Preparing for 2012, Chicago Police Create Counter-terrorism Unit

By David Lepeska
September 9, 2011, NY Times

As the city prepares to host two international summits next year, and with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaching, the Chicago Police Department is creating a counterterrorism unit, which will bolster security and incorporate lessons from academic research and from New York City’s counterterrorism tactics.

The threat of terrorism is a real concern for Chicago officials, with world leaders expected at both the Group of Eight and NATO summits here next year. The city has been home to violent extremists and the target of terrorist plots: David C. Headley of Chicago helped to plan the deadly November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and documents taken from Osama bin Laden’s compound in May included plans to attack the city.

Last month, the police department quietly started the counterterrorism unit, which is expected to be fully operational by the end of the year,. The move is the brainchild of Garry McCarthy, the city’s new police superintendent, who was in New York with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on Sept. 11, 2001, and later helped develop the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism strategy.

Mr. McCarthy intends to bring various counterterrorism functions under a single unit, a spokesman for the department said. The new unit will also act on intelligence from the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Mr. McCarthy hopes to take a page from New York’s innovative program, though on a smaller scale. The New York Police Department has more than 1,000 officers working on terrorism, with detectives in foreign cities and with officers who speak Pashto, Arabic and other languages monitoring communication channels. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he had added nearly 750 additional officers, yet the department still has 700 fewer officers than five years ago, according to city records.

A 2008 report from the RAND Corporation, a policy institute, said local police were the most effective units in fighting terrorism because their relations with local Muslim communities could enable them to gain information and foster cooperation.

Muslims in Chicago seem willing to work with the police and to help avoid early mistakes that could undermine the new unit’s efforts. Muslims for a Safe America, a Chicago group led by Kamran Memon, seeks to address tensions within Muslim communities about American policies in this country and abroad. And the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest advocacy group for American Muslims, is active here.

The city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communication is spearheading security planning for the NATO and G8 summits, scheduled for May 15-22, and the new Chicago Police Department counterterrorism unit is likely to play a key role. Antiwar activists have already called for protests during the gatherings, and the police department has begun training thousands of officers in tactics for mass arrests and containment.

Facing the Enemy Within

By David Lepeska
From September 9, 2011, Review, of The National

Just as the attacks of September 11, 2001, proved a watershed event in the fight against international terrorism, the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden by the US on May 1, 2011 may come to mark another. Months after the Arab Spring had begun to eat away at his political stance, bin Laden's death shifted the focus of US counter-terrorism officials away from Al Qaeda and its international affiliates.

"This is the first counter-terrorism strategy that designates the homeland as a primary area of emphasis," John Brennan, President Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser and deputy national security adviser for homeland security, said at the June release of Washington's new plan.

Though the recent bombing of the United Nations compound in Nigeria by Al Qaeda-linked militant group Boko Haram is a reminder of the still-real threat, it is clear that, with bin Laden dead and some 1,200 of his soldiers, lieutenants and commanders killed in recent years by CIA drone strikes, Al Qaeda is on the decline.

Domestic terrorism, meanwhile, is on the rise, particularly in the US and UK. From September 11, 2001 to May 2009, US authorities uncovered 21 plots, according to the Congressional Research Service; in the past two years they have made arrests in connection with at least 33 more. Since 2008, no western country has arrested more people for terrorist-related activity - some 200 a year, although most suspects were subsequently released without charge - than the UK. Little surprise, then, that both countries have reoriented their security policies to focus on domestic radicalisation - how to detect it and how to stop it.

Counter-terrorism is, in essence, about killing bad guys. Counter-radicalisation, which is mainly an attempt to keep the young and disaffected from embracing extremist ideas and violence, is much more complicated. The difference is akin to the gap between rooting out Al Qaeda from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and building a secure and stable Afghanistan in order to eliminate present and future terrorist safe havens.

The former is tangible and easily measured, the latter complex, multi-faceted and difficult to quantify. So how do authorities identify potential violent extremists and break-up terrorist plots before they happen? And how do they know whether such strategies are working? For the most part, they don't.

Spurred by the July 2005 London bombings, Britain put in place the world's first modern-day counter-radicalisation strategy two years later. Called Prevent, it sought to address Muslim grievances, undermine extremist ideology with moderate ideas and support vulnerable individuals and communities - objectives also recommended in Preventing Violent Radicalization in America, a report published by the Bipartisan Policy Center in June.

