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Seminar Speaker Spotlight: Col Michael Trapp--Understanding Islam and Islamofacism

By Matthew Harwood

Colonel Michael Trapp recently retired from the Air Force after 33 years as security policeman. He is currently a Principle Scientist with Applied Research Associates in San Antonio, Texas. In his most recent military position as Chief of the Innovation Division at the US Air Force Security Forces Center, he led a multi-disciplinary team seeking leading-edge technology solutions in all areas of law enforcement, nuclear weapons security, force protection, combat medicine and anti-terrorism. Mike enlisted in the Air Force in 1975 as a law enforcement specialist and received his commission through the ROTC program at Utah State University in 1983.

With expertise in security, law enforcement, anti-terrorism, training and risk management, Mike has served as a Security Police officer with intercontinental ballistic missile, heavy bomber, space operations, tactical fighter, composite expeditionary and Special Operations units. 

He holds a BA from Utah State University in History, an MS from The Florida State University in Criminology and in 2002 served as the National Defense Fellow at Harvard University. A member of ASIS International, Mike is a Certified Protection Professional (CPP) . A highly sought after speaker on Leadership, Radical Islam and Terrorism, Trapp has served as adjunct faculty at five colleges and universities.

On Wednesday, October 13, at 1:45 p.m., Trapp will present the session "Protecting Your Business: Understanding Islam and Islamofacism." The presentation will answer "What is Islam?," and provide an overview of the religion's founding, its evolution, and its radicalization over the past 100 years and how the West got involved in Islam's civil war between moderation, fundamentalism, and extremism.

What’s the difference between the religion of Islam and what some call Islamofacism?
 
The idea of “jihad” within Islam is a personal struggle to overcome your own issues and build a relationship with God. There are many words for “war” in Arabic, “jihad” is not one of them. The radicalized view is more of an outward struggle to force everyone else to believe the way you believe. And not just believing in God but in your particular set of specific beliefs. So, actually most of the violence within the Islamic world is directed at other Muslims who don’t believe exactly the way one particular sect or group or tribe believes. That is the big difference for me as I study this radicalization issue: Jihad, which is supposed to be a personal struggle to be one with God, has become an ongoing and highly violent war against all other beliefs and all other believers.
 
Islamofascism has become such a politicized term, with many arguing it’s flawed. Why do you feel that it’s an accurate description of what we see today as opposed to keeping it to jihadism?
 
I actually don’t. Though I’ve used the term in the past, I know it has gone out of vogue and is considered an inappropriate term by many in the media.  While I work not to let political correctness drive what I do professionally, I’m personally moving away from the term, because I think it’s too simplistic. I’ve gone to a more generic concept, the radicalization of Islam. Any religion, any faith, any belief system can be radicalized and it’s generally dangerous when it is. As an example, many of us think of Hindus, generally, as a fairly peaceful people—Gandhi, of course, comes to mind.  But in fact, radical Hindus have done a great deal of harm and damage over time as well.
 
In your mind, understanding jihadism and radical Islam the way you do, what should businesses know about these concepts? And then how with what they know can they protect themselves?
 
What I think businesses need to understand is what radical Islam really is. Unfortunately, especially in the current political discourse in the United States, almost everything has to be an extreme. Everything has to be a yes and a no or a good or an evil. In reality, more than one and a half billion people are Muslims. And by far the vast majority of Muslims seek the same things Westerners, Christians, Jews, and other faiths seek, which is the ability to raise their families in a safe environment. When you demonize an entire faith or an entire people, it’s bad for the world, but it’s especially bad for business, because businesses across the world are interconnected. For example, when Marriott builds a hotel  they have to be aware that they are a dramatic symbol of Western society and therefore a target for extremists. They have to take that into account, depending on where they build that hotel. The same applies if it’s an “iconic” restaurant chain.  Same if it’s a supplier to a major American or European brand name.
 
If they have this understanding that not all Muslims are part of this “Evil Empire” trying to kill or destroy them, they’ll see the average Muslim as just like the average anything else: it’s a person trying to do business, feed his family, and get on with his life. You have to understand where the radical element is, how they view you, how they view you as a target or an enabler and what their capabilities are. You must keep that in mind when you create your business model, when you build your business continuity plans, and when you design your security. Certainly Western brands like Marriott, Hilton, McDonald's, or Kentucky Fried Chicken can build anywhere they choose if they are willing to expend the resources for a completely secure environment; but a completely secure environment means your clients don’t get in. And if a family is visiting a country and they feel like they’re entering a fortress, they’re probably less likely to use your business. So I think you have to take everything into account and the more you know about that fraction of radical Muslims that does wish us ill, the more you can sensibly prepare to keep your business operating.
 
 
While it’s certainly a small fringe, how does a business adequately protect itself when a suicide bomber can exploit the openness that businesses need to thrive? Like the saying goes, “It only takes one.”
 
If you go to any jihadist Internet site, you’ll see repeated again and again: “You have to be right all the time, we only have to be right once.” So all you can do is manage risk. I believe the best security managers are those who learn how to manage risk and early on suspend the idea that you can control all risk. Our company is one of many that help our clients evaluate, prepare for and effectively manage risk. I found myself doing the same thing for the Air Force and Army whether in Iraq or another Arabian Gulf country. Whether corporate or government, we each have a mission to complete, and sensible management of risk has to be a mission enabler.
 
