Friday, November 11, 2016

Muslim Fundamentalists, Terrorism, and the ESL Classroom -don't over react but some good things to know

In my last post, I wrote about the few but documented links between terrorism and refugees. As I stated there are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Of these approximately 3.3 million live in the USA. Since 2002, until 2016, the USA has resettled an estimated over 250,000 Muslim refugees. (See: and Although the US Government agency the U.S. Refugee Processing Center ( ) does keep much more detailed information, this information is indeed difficult to sort through and make sense of.  (According to their website, “The Refugee Processing Center (RPC) is operated by the U.S Department of State (DOS) Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).”)

Clearly, not all these people are dangerous. In fact, few are. And although Islamic Jihadi terrorism is frightening, hence the word “terror” in “terrorism,” and thus catches the attention of the public and the media quickly, it is actually quite rare, at least in the USA. But it does happen. But it’s important to remember that it does not involve most mainstream, ordinary Muslims who have no more desire to place a bomb in a public place or shoot up the office Christmas party than you or I do.  In fact, reliable sources show a low approval rating for terrorism among Muslims in general. ( )

Yet these things happen. So, here’s the million dollar question, if most Muslims are not likely to be involved with terrorist activity, then what sort of Muslim is likely to be involved with terrorist activity? We hear the term “radicalized” a lot, but what does that mean? “Radicalized” into what?
And why in the world should an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher care?
Because fundamentalist Muslims reach out to newly arrived refugees seeking converts to their doctrines and school of thought.

Although I can find little documentation of this in the USA, it is document to happen in Europe and Germany in particular. And in today’s globalized internationalized society, what one faction of a group does on one side of the world is likely to be copied on this side of the world as well.
For instance, we have this Reuters article:
The key paragraph is:
“Germany's domestic intelligence agency has recorded more than 320 attempts by Salafist Muslims to contact refugees last year, often by offering food, clothes, free copies of the Koran and help with German to asylum seekers living in shelters.”

We also have this article from the National Review, admittedly a conservative, right wing publication but generally quite respected even by many of the critics of its ideology.

Additionally, there is this article from the Wall Street Journal which discusses how in Germany, on one hand, occasionally Jihadists and wannabe Jihadists reach out to the local Muslim refugee community, on the other hand, the Muslim refugee community, often quite weary of violence, often turn these people into the authorities.

Recently I had a pair of student enter the classroom whose behavior struck me as quite strange. Basically, they were cold, stand-offish, did not appear to be trying to learn English, often did not participate in class activities with the other students, and wished to bring unregistered relatives to the class to sit in. This was not allowed in my program so I could not let them in and did not.
The whole thing was quite strange and disconcerting and a little difficult to explain.

I could not shake the feeling that they were pretending not to know English.

Of course, I reported the problem to my boss who responded in a manner I consider unprofessional and will not detail here. I began to feel a bit like William Shatner in the classic Twilight Zone episode with the monster on the airplane wing (,000_Feet   )  

It was admittedly bizarre-sounding claim. Why would anyone pretend to not know English and enter a basic ESL class?

The motive is seeking contacts who are at an unstable point in their life in order to seek converts. The link below explains this. Please note it says that most such people are harmless, although they are religious fanatics who might look down and be hostile to people who do not share their views. (People such as ESL teachers.) As stated in the above Reuters article, many such fundamentalist fanatics believe that the entire world of mundane worldly affairs is beneath their notice and not worthy of much attention and instead prefer to focus their lives and attention on spiritual affairs. Some however are indeed potential Jihadists.

Many of these people are devotees of a school or doctrine within Islam known as Wahhabism or Salafism. Although I am not qualified to write of this doctrine and its controversies in detail, many sources, including PBS’ Frontline documentary (PBS not exactly being the world’s most right wing media outlet by the way) credit as the ideological source of much of Jihadi terrorist thought.  ( See: ) although others question this view. ( see: )

How can an ESL teacher recognize such Fundamentalists?
First, don’t expect them to identify themselves. It’s a bit like asking a Fundamentalist Christian if he or she is a Fundamentalist Christian. In such a case, you’re likely to get some answer like “Oh no, I just believe in the Bible and Jesus” or “I’m just a Christian who follows Jesus” or “I just believe in the Bible and follow Christ and its teachings.” It’s the same thing here.