Yet Muslim groups soon attacked Prevent for sponsoring spying in their communities. Other critics saw a cash cow that provided thousands of pounds in handouts for rap workshops, basketball and cricket clubs and youth singing groups - with little to show for it.

In a review released in June, the British Home Office acknowledged that Prevent had mostly failed and that some of the money had even ended up in the hands of extremist groups. Counter-radicalisation programmes, said the review, were "comparatively new and evidence of impact is correspondingly limited".

Indeed, Prevent was essentially a shot in the dark. "There is really no precedent," said Peter Neumann, author of the Bipartisan Policy Center report and founding director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College in London. "It was very experimental and they changed it this year because by and large it didn't work."

Britain plans to build on one aspect that did work. The Channel programme encourages teachers and community leaders to report potential extremists to the authorities, who then offer guidance or instruction to those at risk.

Some have accused the programme of backing spying, and 7,500 British schools opted out because they perceived an anti-Islamic bent. But of the 1,000 people who have gone through the programme voluntarily in four years, none has ever been arrested in a terrorist case.

"These close, fine-grain initiatives are really important and effective," says Aziz Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has analysed counter-radicalisation efforts in the US and UK. "I've yet to see any similar programme in the US."

The US finally dipped its toes into the counter-radicalisation pool last month, with the release of the country's first paper on the subject, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism. The White House report urges authorities to build relationships at the local level, promote immigrant integration and avoid blaming certain communities or confusing strong religiosity with extremist tendencies. Religion, says Huq, "is not playing the role many believe it to be playing". Indeed, a recent Gallup poll found that among Muslim Americans who reported they "seldom" went to a mosque, 22 per cent were politically engaged, while nearly 40 per cent of those who attended a religious service at least once a week were politically active.

Though the White House paper gets this one point right, at eight pages it is short on details. After its release, US senators Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins pointed out that it failed to name a lead agency or individual, provide an action plan or present a means to assess the programme's success.

"It's not a policy paper, it has no concrete plan of action - and that's the disappointment," says Neumann. "I would call it a statement of intent."

Ten years after 9/11 and nearly two years after Nidal Hasan, a US army major inspired by Al Qaeda-affiliated cleric Anwar al-Awliki, killed 13 in a shooting at Fort Hood, the US is still without a coherent strategy to stop people from embracing violent extremism. What's more, efforts to gain co-operation from Muslim communities are undermined by local and national informant programmes.

The FBI has built a nationwide network of up to 15,000 informants, many in Muslim communities, according to a report in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine. Agents use these informants to assist in sting operations.

"FBI agents and informants target not just active jihadists, but tens of thousands of law-abiding people, seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity," writes Trevor Aaronson. "And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity."

The New York Police Department maintains an extended regional surveillance network within mosques and Muslim community centres and receives support from the CIA. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim advocacy group, has called for an investigation into the legality of the NYPD programme and is not alone in its lack of faith in local authorities.

On average, Muslim Americans are about 25 per cent less confident than other Americans in the FBI, according to a recent Gallup poll. Some 52 per cent believe they are singled out for terrorist surveillance and 43 per cent say they have personally experienced harassment in the past year, according to a Pew poll released last week.

The end result is less co-operation and decreased overall security. "If people believe the police treat them and their community with respect and don't behave on the basis of racial and ethnic priors, they are more likely to co-operate than if they believe they are procedurally unfair," says Huq, referring to the findings of his studies among Muslim communities in New York and London.

At the same time, he adds, "people who engage in discrimination are imposing a cost on society as a whole, and that cost is a loss of security".

Yet the US might learn from British mistakes, embrace less coercive policies and work from the ground up. Dwight Holton, a federal attorney in Oregon, may have created one promising effort last year.

After Holton indicted a 19-year-old Somali-American for attempting to bomb Portland's 2010 Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, he met with a local imam and leaders of a refugee organisation to find out what had inspired the youth. As a result, he learnt the concerns of incoming immigrants and built solid relationships with the local Muslim community.

Neumann urges the US government to help attorneys across the country to launch similar initiatives. The federal government could then share information among these programmes and promote the most effective practices.

"Unlike in Britain and much of Europe, there's no point in uniform federal policies in the US because Muslim-American communities are so diverse, so different," says Neumann, citing Somalis in the US, who tend to be quite poor and may need to be taught English. "The recipes need to be different for different communities."

Both US and UK authorities must be willing to engage a diverse array of community partners in difficult and hard-to-reach environments and address concerns about counter-terrorism and foreign policies, he says. They also need to be able to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and violent Islamist extremists.

