Islamists, Refugees, and Islam: Solving this problem requires honest leadership by Jason Criss Howk

For the last six months I have been on a speaking tour in North Carolina to discuss ISIS, Islam, and Islamism.  I have learned so much from these events and hopefully I have been able to dispel many myths about the religion of Islam and the Muslim people.  Just as important, our discussions helped to give us all insights into the type of threat’s presented by deadly-violent radical Islamist groups like ISIS and their ilk.

I decided to capture some key concepts from these discussions and publish them so they can be shared with a wider audience.  This is a personal heart-felt article and not intended to be a scholarly-work that puts you to sleep.


America and the world require leaders that are intellectually honest and can speak clearly and frankly to the free citizens that are facing violence from radical Islamists.  Leaders must use precise language to describe the threat facing the planet because the populace is smart enough to understand the difference between the ideology of radical Islamism and the religion of Islam.

Failing to use precise language confuses Americans and can lead to illogical and harmful ideas.  Failure to use precise language causes hundreds of millions of moderate Muslims around the world (our natural allies in this struggle) to question our intellect and dedication to helping them get rid of the violence from radical Islamists.  Two administrations in a row have failed to explain clearly what we are facing.  We must not have a third.

If you know a group that could benefit from this discussion please contact me.

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Islamists, Refugees, and Islam: Solving this problem requires honest leadership

Jason Criss Howk | December 2015

“Islam is not a religion of peace or war.  Islam is a religion, just like any other.  Peace and war depend on one’s interpretation and ends.”

-Dr. Abbas Kadhim, President, The Institute of Shia Studies

Since retiring from the U.S. Army, where I spent over 20 years focusing-on and working in the Broader Middle East, I have endeavored to share my understanding of that region and Islam with my fellow North Carolina citizens.  Through a series of speaking engagements I have gathered some useful insights into what our leaders at the Federal and State level can do to help Americans to better understand what is happening overseas and in our own communities.  The importance of honest and intelligent leadership as the world deals with a massive refugee crisis and the rising violence from deadly-violent radical Islamist groups cannot be emphasized enough.  I am especially grateful for the insights into the scholarly works and ideas of various Islamic sects that I have received from my trusted post-grad school professor Dr. Abbas Kadhim who was kind enough to review this article and share his thoughts.

The goal of my talks are to help Americans differentiate between the religion of Islam and the twisted culture of deadly-violent radical Islamists that distort the ideas of Islam to justify the murder of anyone that doesn’t think like them. The innocents being murdered daily are most often Muslims and that is a fact lost on many observers.  While many see the recent Paris attacks as a wake–up call or call to action I think we need some more focus from world leaders on the scope and specific nature of the current enemy of the world.

My discussions focus on a few basic ideas about the Middle East and my audiences are 100% non-Muslim with very little experience in the Middle East region.  Most of them have also never met a Muslim.  After talking about ISIS and their beliefs I explain a few key terms that they have likely heard in the news such as Islam, Sunni, Shia, Jihad, Sharia Law, Islamists (both theoretical and deadly-violent radical killers), Salafism, and Wahhabism.

When I describe the contents of the Quran and point out the frequency in which the stories of Noah, Moses, and Lot are recited there is surprise.  When I tell them that the evil activities they hear of violent radical Islamists conducting are not founded in the Quran but come from so-called “religious authorities” twisting the truth, they are again surprised.  The most important discussion we share is about the concept of Islamism and how its adherents want to join religion and government power into one leader.  They learn that some radical Islamists are more than willing to inflict deadly violence on innocent people to bring about this ideal if political methods fail.

In the end the audience begins to understand that Islam is a religion separate from deadly-violent radical Islamists that twist the ideas of Islam to suit their quest for power.  This is a fact that moderate Muslims around the world know all too well but is of course not obvious to American citizens.  It’s not known by the average American likely because our federal leaders are naively worried that non-Muslims are not intelligent enough to grasp that difference.  I have found them more than smart enough to understand this distinction.

“Most of their murderous ideology is based on unauthentic Hadith that is written in certain books and cherry-picked by demagogues who pass it on to extremists.  These Islamists, with no knowledge of the nuances of Islamic scholarship, use this false information to fuel their rage.”

