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Author Provides a 'Personal' Take on the Nature of Radical Islam
But a far more difficult question -- given the fact that Gartenstein-Ross' ideas about radical Islam and terrorism are being taken quite seriously by major publications -- is: What implications does the young man's spiritual odyssey have beyond his own life story?
"One thing that helps people become more attracted to extremist ideologies is when kids aren't raised in any sort of religious tradition," said the 30-year-old author of My Year Inside Radical Islam, following a Center City event sponsored by the Middle East Forum, where, for the most part, he discussed his book.
Gartenstein-Ross now writes opinion pieces about trends within the American Muslim community, as well as law-enforcement techniques, and international developments concerning radical Islam and terror. But his talk focused mostly on how he's gotten to that point.
Gartenstein-Ross, who grew up in rural Oregon, describes his parents as "New Age Jewish hippies" who displayed images of Jesus and Buddha in their home, and taught that all religions offered truth. They weren't synagogue members, but they apparently spelled their son's first name in a way that would give it a more Hebraic sound.
While a student at Wake Forest University, Gartenstein-Ross befriended a charismatic, Kenyan-born Muslim student, al-Husein Madhany, who eventually helped persuade him to convert to Islam, and practice a liberal and open-minded brand of the faith.
After graduating in 1998, Gartenstein-Ross spent the better part of a year back in his hometown, working for the American headquarters of Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a Saudi Arabian Islamic charity that would later run afoul of U.S. law. He answered e-mail, distributed literature about Islam, and helped organize a few public events with several other American converts.
Gartenstein-Ross explained that during this period, he came to hold a far more fundamentalist view of Islam, partly due to what he described as intense peer pressure. He stopped listening to music altogether -- because it was forbidden by Islam -- and began praying for the victory of Islamic fighters in Chechnya and elsewhere in the world.
Then, while in his second year in law school at New York University, Gartenstein-Ross -- who at one point believed that Islam sanctions the killing of apostates -- grew increasingly dissatisfied with the choices he'd made.
One Sunday, he woke and decided to attend church. Eventually, a minister conducted his wedding, and he and his Christian-born wife underwent adult baptism.
'Everybody Has a View'
In 2004, years after Gartenstein-Ross had left his earlier employer, Al-Haramain had its American assets frozen by the U.S. Treasury department -- the Bosnia branch, along with other international offices of the organization, were designated by both the United States and Saudi Arabia as having ties to terrorist groups.
In fact, two Al-Haramain employees, including Gartenstein-Ross' former boss, Pete Seda, wound up being indicted for tax violations.
According to Gartenstein-Ross, Seda is now a fugitive living in Iran.
The author said that he voluntarily spoke at length with FBI agents about his one-time employer.
After working for a time as a commercial litigator, Gartenstein-Ross is now self-employed and working full-time as a counterterrorism consultant. He has published opinion pieces in The Weekly Standard and Commentary, is a regular on the Web site counterterrorismblog.org, and has been making the rounds on the Conservative talk-show circuit.
At the Middle East Forum event, held at the Center City law offices of Ballard Spahr, LLP, the author said that his book will spread awareness about the battle going on for the soul of extremists and moderates in the American Muslim community; both sectors draw on legitimate Islamic sources and interpretations.
"Does Islam inherently lend itself toward extremism? My book doesn't take that position, nor do I," said the author, who pointed out that there's a growing sense of "otherness" within the American Muslim community, although it hasn't nearly reached the level of disenchantment felt by Muslims in Europe.
"One way this plays out that is harmful, there is a general lack of partnership between the Muslim community and law enforcement," he continued.
In an interview after the talk, the author presented his religious struggle as a choice between Israel and Christianity; he admitted that Judaism was never really an option for him.
"I will say that, since the book ended, my Jewish identity has become more important to me. God has a covenant with the Jewish people within the Old Testament, which is a covenant that I believe in, and one that is not, in fact, nullified by the fact that I've become Christian."
Society Hill resident Jane Friedman attended the talk, and seemed far more interested in Gartenstein-Ross' personal story than in his insights into radical Islam. What did the 66-year-old take away from the program?
"You should give your children a good Jewish foundation, so they don't flounder," replied Friedman.
Gartenstein-Ross has heard such sentiments before.
"Partly because the story involves religious conversation," he noted, "everybody has a view as to how it should turn out."