Most of the literature says radicalisation can occur in a variety of ways but generally involves: the perception of grievance, such as oppression; the jihadist narrative used online by Al Qaeda and other organisations, that western countries are waging a war against Islam and all Muslims are called to defend the religion; and the presence of a social group, often led by a charismatic leader, to nurture such ideas.

Other specifics, including the role of religiosity and key instigating factors, are more difficult to grasp, but politicians and top officials are working to find more answers.

In July, the House sub-committee on terrorism examined the Bipartisan Policy Group's report, with Neumann as the primary witness.

On Tuesday, the House intelligence committee plans to hold public hearings with its Senate counterpart, the head of the FBI, the national counter-terrorism director and other top intelligence officials to examine the US position on combating the growing domestic threat.

And in Britain, the updated Prevent strategy has shifted its focus to education, identifying 40 universities where students are at risk of exposure to extremist views, to healthcare, hoping to train doctors to identify vulnerable youths, and to the internet.

As such efforts continue, British and American attempts to counter and interrupt the process of radicalisation are likely to improve. Yet considering the complexity of the problem, finding solutions may take some time.

"Counter-radicalisation is about trying to inoculate communities against the appeal of violent extremism," says Neumann. "In order to do that you have to first understand what drives people to this choice, and there's no clear-cut answer to that."



Muslim activist puts his faith to work in Chicago's troubled Southside

By David Lepeska
Cover story in May 20, 2011 Review, The National

On a cool, grey April morning on Chicago's South Side, Rami Nashashibi walked purposefully into the conference room of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (Iman) and sat at the head of a rectangular table, where four of his charges awaited instruction.

"I can't explain how much you have on your shoulders," Nashashibi, wearing loose-fitting jeans, a knitted skullcap and a comfortable sweater, told his men. "What we have right now is a little seed, and if we want that seed to become a great forest, we've got to cultivate it."

Nashashibi has been cultivating Iman for nearly 15 years. Today the organisation provides just about everything to those in need in Chicago Lawn, a predominantly African-American neighbourhood with a mix of Latinos and Palestinians. Its free clinic serves the sick from across the city. A computer lab offers technical training. Tens of thousands of people go to its annual concert benefit, Takin' It to the Streets, while its bimonthly music and arts gatherings are well attended. One project supports healthier eating alternatives for the area; another reduces gang violence. A new initiative, Green Reentry, builds eco-friendly houses for Muslims recently released from prison.

Iman's work has earned plaudits for its leader. In 2007, Islamica magazine placed Nashashibi among the 10 Young Muslim Visionaries Shaping Islam in America. The next year he was named one of the world's 500 most influential Muslims by Georgetown University and described as "the most impressive young Muslim of my generation" by Eboo Patel, chairman of President Barack Obama's interfaith task force. Last autumn, the US state department sent Nashashibi on a diplomatic speaking tour of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this year, Iman received another honour: Imam Habib Umar, the director of Dar Al Mustafa, based in Yemen's Hadhramaut Valley, and among the world's top institutions of Islamic education, spent an afternoon in Chicago Lawn as part of his first North American tour. He visited the organisation's Transitional House, where Muslim men recently released from prison stay until they can get on their feet, and delivered a speech on spirituality and community accountability. "The most beloved of God's creatures are those who are most beneficial to others," Umar had said, thanking Iman members for "fulfilling a communal obligation upon all Muslims".

Nashashibi balances a commitment to Islam, an intellectual rigour and an unstinting morality with the style and mannerisms of the street. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago, where he teaches, and has worked in high-security prisons and some of the city's roughest neighbourhoods. On the South Side, he is friendly with shopkeepers, businesspeople and political and religious leaders and trusted enough by school administrators to be called in to mediate student disputes.

"We must serve humanity by serving the creator in the most humble way possible," Nashashibi advises the men in the conference room. "What we do on all levels continues to represent the larger project. You're being watched now by Habib Umar. People around the city, around the country, around the world, are hearing about our work."


Nashashibi was born in Amman, Jordan, where his father, Ali Maher Nashashibi, produced a show for a local radio station. His mother - born as her family fled Palestine in the Nakba of May 1948 - grew up in Chicago, the eldest daughter of one of the first Palestinian families on the South Side. She met Ali Maher at university. The couple soon married and moved to Jordan.