According to Maher Hathout, a senior adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California, as quoted at:

Well, the word "creed" is important because the creed of Islam is the same: the belief in one God, the belief in the oneness of his message, the oneness of the human family. And the devotion to God should be expressed in human rights, good manners, and mercy, peace, justice, and freedom. No two Muslims will argue about this creed. It is documented in the Koran as the highest authority, modeled by the authentic teaching of the prophet, and the authenticity has always been subject of study and debate.

So the creed is crystal clear. But the interpretation or the way you approach life, which should be a dynamic thing, should change from time to time. When you freeze it at a certain period or at a certain interpretation, problems happen. I know that people called it Wahhabism; I don't subscribe to the term. [Muhammed bin Abd al-Wahhab] at his time was considered a progressive person.

If you freeze things at his time -- which was the eighteenth century, or the late part of the seventeenth century, I don't remember the dates exactly -- it becomes very stagnant and very literalist. And a very straitjacketed puritan approach that does not cater to the changeables and the dynamics of life. People call this Wahhabism.

Saudis, by the way, never say, "We are Wahhabis." They say, "We are just Muslims." But they follow the teachings, and the major booklets taught in all schools are the books of Muhammed bin Abd al-Wahhab. Anyone who's subscribing to someone else is not very much welcomed.”

Although Maher Hathout refers to Saudis here, I think the same would apply to most Muslims regardless of nationality.

So, if you can’t ask and get a useful answer, what are some tips on how to recognize Fundamentalist Muslims who might be worth keeping an eye on. (More on this later.)

I don’t have any cut and dried answers, but a couple tips.

First, while most Muslims pray five times a day and do so while bowing towards Mecca, they tend to do this on a loosely defined, flexible schedule. If you have a classroom break, and a Muslim prays, don’t be alarmed. That’s something Muslims do, it makes them happy, and it hurts no one anywhere. It might even help a few people.

However, Salafist Muslims, like the students in my classroom, pray on an exact schedule. (  or  ) By contrast these students will ask for a break at a specific time and then ask you to accommodate them. They may, like these students, set their smart phones so that a call to prayer goes off during your class, disrupting it.

Obviously, this is not desirable in the classroom, but because a religious issue is involved, handle it with discretion.

Two other tips. Although not always, a large number of such people will have a connection to the Saudi Arabian Peninsula and the nations there. These nations include  Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as parts of southern Iraq and Jordan. Note that few of these countries, with the possible exception of Iraq, are likely to produce refugees so such folks will probably not be refugees.

Secondly, it should go without saying that these folks will probably be dressed in  conservative Muslim dress. This might include burkas but does not always.

So, what do you do if you see Fundamentalist Muslims in your classroom?  Well, first thing is relax. Take a deep breath. Fundamentalist Muslims, and for that matter Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and even Scientologists, all have a right to learn English. And most members of these groups, yes, all four groups, are not bad people. And, perhaps, getting them out among the general public (and I consider ESL students to be the general public) and away from their little insular communities could help them broaden their horizons and expand their outlook a little. Stranger things have happened.

On the other hand, if there’s something really suspicious, what should you do? Well, based on my experiences one option is to go to your supervisor. On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that your supervisor probably does not know much about these issues and you may find yourself accused of “Islamophobia,” “racism,” “paranoid thinking,” and worse.  Therefore I would recommend that you consider going to the authorities if you have a strong suspicion concerning the behaviors of some Fundamentalist Muslim students. Most large police forces have someone with an interest in homeland security issues, several federal agencies take an interest in such matters, and here in New York State we have our own Homeland Security agency that keeps tabs on these things. Once you tap into that network, they’ll help guide you to the right people if you have a reasonable basis for suspicion and explain yourself well. Before you do, collect your facts, think about why, exactly, what you saw bothered you, and you’ll make the process smoother for all concerned including yourself.

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