-Dr. Abbas Kadhim

World leaders must explain the difference between Islam and those who distort if for their own gains to their citizens to tamp down the xenophobia of Muslims and anyone who even remotely looks like a “typical Muslim.”   Believe me there is no typical Muslim look in this world.  When leaders take every opportunity to say Islam has nothing to do with current barbaric acts while the killer is screaming Allahu Akbar, holding a rifle, and waving a Quran the citizens stop listening to them.  Leaders must give Americans the benefit of the doubt because in my experience they can easily comprehend this distinction that is common knowledge in the Muslim world.  People can easily see that the current radical-killers are justifying their atrocities with a twisted version of Islam that they have been taught to believe (or choose to pretend) is the straight path to heaven.

“In fact, Islamist extremists often base their conduct on the precedents made by the conduct of certain tyrants in Muslim history.  They found these tyrants glorified in history books and some of them are even described as companions of the Prophet.” 

-Dr. Abbas Kadhim


An enlightening part of my talks is when I post a list of ten Arabic-sounding names and ask the audience to tell me what percentage of names are names of American heroes and what percentage are terrorists?  After about 30 seconds of silence the audience always responds the same—there is no way to tell.  I explain that the list contains the names of 5 of the most deadly Islamist terrorists and 5 Americans or Afghans that served their country with honor in the fields of defense and intelligence–one hero earning a medal for valor, one keeping me safe for a year, and one giving his life for his country.

A humorous part of my talks is when I recap going to Mosque with my Islamic studies professor in California.  I equate the experience to growing up in a Baptist church in the south.  The services started with a prayer and some song-like recitations.  Then someone introduces the service leader and there is the standard passing of the plate for tithes.  Then of course more prayer and song ensues.  After the main sermon was given we were asked to turn and shake hands with those around us.  Finally we had a closing prayer and all filed out past the preacher shaking his hand on our way to some food and fellowship in the hall next door.  The similarities between some Muslim services and many protestant ones are actually closer than I or my audience ever expected.

The question and answer portion is always lively yet respectful because people feel safe to ask honest questions about Islam without being branded ignorant or a bigot.  Two thoughts from this portion of the talks often reverberate in my brain.  The first was a question posed by an older gentleman that didn’t know anyone that was Muslim.  He asked how he would know if his new neighbor was a good or bad Muslim.  We all agreed that the best way to learn about any new neighbor was to talk with them and invite them over to your house so you can welcome them to the community.  As there are good and bad varieties of every type of human group the only way to find out where someone stands is to interact with them.

The second most striking comment came from a protestant pastor in the audience.  He said, in an innocent and not suspicious way, that he has noticed the Muslim people in his community often congregate together and he often sees them in large fellowship groups after they leave the Mosque.  He noted that they seem to be isolated from the others in the community.  After some discussion we agreed that one of the simplest ways to stop seeing them as isolated members of the community was to talk to the Mosque leader and hold a joint fellowship on a Saturday between the Friday and Sunday religious services of the Muslims and the Christians in the neighborhood.  I hope that preacher has followed up on the idea that he really seemed to like.

What I have learned the most from these talks is that our citizens are not hateful towards Muslims they just don’t know anything about Muslims or Islam.  I fault political and religious leaders from all corners as well as their own absence of curiosity for this lack of understanding.  People are busy and life gets in the way so our leaders must clearly explain critical issues facing the world.

It is time that leaders in the West give a lot more credit to the intelligent and moderate Muslims across the world and the patriotic yet unacquainted citizens in America.  The moderate Muslims are being slaughtered by deadly-violent radical Islamists everyday so it’s OK if we tell the moderates that we will side with them in their battle to rid their region of these killers.  By continuing to try to erase the part Islam plays in the current era of terrorism you don’t weaken the deadly radical Islamists instead you weaken the hand of the Moderates who need an intelligent partner to face these radicals.  You also confuse the citizens in the West because it seems like you are trying to lie to them and hide the fact that the Muslims of the world are working through a very difficult problem.  That problem is how to stop the growth of deadly-violent radical Islamist ideology.  We should be honest and support the moderates and be clear to our own people about what we are doing.


“Your take on the Islamist extremist’s relationship to the Quran is right.”

