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Muslims leaders partner with tech companies to counter militants

The Wall Street Journal reports on efforts like those of 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. Qadhi recently participated in 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 Islamic State, the fundamentalist militant group that has seized control over a large swathe of northern Syria and western Iraq.

It wasn’t one of the group’s infamous brutal beheading videos. It was just a ‘feel-good’ clip of a handsome young fighter visiting his wounded buddies in a hospital to cheer them up. But it was the first time many of the event’s attendees were seeing what they’re up against, and the video made quite an impression.

“It’s a battle of hearts and minds taking place online,” Qadhi said.

It’s more than that. Federal authorities have prosecuted nearly 30 individuals in IS-related cases in the past year and a half, and cases involving possible IS supporters have been opened in all 50 states, FBI Director James Comey revealed last month.

“[IS] 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. 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.”

“The [pro-IS] 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.”

It’s not just YouTube that’s getting involved. Facebook and Twitter are also providing training and advice to American Muslims and advocacy groups to boost the effectiveness of their social media outreach programs.

This is not without risks, as the recent IS threat against Twitter employees in response to the San Francisco-based company’s decision to close thousands of IS-related accounts demonstrates. But those engaged in the online fight against extremism insist such efforts are necessary, and a peaceful way of combating violent extremism.

“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.

One of Turk’s contributions to this peaceful war against Islamist extremism is a series of online videos in which he interviews shaykhs, or Islamic scholars, called “Shakes with Shaykhs,” 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.”

In the series’ first episode, host Fouad Elgohari engages in an informal restaurant conversation with two prominent imams, or Muslim leaders, about how Muslims might respond to violence committed in the name of Islam, as well as about love and marriage. All the participants are dressed in jeans and T-shirts.

“It brings Islam to a place that youth know and understand,” Mr. Elgohari said. “We can be normal. We can go out with our imams and kick it.”

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