Fighting radicalism: Los Angeles Times offers glossy look at new Muslim efforts in Sweden

It's one thing to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. It's another thing to ignore or gloss over what could very well be darkness. The Los Angeles Times comes close to the latter in its feature on Muslim efforts at peace in Malmo, Sweden.

The article begins with the three-year-old Islam Academy, which attempts to make young students not only better Muslims, but better Swedes.

In other words, this is a madrasa with a difference:

Like other madrasas, as Muslim religious schools are known, the academy teaches the Koran, traditional Sunni Islamic spirituality, sharia law and Arabic.
Unlike many, it also teaches secular topics. Among them: the Swedish language, nature and sports activities, and social responsibility. The last of these includes interreligious dialogue, especially with the Jewish community.
"All our education programs have the effect of immunizing our youth against radicalization," said Barakat, a 34-year-old imam, who was sitting in his office above the academy's prayer hall dressed in a pale, ankle-length robe and skullcap.

The story, which was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, continues with a briefing on Malmo, the point of entry for most immigrants to Sweden. "About 20% of Malmo's 300,000 people are Muslim, making it one of the most Muslim cities in Western Europe," the Times says.

But the Rosengard district, where many of the Muslims finally settle, is the focus of this story. Rosengard was the site of riots in 2008 and 2011. Many outsiders regarded the area as a "no-go zone," hazardous for non-Muslims.

Clearly, the goal of this Los Angeles Times piece is to change that image:

For a "no-go zone," Rosengard has a surprising amount of green space. Rolling, grassy lawns with well-maintained playgrounds surround blocky, high-rise apartment towers. Tidy kitchen gardens flourish next to the main entrance of many buildings.

Well, OK, then how did the neighborhood get a reputation for radicalism?

The Times has a pretty familiar answer: a "wall of economic, religious and political isolation around Rosengard":

"The radicalization of youth is largely based on their being frustrated and made to feel like outsiders," said Barakat, the imam. "We have to address the social reasons for radicalization if we want to work in the long run for the society we would like to see."

The article also tells us of other efforts to help young Muslims in Sweden. There are two settlement houses for teenage boys who are orphaned or separated from their parents.  There's Ibn Rushd, a community development organization that helps maintain the landscaping in Rosengard, with government money.  And there's Coexist Malmo, an interfaith group with Jews, Buddhists and Christians as well as Muslims like Barakat.

But he's most optimistic about his own Islamic Academy as an antidote against appeals by Daesh (another name for ISIS):

"They would never be able to recruit anyone from our group," he said, "because we equip them with the knowledge and methodologies to counter any argument from groups like Daesh. More than this, our youth are effecting positive change by stopping other youth from joining extremist groups."

Wow, what an interesting narrative! Let's hear from some of those youth trained at the Islamic Academy. How did the school change their minds? How did they change the minds of others? How many have thus far been turned away from the path to violent jihad?

Meanwhile, how many students are there in this school and how is it funded? You know, let's ask some basic reporting questions.

Unfortunately, the story has nothing like that. No war stories. No quotes from anyone at the academy but Barakat. His ideas sound brave and bold, but the Times gives us no way to know if they work.

Another big neglected matter is the larger reason for the Islam Academy: the level of violence and hatred among some Muslim residents in Rosengard.

As you might expect, this article is pretty specific on bigotry against the immigrants: "Last year, there were dozens of arson attacks on refugee settlements throughout the country after the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist party formed in 1988, published the addresses of the settlements."

Little is said about bigotry by the immigrants. For that, we have to look to reports like a CBC story on anti-Semitism in Malmo.

"There have been 137 anti-Semitic incidents reported to authorities in Malmö the past two years," says the report, which ran in May. It adds that the Simon Wiesenthal Center warned Jews in 2010 and 2015 not to visit Malmo.

Toronto-based CBC also tells of an hour-long documentary by Swedish television: "A Swedish journalist put on a kippa, sat at an outdoor café and wandered into Rosengaard. He was called a Jewish Satan, and people threw eggs at him from their apartments."

To be sure, CBC doesn't blame all Muslims in Malmo -- it says one of them, Siavosh Derakhti, even crusades against anti-Semitism there. But he is swimming upstream. The Jewish community in Malmo has "shrunk by 50 per cent to about 1,000 in the past 10 years," according to the network. And the rabbi of the town's synagogue tells CBC that the Jewish community's very existence is threatened.

This kind of hate doesn't come from unemployment or "marginalization" of Muslim immigrants. It comes from what the youths are taught about another faith groups.

But the Times article only obliquely admits this -- saying that young Muslims like Barakat seek to link Islamic communities with "some of the groups that Muslims from repressive societies must learn to tolerate in a culturally diverse democracy."  

Salahuddin Barakat richly deserves praise for trying to teach Islam plus tolerance, minus the violent hatred that infects jihadi propaganda. Other Muslim leaders have urged this, but Barakat is doing it. If it is still too early to show that this Islamic Academy is succeeding, using basic on-the-record facts, then that's OK. The Times editors just need to say so.

It's vital to remember the difference between aims and results. And to remember the reason for lighting candles.

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