In today’s environment then, you’re saying you have to be willing to sustain some blows if you want to do business in countries with significant Muslim populations?
 
No one wants to admit it, but that’s fact. It’s an absolute fact. Let’s say you’re doing business in India, one of the strongest emerging economies, you have to realize that there are 155 million Muslims and that India is actually a more likely target for radical Islamists than is America or even Europe for that matter. You have to take into account that a substantial portion of the world’s Muslim population is in India and they are in government and in business, but there is that radical fringe that is always looking for a target.
 
How does Muslim immigration affect business security in the West?
 
There are those who strongly believe that there is a genuine effort by all Muslims to undermine Western society by “infiltrating it.” And of course headlines were made in the last few weeks when the president of the central bank in Germany put out a book on immigration and frankly stated that immigration to Germany is destroying the country and the economy, especially Arab and Turkish immigration. The only way to work through these topics is to actually discuss them. How much good comes from immigration? And how much danger comes from immigration? Can societies really think they can remain homogeneous in today’s interconnected world? If you’re going to have an open immigration policy—and this is what Germany is struggling with—how do you actually integrate people into your society? Do you do view immigration as it has been traditionally seen in the United States, a melting pot and everyone’s expected to assume the same values? Or do you take the Canada view, which is considered more of a mosaic, where you have this beautiful patchwork collection of all these different societies living within Canadian society?
 
But as security professionals we do have to appreciate the issue, appreciate the problem, and be willing to ask the tough, sometimes politically sensitive questions. In France, they’ve had fairly open borders and now they have Arab ghettos that are filled with violence, filled with undereducated youth, filled with anger, and they must deal with it every day. It makes headlines every single day in France, which is of course is breeding a new right-conservative wing that’s advocating a stop to all immigration. This same movement has resulted in the active exporting of people known as Roma or “Gypsies” to Eastern Europe. Whatever you do, you have to be able to talk about it and approach it “eyes open.”
 
Also doesn’t profiling lead to insecurities anyhow? You could profile an Arab person and let another threat slip by.
 
A lot of what I try to do in this presentation is just put the facts out. For example, most Muslims in America are African-American. Fifty percent of Arabs in America are Christian, which very few people realize. When you dig a little deeper, you find the things that we take for granted are often not factual. For example, when I started this line of research prior to my first deployment to the Middle East, I had no idea that half of the Arabs in America are Christian. And then there’s another portion that very few people are aware of, which are Coptic Christians—one of the oldest groups of Christians, who generally come from Egypt. The more you know, the more you find out that stereotypes are seldom valid.
 
The other example I like to share came up while I was at Harvard. I was going through an international studies post-graduate fellowship when the events of September 11, 2001, occurred. Two of our world-class scholars were Sikh. Their academic work required them to travel frequently. They returned to Harvard some weeks after 9-11 personally and emotionally devastated. The security personnel they encountered at airports assumed because they wore traditional headdress, they had to be Arabs. Taking off a Sikh’s headdress, frankly, is more demeaning than if you asked him to take off his pants. They were shocked that because they had darker skin and had a Sikh headdress that they were basically forced to almost strip to come through security. It really rocked them back on their heels. For some of them, it was really their first experience with profiling. It caused me to do further research and I found out it’s amazing how many cultures wear some type of headdress. The Arabs are just one, and one of the numerically smallest cultures, that wear a cultural headdress.
 
And then I found myself back in the Persian Gulf a few months later and found that all of my new Arab friends had quickly learned not to wear traditional Arab clothing when they came to the United States. If they didn’t wear anything traditionally Arab, they went straight through security. These were Arabs from very conservative countries—Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. But we had already “decided” that anyone wearing a “funny hat” needed extra scrutiny.
 
I’m a firm believer that our bottom line has to be living by the values we say we have as a country.
 
It seems like you’re trying to make a plea to business people and security professionals that tolerance and understanding are the best approach to these issues?
 
I think tolerance is and I think that any extreme view is generally wrong. One of the things I talk at length about in my presentations is how Islam got to where it is today—the personalities from 1500 years ago and their personal likes and dislikes and how that shaped the various sects of Islam, which started the civil war that continues to rage within Islam that some of us feel the West has allowed itself to be drug into. The other thing I talk about is the treatment of women. It’s not necessarily an Islamic thing; it’s much more of an Arab thing. And since Arabs founded Islam, a lot of the Arab view of women has colored the Islamic view of women. So if you go to Indonesia, you don’t see it nearly as much.
 
I think when people really understand things, they can make rational decisions. Whether it’s how to secure themselves, how to operate their business, whether to take a vacation in Yemen or in southern Sudan—neither of which I would recommend right now. I really think knowledge is power, so if you understand what an “Other” really believes and is really about verses what is hype and what makes for interesting press, then you can be prepared to protect yourself, your family, or your business.
 

♦ Picture: Colonel Mike Trapp visits with a Bedouin family while on patrol in Basra Province, Iraq, in early 2006.

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