Thursday, November 15, 2012

Muslim and Arab Groups Hit Back at Government Tactics

By William Fisher
Muslim-oriented organizations in the US – once seen as role models of cooperation with the government – are increasingly taking tougher stands against harassment by authorities, and don’t expect that to change because of the reelection of Barack Obama.

James Zogby, widely known as a pollster and president of the Arab American Institute, recalled before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that while then President George W. Bush was urging the nation to regard Muslims as their fellow Americans he was instructing his Attorney General to round up and jail ‘Middle Eastern-looking men.’

He said this type of discrimination had started in the 1970s but had only exploded into today’s Islamophobia after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Zogby told the Committee, “From released government files we have learned of the extent of harassment of Arab Americans and Arab student activists during this period -- from Operation Boulder in the Nixon era, and the broad surveillance program against Palestinian student organizations in the 70s and 80s, to the extensive intelligence files on Arab American activists maintained by the FBI, sometimes in collaboration with outside groups, that were then used to harass members of my community.”

The attacks of September 11 “were a dual tragedy for Arab Americans. We are Americans and it was our country that was attacked. At the same time, because some assumed our collective guilt, Arab Americans and Muslims -- and others perceived to be Arab and Muslim -- became victims of hundreds of hate crimes,” he said, adding:

“But something important happened, making it clear that despite the enormity of the crime that had been committed, a new dynamic was at work. Many Americans rallied to our defense. President Bush spoke out against hate crimes, as did the Senate and the House of Representatives which both passed resolutions condemning bias against Arab Americans and Muslims. Federal and local law enforcement investigated and prosecuted hate crimes, and ordinary citizens defended and protected us, refusing to allow bigots to define America.”

He noted that he and his family received death threats, he said, “but for the first time, the perpetrators were arrested by the FBI, prosecuted by the DOJ, and convicted and sentenced for their crimes.”

But, he continued, “all was not well during the (George W.) Bush years.”

At the same time that these positive developments were occurring, “an entirely different message was being sent by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. In addition to mass deportations and the shameful ‘special registration’ program, Ashcroft issued new profiling guidelines that created a loophole allowing ethnic, religious, and racial profiling, leading to wide-spread singling out of Arabs and Muslims by a number of law enforcement agencies.”

Nonetheless, Muslim and Arab groups doggedly insisted on meetings with the various government actors, hopefully to develop strategies and tactics that would service the government’s needs while not interfering with the civil rights of members.

He testified that, with the election of Barack Obama, “we had hopes that we would see an end to these abusive practices. But policies that we had believed would change have not. We had hoped to see an end to the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. This did not happen. The Justice Department profiling guidelines remain in place and continue to be used by a number of agencies to the detriment of my community.”

Arab American citizens who have family in Canada or who conduct business in Canada are routinely profiled, experiencing disgraceful and humiliating treatment at the hands of Customs and Border Patrol. And we are also deeply disturbed by press accounts of the NYPD/CIA surveillance program, he said.

He charged that law enforcement has employed a variety of techniques against Muslim and Arab-Americans, including the use of coerced informants, widespread ‘ethnic mapping’, spying and reporting on innocent people going about their daily routines, reports that the FBI has used their community outreach programs to "collect and illegally store intelligence information on Americans' political and religious beliefs -- a clear violation of trust.”

It was about at this point that the charitable organizations began to cut off any hope of constructive dialogue. CAIR, a major charity, cut off its program of periodic consultations with the FBI – with each party accusing the other of not being honest.

Earlier, CAIR had been one of the leaders of a movement within the organizations to work closely with Treasury to create a “white list” of charities to which an organization member could give worry-free. But Treasury refused to participate in the exercise.

These negative practices, Zogby said, “create fear in my community and create suspicion about us in the broader society. This, in turn, leads to alienation and has the potential to radicalize some. It also leads to an atmosphere where suspicion can grow -- making us more vulnerable to hate crimes.”

The government’s pursuit of Muslims and Muslim Arabs (Arabs practice many religions including Christianity) has had an enormous negative impact on charitable giving, which is an important part of the Islamic faith.

In the aftermath of 9/11 the government reactivated an old law and incorporated it into the newly minted USA Patriot Act. It metes out stiff punishments for acts that “provide material support” to terrorist organizations and groups that likely to become terrorists.

These penalties apply even when the ‘material support’ consists of training in peaceful resolution of differences – one of the more bizarre cases to come before the Supreme Court.

