In the hours that followed the recent explosions in New Jersey and New York City, Mohammad Ali Chaudry could only think one thing:
“Don’t let it be a Muslim. Oh God, don’t let it be a Muslim.”
By the following Monday, Chaudry’s worst fears had been realized. Law enforcement officials had identified a suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, and solicited the public’s help in tracking him down.
Not only was he a Muslim, but the bombing suspect was also a longtime resident of Elizabeth, N.J.
For Chaudry, who has spent the past 15 years working to eradicate extremism from within New Jersey’s Muslim community, the news came as an “utter shock.”
“Frustrating, the most frustrating,” Chaudry told Yahoo News last week in Elizabeth, where he and group of other local Muslim leaders had gathered to denounced the recent attacks.
“When you find people in your community that could be involved in something like this, it’s just unbelievable.”
Like Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, Rizwan Farook in San Bernardino, and the Tsarnaev brothers from the Boston Marathon bombing, Rahami — who was
Though the investigation into his alleged terrorist activities is still in progress, he, like the others, appears to be what law enforcement officials call a homegrown violent extremist: a person radicalized in his home country and inspired — as opposed to directed — by a foreign terrorist organization, such as the Islamic State group or al-Qaida, to carry out a violent attack.
According to the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, 75 homegrown violent
During their first one-on-one debate this week, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were asked how they plan to tackle the growing threat of homegrown violent extremists if they are elected this fall.
It’s a question Chaudry has been trying to answer for the past 15 years.
A Pakistani native, Chaudry moved to the United States in the late 1960s following his graduation from the London School of Economics. He got his PhD at Tufts and spent the next 30 years climbing the corporate ladder at AT&T, where he held several senior financial positions.
It wasn’t until after he retired in 1998, however, that Chaudry found his true passion.
In October 2001, one month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Chaudry co-founded the Center for Understanding Islam in his longtime home of Basking Ridge, N.J. — a largely white, upper-middle class community where AT&T was previously headquartered. Not content to simply condemn the terrorists’ actions — which Muslim leaders around the country promptly did in the wake of 9/11 and have done after subsequent attacks — Chaudry sought to combat Islamic extremism through education, helping both the general public and Muslim Americans themselves better understand the religion of Islam.
Over the next two years, Chaudry and CUI co-founder Robert Dickson Crane — a senior adviser to former President Richard Nixon as well as former deputy director of the National Security Council and longtime Muslim activist — embarked on a mission to visit as many mosques as possible throughout the state of New Jersey and present pose a question to the congregants: “If somebody comes to your mosque, even your own imam, and you hear them say something hateful about another group, will you stand up to him?”
“I can tell you, at that time, people were not standing up,” Chaudry said. “The point was, we wanted to make sure every mosque leadership knew that they had a responsibility to set the tone for the message that was being delivered in their mosques: how we have to treat others, how we have to treat each other.”
Over the years, Chaudry continued to expand his audience. An adjunct lecturer in business and economics at Rutgers University since 2004, in 2007 Chaudry launched a free, 10-week course on Understanding Islam and Muslims at Rutgers’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Now, he says, “that has become my passion, and it’s the only course I’m teaching on a regular basis.”
In 2011, Chaudry founded the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and, as its president, has worked to facilitate communication between local religious leaders and law enforcement. He’s an active member of organizations such as the
As part of the effort to defuse tension between law enforcement and local Muslims, Chaudry boiled down his 10-week class into an hourlong lecture tailored specifically to police, addressing questions such as whether or not it’s OK for an officer to instruct a woman to remove a hijab in order to identify her during a traffic stop (yes) or why a young Muslim man might avoid making eye contact out of deference, not disrespect.
Nearly two decades after retiring from his first career, Chaudry has found a greater purpose.
“If I can help a few more people every year understand a little bit more about Islam, I think we are making progress,” he said. “If I can do something that will help, maybe on the day of judgment, when God asks me, ‘What did you do to serve your faith?’ I’ll have something to show.”
Since embarking on his post-9/11 quest to implore New Jersey Muslims to stand up to hate, Chaudry has anecdotally observed that people are much more willing to come forward.
According to a 2016 FBI report on
Still, there continue to be those like Rahami who — even after his father reported suspicions about him to FBI — manage to slip through the cracks.
