Profiling: Security and trust, suspicion and scapegoating

The slide says it, so it must be true

Ever since 9/11, the American Muslim community has been placed under a tremendous amount of scrutiny. Even now, more than ten years after those terrible events, the cloud of suspicion has not lifted over the community. According to a months-long investigation, the Associated Press has published an article claiming that the New York Police Department, with apparent help from the CIA, has engaged in an aggressive intelligence-gathering operation within the Muslim community. According to the article:

The department has dispatched undercover officers, known as “rakers,” into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program. They’ve monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. Police have also used informants, known as “mosque crawlers,” to monitor sermons, even when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing…Many of these operations were built with help from the CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans but was instrumental in transforming the NYPD’s intelligence unit.

An enormous amount of taxpayer money, $1.6 billion since 9/11, has been spent on such an operation. In addition, Wired magazine reports that highly inflammatory anti-Islam materials have been used to paint the entire American Muslim community as “violent” and “radical.” According to the article: “The FBI is teaching its counterterrorism agents that ‘main stream’ [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a ‘cult leader’; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a ‘funding mechanism for combat.’”

The facts, however, consistently belie the contention that the American Muslim community is a violent “fifth column.” According to a US Justice Department study conducted by two North Carolina Universities:

Although the vast majority of Muslim-Americans reject extremist ideology and violence, a small number of Muslim-Americans have radicalized since 9/11. In the eight years following 9/11, according to our project’s count, 139 Muslim-Americans committed acts of terrorism-related violence or were prosecuted for terrorism-related offenses that involve some element of violence. This level of approximately 17 individuals per year is small compared to other violent crime in America, but not insignificant. Homegrown terrorism is a serious, but limited, problem.

The reasons for this, according to the study, are: (1) public and private denunciations of violence, (2) robust self-policing practices and community building, (3) heightened political engagement, and (4) an assertive Muslim-American identity which, the study has shown, has served to undercut the radical message that American values and practices are hostile to Islam. Moreover, opinion polls have consistently shown American Muslims to overwhelmingly reject violence against innocent people, much more so than their Christian and Jewish compatriots.

A recent Gallup survey asked if attacks on civilians by individuals or small groups is ever justified, 89% of Muslims said it is “never” justified. This is more than Protestants (71%), Catholics (71%), Jews (75%), Mormons (79%), or those without any religious affiliation (76%). Asked if it was “sometimes” justified, Muslims were the least in saying yes. A more recent Pew survey has reiterated these findings, with 81% of American Muslims believing that suicide terrorism is never justified.

Further, according to Michael E. Rolince, former FBI Special Agent in Charge of Counterterrorism in the Washington DC field office:

“We conducted about a half a million interviews post-9/11 relative to the attacks of 9/11, and this is important because your community gets painted as not doing enough and you could have helped. I’m not aware — and I know 9/11 about as well as anybody in the FBI knows 9/11 and that’s not bragging that’s just the reality — I’m not aware of any single person in your community who, had they stepped forward, could have provided a clue to help us get out in front of this.”

He said this in 2005 at the Muslim Public Affairs Committee’s annual convention.

So, why the continued suspicion and mistrust of the Islamic-American community? Leave aside the fact that making sweeping generalizations and painting an entire community with the sins of its criminals is patently un-American. Making all Muslims out to be “terrorists-in-waiting” hurts our national security. As the article in Wired says:

The FBI isn’t just treading on thin legal ice by portraying ordinary, observant Americans as terrorists-in-waiting, former counterterrorism agents say. It’s also playing into al-Qaida’s hands. Focusing on the religious behavior of American citizens instead of proven indicators of criminal activity like stockpiling guns or using shady financing makes it more likely that the FBI will miss the real warning signs of terrorism. And depicting Islam as inseparable from political violence is exactly the narrative al-Qaida spins — as is the related idea that America and Islam are necessarily in conflict.

Now, I am under no illusion of the daunting task of preventing another terrorist attack placed before law enforcement officials all across this country. I think I can safely speak for all Americans when I say that I expect nothing less than a relentless effort on the part of law enforcement to root out every single potential terrorist or terrorist plot. But training law-enforcement officials to fear every single peaceful, law-abiding Muslim citizen sends a chilling message of deep suspicion and mistrust, as well as frank betrayal, when what is needed is even stronger collaboration and cooperation.

The American Muslim community is a willing partner in the fight against terrorists who seek to harm innocent Americans. Many domestic terror plots by Muslims, in fact, have been foiled by the American Muslim community itself. I can see how most Americans would think it to be understandable, if not logical, to spy on the Muslim community, given that Muslim extremists successfully attacked NYC twice. Yet, I fear that such spying will further damage an already frail relationship between the Muslim community and law enforcement, and this is the last thing that either party needs. I hope and pray that, through these revelations, smarter heads in our law-enforcement agencies will prevail.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is called God, Faith, and a Pen. His latest book is Noble Brother: The Story of the Prophet Muhammad in Poetry (Faithful Word Press). This article first appeared in Middle East Online.


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