CAIRO – Leaders of the American Muslim community have been campaigning to counter militants’ use of social media and online recruitment to reach young Muslims, cooperating with tech companies to win over the hearts of youth.
“It’s a battle of hearts and minds taking place online,” Yasir Qadhi, a Muslim scholar who teaches at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee and who has a large following on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, was quoted by the Digital Journal.
Qadhi, who received death threats from the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) recently, is one of Muslim leaders who are teaming up with leading tech companies in a bid to fight extremism.
He was speaking during a YouTube-hosted Los Angeles gathering of dozens of Muslim leaders, social media experts and activists dedicated to fighting violent online extremism.
YouTube described the event as “a workshop for creators and nonprofit organizations” interested in countering extremist groups on the Internet.
A US State Department official spoke before the showing of a slick propaganda video produced by ISIL in which a handsome young fighter is seen visiting his wounded buddies in a hospital to cheer them up.
Seeing the propaganda video for the first time, many of the event’s attendees said it made quite an impression.
“The [pro-ISIL] extremists and the fanboys, they’ve devoted their lives” to producing propaganda, YouTube event attendee Shahed Amanullah, who recently co-founded a Virginia tech incubator for online businesses serving Muslim youth, told the Journal.
“All the good people have lives. We go to work and school. We’re not 24 hours a day in mommy’s basement.”
FBI Director James Comey said that these recruitment videos targeted youth troubled souls.
“[ISIL] in particular is putting out a siren song with their slick propaganda through social media,” Comey told the National Association of Attorneys General winter meeting last month.
Comey summarized the IS recruitment pitch as, “Troubled soul, come to the caliphate, you will live a life of glory, these are the apocalyptic end times, you will find a life of meaning here, fighting for our so-called caliphate. And if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are,” adding that this insidious message “resonates with troubled souls, people seeking meaning in some horribly misguided way.”
Facing propaganda tools on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, some Muslims have developed their own peaceful war on ISIL.
“We want to push back against the notion that Muslims are somehow writ large under the lens of suspicion and therefore fall into this self-fulfilling prophecy that makes them feel marginalized and therefore more susceptible to the message of extremists,” Jihad Turk, president of Bayan Claremont, the Islamic graduate school at Claremont School of Theology in Southern California, told the Journal.
Leading personal efforts against ISIL, Turk launched a series of online videos in which he interviews sheikhs, or Islamic scholars, called “Shakes with Shaykhs.”
The series is loosely based on Jerry Seinfeld’s online series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
Turk said the videos are meant to “promote a mainstream understanding of Islam” and promote “normative views of Muslims.”
Hosting Fouad Elgohari in the first episode, the host engages in an informal restaurant conversation with two prominent imams about how Muslims might respond to violence committed in the name of Islam.
“It brings Islam to a place that youth know and understand,” Elgohari said.
“We can be normal. We can go out with our imams and kick it.”
An earlier Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans Muslims are loyal to their country and optimistic about their future in the United States.