Shortly after Nashashibi's birth, Ali Maher became a Jordanian diplomat and moved the family again, this time to Romania. The couple had a second son but divorced when Nashashibi was nine years old. He lived in Spain, Saudi Arabia and Italy with his mother and stepfather during his teenage years, until moving, at 19, to Chicago. Yet he remains connected to Jerusalem, where his family name has been highly regarded since at least 1469, when Sultan Qatbay of the Memluk sultanate appointed Naser el-Deen Mohammed al-Nashashibi to guard Palestine's two holiest mosques, Al Aqsa in Jerusalem and Al Haram Al Ibrahimi in Hebron. A general in the Memluk army, Naser al-Deen is said to have built an arcade in the Al Aqsa courtyard that still stands today.

About a century ago, Uthman and Raghib al-Nashashibi, second cousins of Rami Nashashibi's grandfather, represented Jerusalem in the Ottoman parliament. In 1920, the British governor appointed Raghib as mayor of Jerusalem - a post that threw his Palestinian nationalism into doubt. He fled to Egypt amid assassination attempts in 1938. But in December 1948, shortly after Israel had become a state, Jordan's King Abdullah named Raghib his first governor of the West Bank.

After graduating from Chicago's DePaul University in 1995, Nashashibi went to Birzeit, just outside Ramallah, to work with local youth for a year. His visit was illuminating and inspiring, but Nashashibi knew what he wanted to do and returned to Chicago.

His work on the South Side had begun two years prior, soon after he met Abdul-Malik Ryan, another DePaul undergraduate. Originally an Irish Catholic from suburban Oak Park, Ryan was studying African-American history and had recently converted to Islam. "From the very beginning Rami was very charismatic," says Ryan, now DePaul's Muslim chaplain. Nashashibi asked him to help out at the Arab-American community centre in Chicago Lawn.

They started working there, providing odd jobs for teenagers and daycare for younger children. "From there it was a step to have our own organisation, identified as Muslim," says Ryan, who co-founded Iman with Nashashibi.

Iman's reputation grew quickly. Its inaugural Takin' It to the Streets concert, held in Marquette Park in 1997, raised $15,000. "We thought we were millionaires and started nine programmes, with only one staff member," Nashashibi recalls.

"When we first started we were all young, we didn't know that much," adds Ryan. "We were kind of basing it all on enthusiasm."

Nevertheless, they began to make an impact on the neighbourhood, although, even today Chicago Lawn is no urban oasis. In early May, a 17-year-old Iman intern was shot in the back just a few streets away from the organisation's office. "We're not working in Disneyland," says Nashashibi. "This place, it'll test your mettle."


Metropolitan Chicago, with a population of nearly 10 million, has long been one of the US's most racially sensitive cities. In the so-called Great Migration, from the early to mid-20th century, millions of black Americans moved from the South into northern cities.

By the Sixties, organised white opposition groups viewed these new arrivals as competition for jobs and residential areas and barred them from some communities, worsening racial tensions across the city. The neighbourhoods around Marquette Park - at that time, a patchwork of Polish, Irish and Italians alongside newly arrived blacks and some Palestinians - were a tinderbox. In 1966, Martin Luther King led a peaceful march through the area as part of an effort to integrate the city's neighbourhoods. Counter-protesters threw bottles, rocks and bricks, one of which hit King on the head.

A few decades earlier, a young Chicagoan born of Russian Jewish immigrants named Saul Alinsky had begun working to improve living conditions in the city's slums and ghettos. Starting in the 1930s, Alinsky organised community movements in Back-of-the-Yards, a rough and tumble district that served as the setting for Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

Over the years Alinsky developed a set of rules, which ultimately became the principles of modern community organising. Today they read like an instruction manual from Otpor, the Serbian-run pro-revolutionary movement that has informed many of the Arab Spring protesters: hide your numbers to look larger; focus on what you know; remind your opponent of their own rules and claims; use ridicule, which is infuriating and hard to counterattack; remember that a good tactic should be enjoyable; identify a responsible individual, attack him and ignore attempts to shift the blame; maintain the pressure.

"In this book we are concerned with how to create mass organisations to seize power and give it to the people," Alinsky wrote in his 1971 manifesto, Rules for Radicals, "to realise the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace."

Barack Obama never met Alinsky, who died in 1972, but as a community organiser in Chicago's Altgeld Gardens he worked under an Alinsky protégé. On his first day organising, in 1986, Obama's boss handed him a long list of Gardens' residents to interview.

