By William Fisher
Ever since John Ashcroft began indiscriminately rounding up “Middle-Eastern-looking” folks in the U.S. and holding them incommunicado following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the American Muslim community has been trying to mobilize public support against knee-jerk racial and ethnic profiling.
But their success has been, to be kind, limited. Muslim- and Arab-American organizations lack the resources enjoyed by many other influential lobbying groups in Washington and elsewhere.
They’re also trying to take on a Sisyphus-like mission. Now, a new poll by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies finds that only 45 percent of Americans consider Muslims in the country as loyal and 25 percent of Americans say they wouldn't want to have Muslims as a neighbor. Predictably, the poll also found that American Muslims experience emotional turbulence due to the stereotypes and suspicion of Islam since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
But now, two gaffes by the Federal Government may be making their objective a tad more achievable.
On the heels of the recent poll, two major Muslim-American organizations issued scathing indictments of the tactics of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) said the recent revelation that the FBI used paid informants and agent provocateurs in U.S. mosques that have participated in law enforcement outreach efforts “undermines the decade-long relationship that American Muslims built with law enforcement.”
And another major advocacy group, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), filed a complaint charging that the Department of Homeland Security unfairly targeted Arab and Muslim communities.
The FBI’s covert surveillance of mosques “sends a devastating message to community leaders and imams who have worked diligently to foster greater understanding between law enforcement and their communities,” MPAC said in a statement.
MPAC Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati urged greater transparency by the FBI in their dealings with the Muslim community. “Clearly, law enforcement has a crucial job to do in keeping our country safe. The American Muslim community and its national organizations have demonstrated time and again their consistent commitment to developing solutions that can protect America while also upholding privacy and civil liberties,” he said.
Prof. David Cole of Georgetown University, one of the nation’s preeminent constitutional scholars, agrees. He told this reporter, “Nearly eight years after 9/11, there is little evidence of support for al Qaeda or terrorism among Muslims in the United States. Paid informants are a highly intrusive form of surveillance, and should be restricted to instances where there are grounds for suspecting serious criminal activity. If the FBI is seen to be infiltrating mosques it will only breed distrust and make relations with the Muslim communities that much more difficult.”
MPAC said, “It is now up to the FBI and law enforcement agencies to build once again the trust and respect necessary to re-engage with the American Muslim community.” The organization said it will “continue to raise these community concerns with federal law enforcement officials in its efforts to help form policies that preserve civil liberties while also protecting our nation.”
Al-Marayati pointed out what he termed the “irony” in a speech given by FBI Director Robert Meuller to the Council on Foreign Relations in the same week as the surveillance revelations became public.
Meuller’s speech said, "Too often, we run up against a wall between law enforcement and the community -- a wall based on myth and misperception of the work we do... Oftentimes, the communities from which we need the most help are those who trust us the least. But it is in these communities that we must re-double our efforts.”
“The simple truth is that we cannot do our jobs without the trust of the American people. And we cannot build that trust without reaching out to say, 'We are on your side. We stand ready to help’," Meuller said.
The FBI’s tactics surfaced last week in the case of Ahmadullah Niazi in Tustin, California. According to MPAC, in 2007, Niazi reported suspicious behavior by a new Muslim convert in his mosque, who he said was talking about jihad and suggested planning a terrorist attack in conversations with others at the Islamic Center of Irvine. He and a mosque official filed a report with the Los Angeles field office of the FBI. The FBI then told mosque officials that they were investigating the matter, and the mosque successfully got a three-year restraining order against the individual.
Niazi reported that FBI officials later contacted him to ask him to be a paid informant. When he refused, he said they threatened to make his life "a living hell." Niazi was arrested last week on charges related to lying on his immigration documents and was released yesterday on $500,000 bail.
MPAC said mosque members were shocked when FBI Special Agent Thomas J. Ropel III testified that the convert reported by Niazi was actually an FBI informant who had infiltrated several mosques in Orange County, California.
In its complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security, the ADC asked for “a full and comprehensive investigation” into a program known as 'Operation Frontline,' run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is part of DHS.
ADC said Operation Frontline was ostensibly designed to prevent terrorist activity around the 2004 Presidential election, but it primarily targeted men from Muslim-majority countries without links to any national security-related activity. ADC filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to gain access to data on the nationalities and religions of those detained and deported. It says these requests were not addressed by DHS. ADC then filed a separate FOIA request and lawsuit against DHS and its ICE component to compel them to release the data.
As a result, a sample of 300 Operation Frontline investigation files data was released as part of a court settlement.
ADC says analysis of this data shows that Operation Frontline targeted foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries. For example, 79% of the foreign nationals targeted by Operation Frontline were from Muslim-majority countries; deportable foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries were 1,280 times more likely to be targeted by Operation Frontline than were similar individuals from other countries; Operation Frontline investigations included in the sample released by ICE led to no charges and no convictions for national-security related crimes.
These developments seem to add credibility to results of the new poll. "Muslims are the most negatively viewed religious community among Americans," said Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center, which is a nonpartisan research center affiliated with the Gallup polling organization.
Despite the fact that millions of Muslims have been living in the U.S. for generations, the poll presents a portrait of an often-misunderstood community -- one that is integrated socio-economically but culturally alienated; that succeeds in the workforce but struggles to find contentment.
And though the report states that while Muslim Americans are more likely than the general public to hold a professional job, they expressed less satisfaction with their standard of living and community.
The disparity is a sign of the alienation some Muslim Americans may feel,
experts say. Ahmed Younis, a senior Gallup analyst, said some Muslim Americans feel a sense of "otherness" created by outside perceptions of their religion and a lack of involvement in their larger community.
The poll numbers suggest economic and career success among Muslim Americans -- they have a higher employment rate than the national average and are among the nation's most educated religious groups. Yet only 41% described themselves as "thriving."
Muslim Americans ranked highest among American religious groups who believed their communities were getting worse. Muslim Americans ages 18 to 29 in particular reported discontent with their jobs and communities. Approximately 35 percent of American Muslims are African-American.
And contrary to conventional beliefs – largely based on overseas models – American Muslim women enjoy a high degree of equality with men.
The poll results are based on a sample of 941 Americans who identified themselves as Muslim in a survey of more than 300,000 Americans over the course of 2008.
So the question is: Will ordinary Americans pay any attention to the poll results, much less the transgressions of the FBI and the DHS? Will they even know about law enforcement’s totally avoidable errors?
Well, if they read the so-called Mainstream Press, the likelihood is less than nil. For years, the American Muslim community has been one of the most under-reported groups in the U.S. For most cable news channels, the subject has become one of the third rails of American journalism since 9/11. And the print media’s silence on this issue began long before circulation and ad revenue began to fall off a cliff and the print media started decimating their newsrooms to cut costs.
And if American voters don’t care about the outrageously clumsy performance of their law enforcement agencies, neither will Congress.
Meanwhile, the CIA will doubtless continue its expensive efforts to polish its image so that it can try to recruit more language-savvy Arab- and other Muslim American agents and analysts.
Didn’t it ever occur to the FBI and ICE that they’re sabotaging the CIA?
Which brings me back to Bob Mueller’s speech. “The communities from which we need the most help are those who trust us the least. But it is in these communities that we must re-double our efforts,” is what he said.
Well, spying on mosques hardly meets that test. Good luck, Bob.