain."

Abdul Malik says Muslims face a modern challenge beyond shielding their young from traditional dangers like drugs and crime.

"We have safeguarded them from the terrestrial threat of all the bad influences in their environment.  But we did not protect them from something that was inside of them that was connected through the Internet," Johari explained. "That is the next level of our fight against what I would call an enemy."

"Many of young people are vulnerable to being preyed on," said Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.  Awad helped broker talks between the FBI and the families of the young men arrested in Pakistan. He says Muslim leaders had already started looking at dangers on the Internet before the men went missing. 

"On the Internet, the other side is trying to exploit people's feelings, and they give them instructions on how to do wrong things and we have to give (them) tools and manuals also on how to stay cool and level-headed and stay reasoned and don't get yourself and others in trouble," Awad said.

At the Adams Center that discussion has started too.

"We are telling parents, 'Hey this is what was available on the Internet, this is what your kids are able to do and some basic tips on if you want to increase security this is how you can do it," Ahmad stated.

What's most important, says Ahmad, is keeping young people in the game of peaceful resolution, what he calls a true teaching of Islam.

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