A few years ago I found myself at a table with about 20 other local Muslim community leaders, gathered to meet a regional outreach officer from a law enforcement agency. Many of those present had been living and working in the area for decades and were pillars of the communities they represented. The officer introduced himself, noting that he had been in the region for more than 15 years, and then mentioned that about 90 percent of his work, and the work of his department, were done in the Muslim community.
This comment may have otherwise gone unnoticed — except for the glaring fact that no one in the room had met the officer before. We all left the meeting feeling greatly unnerved that there was so much “work” being done upon us without our knowledge.
This was the first realization I had that something was deeply awry in the relationship between American Muslim and law enforcement communities. Indeed, this past year has yielded revelations reflecting how extremely dysfunctional the relationship is. The journalistic rigor of the Associated Press has uncovered story after story about the missteps taken by law enforcement agencies, especially in New York, in their dealings with Muslims.
Troubling training in which agents and officers are taught that Islam is inherently violent, the mapping of Muslim establishments and mosques across the Northeast and Los Angeles, the infiltration of Muslim students at 16 different universities, spying on Muslim leaders with which there were outwardly good relations, and the full support and encouragement of these tactics by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials have rocked both the civil liberties world and the trust of American Muslims.
The systematic dismantling by some law enforcement agencies, most notably by the New York Police Department, of the goodwill built over the last decade with Muslims is puzzling from a purely objective perspective. Statistics and studies show that there is no prevalence of radicalization amongst American Muslims, no correlation between religiosity and violence, no reliable profile of a terrorist, and that Muslims have assisted authorities in foiling a third of all terror plots involving other Muslims since 9/11. Data doesn’t lie, and these particular sets of data have been repeated and cited so often that it is almost embarrassing to do so again.
So, the question must be asked: why do law enforcement agencies continue to engage in policies and tactics that, in the light of empirical evidence, are futile in the fight against terror? Why are tremendous amounts of human and financial resources being wasted in monitoring and profiling entire cities and communities of Muslims when the net result are notes on halal fried chicken joints or the number of times students prayed during a white water rafting trip? In other words, what is driving this irrationality?
Cynics may suggest our law enforcement agencies are full of bigots and xenophobes and run by such people as well, or that they have little to no regard for civil liberties. But, I have more faith than that in those who risk their lives daily to protect us. The only possible and reasonable explanation of the behavior of agencies such as the NYPD, LAPD and FBI is that they sincerely believe, and operate under the principle, that Islam is intrinsically a violence-inducing or radicalizing force and that all Muslims are potential threats to security.
In other words, while our nation’s finest are working with complete sincerity to protect us, they have in fact fallen victim to the nasty, bigoted agendas of well-known Islamophobes.
A comprehensive 2011 study by Tom Cincotta of the Political Research Associates entitled “Manufacturing the Muslim Menace” carefully documents an entire industry devoted to teaching our law enforcement officers to hate Islam and Muslims. Firms like Security Solutions International, LLC and the Center for Counterintelligence and Securities Studies make millions “indoctrinating police officers and intelligence personnel to distrust the motives of Muslim Americans …”
Cincotta quotes a homeland security official who attended such training and was asked what she understood to be the overarching message about Muslims. She answered: “Kill them, including the children.” The widespread and carefully calculated dissemination of inaccurate and biased information about Islam by such firms has poisoned the well of trust and goodwill between law enforcement and Muslims.
It is said that you cannot build a tower on a crooked foundation. In this case, the foundation must be rebuilt. The only way to remedy the destructive education about Islam and Muslims given to law enforcement is to re-educate them. The White House and Department of Homeland Security’s Department of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties reached that conclusion last year and issued new guidelines in the past year for trainers on Islam and Muslims and called for closer collaboration between Muslim and law enforcement communities on a local level.
But, the memo seems not to have reached many folks yet – just recently Tennessee approved law enforcement training by one of the Islamophobic trainers cited in Cincotta’s study, John Guandolo.
American Muslims hold the highest stakes when it comes to keeping this nation safe from potential threats arising from rogue Muslims — no group of people has more to lose from a terror attack. This we know. It is vital for law enforcement to realize that they work from a place of common interest with Muslims, and that the cooperation and trust of Muslims is non-negotiable to counter-terror operations.
Political Science Professor Brigitte Nacos of Columbia University prefaces Cincotta’s report with the following assessment: “When the virus of Islamophobia is spread in courses and conferences for police and intelligence officers, as the report reveals, this does not bode well for cooperation and a relationship of trust between law enforcement and American Muslim communities. Most disconcerting is the revelation that those events are sponsored or condoned by federal and local agencies and that participant fees are paid by taxpayers.”
These understandings will only be internalized and reflected in policies and strategies when law enforcement agencies are re-trained on Islam and Muslims. Considering the significant damage of trust in the past few weeks it is, after all, high time that law enforcement worked with Muslim communities instead of around them.
Rabia Chaudry is an attorney, Associate Fellow of the Truman National Security Project, and the President of the Safe Nation Collaborative (www.safenationcollaborative.com).