The terrorists who call themselves the “Islamic State” are abusing the name of a religion that teaches peace and tolerance, creating a cycle of misunderstanding and fear that only feeds the violence, Muslim leaders and federal law enforcement officials said in a forum Tuesday night at Loyola University.
The “True Islam and the Extremists” forum at Loyola was organized by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a reform branch of Islam with more than 10 million adherents worldwide, estimated to represent about 1 percent of the Muslims in the world. The Ahmadiyya are known for their longstanding condemnation of terrorism and support for religious freedom, and have embarked on a new publicity campaign to educate the American public about “True Islam” — with assistance Tuesday night from U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite and Jeffrey Sallet, the FBI Special Agent in Charge in New Orleans.
“Groups like ISIS and other terrorist organizations perpetuate falsehoods, perpetuate false stereotypes about America, that we are engaged in a war against Islam, all with the goal of recruiting individuals to engage in terrorism,” Polite said. “The response, unfortunately, domestically is an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric which plays directly into the hands of those terrorist organizations. Not only that, it oftentimes incites acts of violence against our Muslim brothers and sisters.
“That is a cycle of hatred that is self-perpetuating, and all of this is happening in a country, the United States, that was founded on the principle of religious freedom,” Polite said.
A central part of the forum was a series of minute-long videos intended to dispel myths about “true Islam,” combating negative stereotypes associated with the religion. Citing the Quran for every point, the video explored the ways that the Islamic religion promotes equality of women, religious tolerance, “separation of mosque and state,” and condemns violence.
“What terrorists do in the name of Islam is in reality in furtherance of a nightmarish alternative universe,” the video’s narrator said.
Following the videos, Imam Mubasher Ahmed of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community delved further into why the acts of ISIS and others are against the teachings of Islam. Much of the perception of Islam is being driven by extremists who misrepresent the religion, Ahmed said, making it more important for the rest of the community to speak out.
“Everything that we see in the newspaper in the name of Islam is absolutely and clearly against the teachings of Islam,” Ahmed said.
For example, the terrorists are notorious for their suicide bombings. But the Quran describes suicide as a sin from which there is no redemption, Ahmed said, so such acts are expressly prohibited by it.
“How can these sins upon sins make you glorious and take you to paradise?” Ahmed said.
One questioner from the audience asked how the Muslim community can stop the terrorists from using the name “Islamic State,” since it seems to suggest a wider acceptance of their extremist beliefs. Ahmed agreed that the name is a problem.
“It’s very unfortunate that they are using this ‘Islamic State’ in their name, because there is nothing ‘Islamic’ going on over there,” Ahmed said. “They are going against the teaching of the Quran … and therefore they are also obeying what the devil has said.”
Sallet, the FBI Special Agent in Charge, said he only refers to the group as ISIS for that reason. Islam is better represented in America by groups like the Ahmadiyya Muslims, he said.
“What you say is what I wish I saw in the media every day, because your messaging would hit home in America,” Sallet said.
Freedom to worship in safety should be a crucial part of American life, Polite said. This month, the U.S. Department of Justice will be conducting training sessions in Louisiana to help houses of worship be alert to threats and respond to them.
“We all understand that safety in one part of our region requires safety in another part of our region,” Polite said.
In one poignant moment, a young boy from the audience asked for an explanation of who the men were who flew planes into the buildings in New York on “Patriot Day,” referring to the events of Sept. 11, likely close to a decade before he was born.
“Unfortunately, they were all Muslims,” Ahmed said to the boy.
Sallet told the boy that it is sad fact of life that terrorists can emerge out of any thinking, any worldview or religion, and it is the duty of all people of conscience to work to stop them.
“Terrorism is a perversion of people’s thoughts in any way, shape or form,” Sallet said, citing cases such as Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. “We all have a community obligation to rise above negativity and to work together. People do bad things, but most of the world is filled with good people, and all good people need to get together to keep people safe.”
To read our live coverage of the forum, see below.