-Dr. Abbas Kadhim


We should not expect Muslims to apologize every time some killer slays innocent people just like no one asks Christians or Hindus to monitor and apologize for any crime done by their co-religionists.  But, deadly-violent radical Islamists like ISIS and AQ have declared war on the world.  So we should expect that the world unite to stop them.  We should all also remember that Muslims are often their primary targets.

Standing up to evil is hard but not optional.   We need leaders on both sides of the political divide to find the common ground that best protects Americans and extends the hand of humanity to this massive refugee migration.  Hyperbole about Muslims and understating the magnitude of the radical Islamism issue are both unhelpful to finding a solution.

In this time of expanding radical Islamist violence, when ISIS is telling us they have inserted operatives into the migrating refugee population, and homeland security and FBI officials are telling our congress that there are gaping holes in the immigrant screening process I think it’s prudent for all nations to ensure careful screening of any immigrants coming from regions of the world that host radical Islamist terrorist problems.  We shouldn’t demonize congress for wanting to guarantee the most recent group of refugees is properly screened.  If a simple guarantee from the Executive Branch makes Americans more comfortable with the process then a law requiring such guarantees is not onerous.  The citizens are asking for some clarity and logic and our government should provide it.

With the Executive Branch dropping off refugees with 3rd party agencies in various states and not informing the Governors of the location or number of refugees you can see why governors are trying to preempt the refugee drop-offs.  If we really want to ensure new citizens are integrated into the society then our state governments must be part of the process of welcoming them.  As we have seen in Europe a failure to assimilate large populations of new immigrants creates major security risks and criminal problems.

If our federal government assures us that the newest immigrants that came to our shores are here to seek a new life and avoid persecution at home then we must be satisfied.  America has always provided a safe haven for refugees willing to assimilate and work hard.  Muslim Immigrants, like many others, are capable of both those tasks but we must work even harder to ensure no group feels isolated or threatened.  Likewise all new immigrants just like immigrant groups of the past must respect our separation of religion from the government in America.

The world must unite and stand up against these murderers by specifically targeting and undermining their radical interpretation of Islam.  We have stood up to murderous regimes and groups in the past whether they were Russian Communists, National Socialists (better known as Nazis), or the Japanese Empire that marauded the Pacific region.  Tyrants will always rise and free people that believe in human rights and human decency will always be called to put them down before they murder scores of innocent people in the name of better governance and society.

This time is no different.  Deadly-violent radical Islamists around the globe are at war with the entire human society that does not share their beliefs—and this definitely includes every Muslim that will not bow to them.  We cannot worry that some of the nations (both Sunni and Shia) of the world that we need to combat deadly-violent radical Islamists might be Islamist leaning themselves.  Even they know that violence in the name of religion is wrong and they must be persuaded to get on the right side of the war that ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and their ilk have declared.

When I was a boy in the 1980s my mom, then a nursing student, brought home a class text on world religions. After reading that book from cover to cover I did not pay attention to the few differences between the major world religions I focused on the many similarities.

Since then I have prayed worldwide in Mosques, Synagogues, Temples, Churches, Cathedrals, and Pagodas.  I am a Christian, was raised a Baptist, and come from a long line of protestant preachers.  Protestants that were ironically not so welcome in France by a religious group called the Catholics a few centuries ago.  What I have learned traveling the world and living among Muslims for extended periods is that you cannot judge anyone by their religion, just like looking at their physical characteristics is pointless. The true measure and intention of a man comes from hearing his thoughts and observing his actions.

Praying in a Mosque to your God, reading the Quran, and having Muslim friends does not mean you have lost your religion.  It means you are strong in your own faith, are a bit more educated for reading another point of view, and you have gained some of the most loyal friends you will ever know.


I have found the words of one of our most gifted Presidents useful every time I draw a rash judgment about another person.  Maybe it can help others.

“I don’t like that man.  I must get to know him better.”

–Abraham Lincoln

Jason Criss Howk is a retired U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer and his opinions do not represent the U.S. Government.  He is a Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies, holds a MA in Middle East and South Asia studies, was a term-member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a lifelong student of religion, culture, and terrorism.  Jason writes and speaks regularly about leadership, strategy, national security, foreign policy, and defense issues. Find him on The Strategy Bridge, Task& Purpose, and Dispatches from Pinehurst.

Tweet @jason_c_howk or email

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