By William Fisher
Last month, the U.S. Muslim World Advisory Committee of the United States Institute of Peace sat down for a talk with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes. These are the kinds of meetings Arab-American and other Muslim-American groups have been having throughout the country with U.S. officials at various levels of government since soon after 9/11.
These meetings usually end with oh-so-diplomatic remarks about the "full and frank exchanges of views" and praiseworthy statements from each about each.
Yet, though Arab-American and other Muslim organizations are reluctant to discuss the issue for the record, they tell me privately that they are worried that the Bush Administration is sending dangerously mixed signals precisely to those whose "hearts and minds" it claims to be trying to win.
Consider the following:
President Bush continues to assert that Arabs and other Muslims are valued and contributing members of American society. He denies that his Global War on Terrorism is a war against Islam. Secretary Rice and Ambassador Karen Hughes spend substantial time with Arab-American and other Muslim advocacy groups, reasserting their "mission" to reach out to these communities. The FBI, CIA, the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, State, and other U.S. government agencies spend millions to recruit members of these communities to apply for jobs, then deny them security clearances because they have relatives in the Middle East. Then Ms Hughes takes off on another of her "listening tours" of the Middle East, promising to reach out to "Muslim Moms".
At the same time, the FBI and the DHS continue to practice racial profiling and to harass and prosecute Arabs and other Muslims here at home. The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces work with local law enforcement to snoop on Arab and Muslim communities and wiretap mosques. We tell the Arabs we don't want them running our ports. And legitimate Muslim charities can't raise a nickel without fear of being put on the government's "support for terrorists" list.
Which of these contradictory messages do you think resonates most loudly in the U.S.? Just take a look at the myriad of polls that measure the degree of pervasive insecurity among these constituencies at home, and attitudes of other Americans toward these minorities! The common denominator is fear, one of the other. And fear breeds intolerance and even violence.
Why should we care what Arab- and Muslim-Americans think and what we, their neighbors, think of them? For one thing, they're Americans. They live here, among us. They are business and labor leaders, clergymen, sports figures, engineers and mathematicians and physicists, teachers, doctors and nurses, ordinary working citizens, even members of Congress.
Secondly, their ties to family and friends in other countries can provide us with important bridges to understanding. They might just be capable of helping Karen Hughes to explain U.S. policies to parts of the world we desperately need on "our side". Or to better understand how the "other side" sees us.
Thirdly, Arab- and Muslim-Americans vote. And that, if nothing else, ought to capture the attention of our elected officials.
Finally, how our government acts toward these sizable minorities helps shape how the rest of us act.
Jingoism has no good consequences, for anyone.
No one ever said that balancing these competing interests would be easy. Terrorists in our midst must be identified and prosecuted. So must so-called charities that illegally use their organizations as fronts for laundering material support for those who would harm us and our allies.
At the same time, there is zero evidence that Arab- and Muslim-Americans are anything but loyal to our country, and just as horrified as the rest of us by the attacks of 9/11. Thousands of these hyphenated Americans are now serving in the U.S. armed forces, many of them in Iraq and Afghanistan. And how many terror-related convictions resulted from the mass roundups of Arab and Muslim men in the weeks following 9/11? None.
Yet there appears to be no consistent effort anywhere in the upper reaches of the Bush Administration to engage these communities or to explain or coordinate what much seem to them as grossly contradictory and conflicting efforts.
Which should make us wonder whether this is about ideology: the "clash of civilizations? Or about creating smokescreens: blaming the media for not reporting all the "good news" from Iraq? Or about more of the unbelievably uncoordinated incompetence that gave us the Katrina disaster? Or about the political tone-deafness that resulted in Harriet Myers?
The short answer is "I don't know". Maybe a bit of all.
What I do know is that this is an issue on which George W. Bush has shown a somnambulistic failure of leadership. It is not enough for the president from time to time to tell Arab-Americans and other Muslim minorities - and the rest us - that he values our citizenship. It is not enough for him intermittently to reassure Muslims - and attempt to assure the rest of us -- that we are not at war with Islam.
At the very least, there needs to be high-level, visible, and transparent interest in worrying about the mixed signals we're sending. It can't be left to Karen Hughes alone. There is only one person who can get this done: the president.
So, Mr. Bush, here are two modest but doable suggestions:
First, you should appoint a permanent high-level advisory body to keep the administration informed about what Arab- and other Muslim-Americans are thinking, feeling, and doing about what they see as problems between their communities and government, and how other Americans see the same picture. This body should advise you about perceptions and misperceptions and how to address both with honesty and clarity. It should include thoughtful representatives of these communities, clergy of all faiths, private sector representatives, members of both political parties, and senior members of the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Defense, Justice, and the FBI and CIA.
But without the machinery to act on its findings and recommendations, this will be just another of thousands of government advisory bodies. It needs teeth. Talented people who know how to do implementation.
So, Mr. President -- notwithstanding that government is historically a notoriously flunked communicator - you are surrounded by some very smart people and could have some of the world's most adept professional communicators at your service instantly. These experts should convince you to take Arab-American alienation very seriously and to mobilize whatever public and private sector resources you need to craft honest messages and make sure they get heard.
Without your leadership, these steps will be - and be seen to be -- little more than cosmetics. Only you can make them important. You need to reach out in a powerful and consistent way to explain to Arab-Americans and other Muslims - and their neighbors, all the rest of us -- the contributions made by these populations over many years. Instead, your silence will only metastasize the uninformed and unreasoning Islamophobia that is rapidly become implanted in our national genetics. And, at the same time, you need to tell the Arab- and Muslim-Americans, and our population at large why it's important for law enforcement to do what it does to protect us (hopefully, while reigning in their over-zealousness to prosecute).
This dialogue is partly about policy, but it is equally about better coordination within government, about better public-private partnerships, to actually carry out a sustained program of thoughtful, grown-up, no-spin communication.
There's a lot you can do about that. As long as you think it's important. And as long as you're prepared to listen.