"Find out their self-interest, he said," Obama writes in Dreams from My Father. "That's why people become involved in organising - because they think they'll get something out of it. Once I found an issue enough people cared about, I could take them into action. With enough actions, I could start to build power."

A quarter of a century later, in a cramped second-floor office a few blocks from Marquette Park, Nashashibi met with the leaders of local Christian and Jewish organisations looking to generate the power of cooperative action for an issue gripping the neighbourhood: foreclosures.

According to one estimate, Chicago house prices dropped almost 30 per cent between 2006 and 2010, close to the national average. But over the same period, median home prices in Chicago Lawn plummeted by 70 per cent, from $220,000 to $63,000. The area surrounding Marquette Park has seen 8,700 foreclosures in the past three years.

Not far from Iman's offices, a one-block stretch of Washtenaw Avenue underscored how abandoned homes led to increased drug use, gang violence and neighbourhood instability. The organisation owns two previously abandoned homes here: one is its Transitional House, the other its first Green Reentry home. Work on the latter began in 2010. Ma'alem Abdullah, the tall, soft-spoken head of Iman's Green Reentry, expected his first tenant later this month and hoped to have six to eight men - all Muslims just released from prison, who must undergo a screening process - living in the house by the end of the year.

On a recent morning, two young men loitered on the pavement just up the road from the retrofit house. "See these guys down the street selling drugs?" asked Abdullah, shaking his head.

He pointed out two other abandoned homes nearby, one of which no longer had a front door. "This is an insult to the work we're trying to do, a slap in the face," Abdullah said, strolling in and finding a soiled living room carpet and scattered trash.

The trio of leaders at the foreclosures' meeting hoped to devise a plan to reclaim abandoned homes and turn them into housing for troubled local families. Their first target was an abandoned two-storey house on Fairfield Avenue. In early April, the front door and windows were boarded up. Iman hopes to legally acquire the home and put a family on the second floor, an office on the first, and perhaps house another family in the basement.

On July 28, a district court judge will decide whether to award Iman custody of the home. Meanwhile, Iman planned a demonstration event in front of the house with a diverse group of community leaders in late May. "We're testing the law," says Nashashibi. "It may be a bit of civil disobedience."

It's a familiar subject for him. In Theorising the Global Ghetto, the course he teaches at the University of Chicago, Nashashibi links urban underclasses in cities around the globe. During a recent class he told his students how, in the 1990s, rap music, hip-hop style and protests against authority became "the cultural export of the ghetto" and, ultimately, "vehicles for solidarity and emancipatory practices".

In his own life, he discovered a straight line from urban oppression to protest, to the religion of his ancestors. As he worked with inner-city communities he learnt more about the African-American narrative, which led to meetings with black nationalists and civil rights activists and finally to Islam.

"I wasn't brought up in any way a conscious Muslim. I don't think I even walked into a mosque until I was around 19," says Nashashibi. "Then I started meeting brothers who had become Muslim and who then started challenging me about where I was spiritually. The first time I opened the Quran was to debate these people, trying to disprove them ... That was my first real engagement with Islam and I think somewhere along the line I just came to a point where I had to accept a really profound spiritual shift. It was very much a conversion-type process, and like an early convert there were moments when I was hard to be around, I had that zealotry ... I was just blown away, discovering this new world."

Combining that zealotry with his years spent studying urban culture and working with ex-convicts has earned Nashashibi undeniable street cred. His interest in gang violence, urban social history and the language and motivations of hip-hop is no stylistic pose, but a major part of his life and work.

Take Rafi Peterson, who stole drugs and ran with gang members as a teen. He was convicted of first degree murder in 1985 and sent to prison. By the time of his release, in 1997, he had converted to Islam. A year later he met Nashashibi and the two began visiting Chicago area prisons to talk about religion. They noticed that many prisoners had difficulty reintegrating into society when they were released. The duo launched Project Restore in 2005, which helped write a bill that sought to divert non-violent drug offenders towards treatment and away from the downward spiral of reoffending. After much wrangling, it was passed by the Illinois legislature in April 2007. [Today Peterson also sits on the Iman board and runs CeaseFire, a highly successful anti-gang violence programme, independent from Iman.

That same year, Project Restore started welcoming tenants to its Transitional House in a renovated Chicago Lawn home. Green Reentry goes one step further, looking to help rehabilitate and reintegrate former prisoners, address the housing crisis and create sustainable urban living spaces


In March, after a year of widespread controversy over several major mosque proposals and more than a dozen anti-Sharia bills across the country, US congressional hearings into radicalisation among American Muslim communities began. Led by New York Representative Peter King, a Republican, the hearings are seen by many progressives and Muslim leaders as something of a witch hunt.