“When something like this happens, you have to sort of ask yourself, ‘How can you prevent it?’” Chaudry said. “You, as an imam or president of a society, cannot become a law enforcement person. You can’t go and start investigating people.”
That’s why, in recent years, Chaudry has begun to broaden his focus, beyond encouraging those who may be able to report potential extremists, to trying to prevent young people from becoming radicalized.
It’s not enough to just “keep our eyes and ears open,” said Chaudry. Muslim leaders “need to make sure our programs are geared toward not only teaching the basics of our faith but also listening to young people.”
While “unfortunately, there is no easy way to know what people are thinking,” he said, religious leaders and teachers can still find opportunities to find out where their students stand simply by talking to them, listening to their questions, and paying attention to their answers.
When students raise red flags by asking questions or making comments about Islam that are “way off,” Chaudry said, “the role of the teacher or the imam in the mosque” should be to “open the door for them to express their concern … find a way for them to feel that they’re being heard, and then come up with a response.”
Take Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he said, pointing to
Regardless of whether he was kicked out or not, the incident clearly offered a glimpse into Tsarnaev’s mindset at the time. Instead of dismissing him, Chaudry suggested that, in a situation like that one, an imam should try to understand the person’s perspective and combat misinformation.
“You have an opportunity to teach them,” he said.
At the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, Chaudry is constantly thinking of new ways to engage ICBR’s youth in ways that go beyond religious schooling.
Right now, he’s particularly excited about the newest addition to ICBR’s youth program: a public speaking and leadership course.
“No other mosque that I know of does this,” he said of the weekly program, launched this September, which has since attracted a dozen or so high school-age boys and girls — some of whom don’t even attend the mosque.
Chaudry credits his own early exposure to public speaking with giving him “the level of confidence in myself to be able to speak” publicly as an adult, and he often tells his students about the first time he ever spoke in front of an audience. It was in the sixth grade, and his assignment was to deliver a speech about the philosophy and importance of a famous Pakistani poet. His teachers helped him write the speech, but it was up to Chaudry to memorize it.
“I didn’t know anything about the subject,” he said. But when it came time to deliver the speech in front of his classmates and teachers, Chaudry was prepared.
“‘I can’t believe how much confidence this little guy has,’” he recalls overhearing one of his teachers remark as he took the podium. “That has never left me.”
In addition to offering lessons from his own life, Chaudry brings in professionals from Toastmaster International to lead lessons in both public speaking and leadership skills.
Much as gang prevention programs use after-school activities to keep “at-risk” kids off the street, Chaudry believes its important for the Muslim community to “engage with our young people in that way, give them an opportunity to express themselves, and hopefully we can then keep them on the straight path.”
Through initiatives like the public speaking program, Chaudry hopes to give young people not only an outlet but, in a much broader sense, the “tools to succeed in life.”
“If they’re successful in life, they wouldn’t be distracted by negative things, right?” he said, suggesting that radicalization and terrorism are really economic issues.
“When people have enough to have a home, be able to send their children to decent schools, have a job to protect, why would they think about committing terrorism? There’s so much at stake,” he said. “It’s only those people who don’t have anyone, they feel they’re completely lost or they have nothing to live for who think in those [ways]?”
That’s why, Chaudry said, he also regularly invites young, successful Muslims to speak to his Sunday school students. A couple of weeks ago they heard from a young female pharmacist. Before that, an engineer told them about how he came to the U.S. from India as an exchange student and eventually decided to stay and raise a family.
“My goal is to raise their expectations,” he said. “I want them to be proud of themselves, proud of being Muslims and proud of being an American.”
“That, to me, is very gratifying,” he added, though the latest bombing incident serves as a reminder that his work is far from finished.
Still, he said, he isn’t discouraged. Instead, he approaches each new attack as an opportunity to expand his outreach and, hopefully, learn something new. Unlike most terror suspects, Rahami is still alive following a shootout with police, meaning the lessons of this latest attack could quite possibly be gleaned from the suspect himself.
If he were given the chance to talk to Rahami, Chaudry said, “My only question would be, ‘What was the pivotal point in his life that made him even think about doing this?’”
Then, he continued, “I want to know, how can I prevent that? How can I prevent people from reaching that point?”