On the same day experts at a conference in Minneapolis discussed the scope and scale of extremist social media messaging, Twitter shuttered 235,000 accounts promoting terrorism.
As many as 90,000 tweets are sent daily supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to estimates. Most experts believe the most convincing counternarratives come not from institutions such as the State Department, but from individuals — especially if they’re everyday citizens.
Like Mohamed Amin Ahmed and his cartoon creation, “Average Mohamed.”
It’s a series of short cartoons countering the extremist media so many Muslim young people encounter. The animation — which can be watched on averagemohamed.com, YouTube and several social media sites — features Average Mohamed negating the nihilist violence of ISIL and other groups with what Islam truly represents. Cartoon titles include “A Muslim in the West,” “The Bullet or the Ballot,” and “Identity in Islam,” among others.
“Kids are looking at the world,” Ahmed, the 40-year-old father of four from Minneapolis, said in an interview. Ahmed, who was a panelist at last week’s “Peacebuilding Approaches to Countering Extremism” summit hosted by Global Minnesota, said extremist media is omnipresent.
“These kids are very curious and aware of it, get access to it — the good kids and the bad kids all watch it,” Ahmed said. “The goal is to say, ‘It’s just propaganda: Here is the narrative; this is what your faith really believes in, whether it’s about suicide bombers or women’s rights. And we’re saying these are our values and what the majority believes.’ ”
The counternarrative is “competition, fair and simple,” Ahmed said. “We are Americans. We love to compete.”
That’s not the only American value important to the Kenyan immigrant. Most of the cartoons have Hindu, Jewish and Christian children among Muslims ending with the mantra: “Remember: peace up, extremist thinking out.”
“The goal is to show the entire community, and the goal is to say: ‘We are here, and we want this pluralistic version of the world, we don’t want this fanatical version of the world,’ ” Ahmed said.
Ahmed is not naive about how keen the competition is from the well-financed ISIL.
“They have a budget — I don’t,” he said: “We aren’t fighting men in caves anymore. We’re fighting state mechanisms, people who collect taxes, control land and also have an army — these are states. And here comes people like me, who is an average guy — I’m a gas station manager — trying to compete.”
The good guys could use a lot more “average guys,” George Selim, director of the Office for Community Partnerships in the Department of Homeland Security, said in an interview the day before speaking at the summit.
Selim is a fan of “Average Mohamed.” “I love the concept,” he said. “I think the more organic content can be produced, disseminated, and distributed far and wide ... the better. I would like to see another thousand ‘Average Mohamed’-type campaigns or efforts begin.”
Separately, Ahmed used that same number during the discussion when he challenged visiting Tunisians as well as others worldwide to contribute counternarratives.
“I’m recruiting,” he exclaimed.
“Countering violent extremism here at home means law enforcement investigations and prosecutions, of course,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said at the summit. “But to truly get at its roots, we need to build communities here at home and abroad. Our Muslim communities are in particular our most critical defense against homegrown terrorism. They are on the front line; they are going to see it first. Whether it’s the school kid, whether it’s on the internet or whether it’s on the streets. As a former prosecutor, I saw firsthand how it works when you have a community that’s looking out for each other and responds.”
Indeed, ISIL and other extremists would be no match compared with the force multiplier of the vast majority of peaceful people if they amplified messages like Ahmed’s. He believes many more are capable of offering their own unique voice to the fight.
“I’m an average guy. I can’t claim any degrees, or philosophy, or master’s or Ph.D. in anything,” Ahmed said. “The only thing I can claim is that I know how to wash toilets very clean, so that’s why I am a manager at a gas station.”
But of course Ahmed is anything but average, as evidenced by his extraordinary story, which has caught the attention of the Associated Press, PBS, Fox News, the New York Times and USA Today, among others. Just this week he was contacted by “60 Minutes.”
Yet Ahmed retains the retinue of Minnesota modesty, much like the American values he has internalized.
“I’m Minnesota to the core,” Ahmed said. “We’re nice people. Minnesota taught us to be active; don’t take a free ride in society, do something for your society, think of yourself as a member of the human race.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.