"Muslims now are being held up to intense scrutiny, and it's unfortunate," says Nashashibi. "More than ever, we've got to be proactive. It's gonna get ugly, with the King hearings, the 10th anniversary of September 11, and the 2012 election coming up. We have to continue to demonstrate how we are working for good, working for change and creating facts on the ground that speak louder than any attack."

A December study from the World Organization for Resource Development and Education, a Washington-based think-tank, found that building a strong national network of moderate Muslim leaders could help counter radicalisation. Further, the report argues that strong Muslim leaders who work to discourage violence and promote pluralism offer a positive alternative for Muslim youth, one the government would be wise to promote.

This might explain the increased interest in Iman from the highest office in the land. In April, Nashashibi and an Iman team met with officials from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to discuss a possible collaboration.

Nashashibi is always on the lookout for bridge-building opportunities, in part because Iman measures its effectiveness through the community connections it helps foster. When news of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces broke, for example, many US residents celebrated openly. Yet in a Twitter post the next day, Nashashibi cited an opinion piece written by a rabbi, who referred to Moses leading his people in celebrating the death of the pharaoh and his army. "The rabbi recalled God scolding the angels after they too began to dance and sing. "'We must not rejoice at their deaths!'"


"Rami is like a synergy," says Rabbi Capers Funnye, who runs a synagogue a short distance from Iman, and who has known Nashashibi for seven years. "He really is able to bring people together from diverse backgrounds, diverse needs, and show people how their needs relate to others and relate to the work of others."

This might sound like the recipe for a successful politician. Indeed, the parallels between Nashashibi and the US president are striking: Obama's father and grandfather were tribal chieftains, while Nashashibi comes from a long line of prominent Palestinians; their parents divorced at an early age; both moved around a lot and struggled with identity before working as community organisers on Chicago's South Side in their twenties and teaching civil rights-related courses at the University of Chicago in their thirties.

"There's a lot of familiar territory," says Nashashibi. Though he has supported a few city council candidates in the neighbourhood, he doesn't see himself running for office. "People have brought it up, but I don't think so."

Nashashibi prefers to do more of what he's doing now. Iman recently bought a 15,000-square-foot space across the road from its headquarters, and hopes to turn it into a clinic, arts centre, garden and classrooms. After organising events in New York and Washington, Iman also plans to establish a network of affiliates.

"Iman has kind of chartered a new model, a new course for Muslims working in urban America, addressing critical needs in the community," says Amir al-Islam, a history professor at Abu Dhabi's Zayed University and chairman of Iman's board of directors. "Young people are most vulnerable to the ideas of radicalisation, most prone to being recruited. We think we have something that young people can engage in and capture their imagination, get involved in civic engagement - and it's a way to manifest their faith that serves humanity."

International engagement may be next. Nashashibi has twice visited Abu Dhabi to meet with officials from the Tabah Foundation, which advises the government on Islam-inflected civil society projects, to discuss the possiblity of an Iman affiliate in the UAE. He has also met officials from Msheireb Properties (formerly named Dohaland), which is overseeing the construction of a new downtown for Doha, and the Doha International Centre for Inter-faith Dialogue.

Nashashibi argues in his University of Chicago course that the denizens of today's densely populated, low-income areas of Chicago, Chongqing, Cairo, Mumbai, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro are linked by common concerns and shared responses. And their numbers are growing. A recent report from McKinsey estimated that the world's urban population is increasing by more than one million people every week - and the majority of that expansion occurs in slums and ghettos.

Saskia Sassen, the Robert S Lynd professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York, says the DNA of cities is not conflict, but commerce and civics. Two decades ago she popularised the term "global city," to refer to metropolitan areas creating and responding to the trends of globalisation. Now, she sees the rise of "a global network of all kinds of weak actors, but very interdependent nowadays, that can actually raise hell, if you want, and contest what is happening".

Sassen, who has sat on conference panels with Nashashibi and is familiar with his ideas, thinks he is ideally placed to take a lead role in this network. "Powerlessness can become complex," she writes in an e-mail. "Rami's capturing of ... a strategic encounter in what is a devalued space for the larger society, the ghetto ... is for me akin at some deep structural level to Tahrir Square and Benghazi."