In 2010, then Attorney General Michael Mukasey and other high-profile government officials and former officials participated in a seminar in Paris in which they praised an organization known as the Mujahedeen Khalq. Did these luminaries commit a crime, asked their lawyer, David Cole? No, it was free speech, he answered, but added, “Not necessarily.”

The New York Times reported that “the problem was that the US government had labeled the Mujahedeen Khalq a ‘foreign terrorist organization’, making it a crime to provide it, directly or indirectly, with any material support.”

Cole explained: According to the Justice Department under Mr. Mukasey himself, as well as under the current attorney general, Eric Holder, material support includes not only cash and other tangible aid, but also speech coordinated with a “foreign terrorist organization” for its benefit. It is therefore a felony, the government has argued, to file an amicus brief on behalf of a “terrorist” group, to engage in public advocacy to challenge a group’s “terrorist” designation or even to encourage peaceful avenues for redress of grievances.

Cole says he argued just that in the Supreme Court, on behalf of the Los Angeles-based Humanitarian Law Project, which fought for more than a decade in American courts for its right to teach the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey how to bring human rights claims before the United Nations, and to assist them in peace overtures to the Turkish government.

But in June, the Supreme Court ruled against us, stating that “all such speech could be prohibited, because it might indirectly support the group’s terrorist activity.” Chief Justice John Roberts reasoned that “a terrorist group might use human rights advocacy training to file harassing claims, that it might use peacemaking assistance as a cover while re-arming itself, and that such speech could contribute to the group’s “legitimacy,” and thus increase its ability to obtain support elsewhere that could be turned to terrorist ends. Under the court’s decision, former President Jimmy Carter’s election monitoring team could be prosecuted for meeting with and advising Hezbollah during the 2009 Lebanese elections,” Cole said.

The government has similarly argued that providing legitimate humanitarian aid to victims of war or natural disasters is a crime if provided to or coordinated with a group labeled as a “foreign terrorist organization” — even if there is no other way to get the aid to the region in need.

Yet The New York Times recently reported that the Treasury Department, under a provision ostensibly intended for humanitarian aid, was secretly granting licenses to American businesses to sell billions of dollars worth of food and goods to the very countries we have blockaded for their support of terrorism. Some of the ‘humanitarian aid’ exempted? Cigarettes, popcorn and chewing gum,” Cole revealed.

Under current law, it seems, the right to make profits is more sacrosanct than the right to petition for peace, and the need to placate American businesses more compelling than the need to provide food and shelter to earthquake victims and war refugees.

Cole concluded: “Congress should reform the laws governing material support of terrorism. It should make clear that speech advocating only lawful, nonviolent activities — as Michael Mukasey and Rudolph Giuliani did in Paris — is not a crime.”
There have been a number of apparent miscarriages of justice in the administration of the “material support” law, which is run by the Treasury Department. Much of it has focused on excessive sentencing.

For example, a young Brooklyn man was sentenced to 15 years in prison for providing suitcase storage for socks and raincoats. A Syracuse, NY, oncologist formed a charity, Help the Needy, to send clothing and other humanitarian supplies to children in Iraq. Though the word ‘terrorist’ was barred from his trial, he was convicted of violating US sanctions and sentenced to (YEARS) in prison. Five leaders of The Holy Land Foundation, once America’s largest Muslim-oriented charity, received heavy prison sentences last week following a mistrial and a second trial in which they were found guilty. Then the Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal.
The appeal was based largely on the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which traditionally has meant an accused person was guaranteed face-to-face court-time with his/her accuser. The trial court ruled that two anonymous Israelis could serve as expert witnesses for the prosecution.

The two most senior Holy Land executives received sentences of 65 years each. Another received 15 years.

The government has also invoked the so-called State Secrets doctrine to persuade judges that any discussion of any part of any government lawsuit would compromise national security. Thus, no victim of the government’s anti-terror efforts has ever received a day in court.

But perhaps the most insidious form of harassment and discrimination is seen in the FBI’s “neighborhood mapping” program. This program uses both paid and unpaid informants to infiltrate Muslim and Arab-American neighborhoods and become familiar figures in the restaurants, movies, concerts, meetings and other occasions attended by their targets.

These informants perform two main tasks. They gather and report to the FBI any information they believe to be incriminating. Secondly, aided by others, the FBI puts together plots and plans for terrorist-type actions which agents pass along to their targets – who sometimes take the bait. There has never been a prosecution in which an FBI informant was not implicated.

"Everyone understands that the FBI has a job to do, but it is wrong and counterproductive for the bureau to target American Muslim religious groups for secret intelligence gathering and place innocents at risk of investigation as national security threats," ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi said.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the FBI has stepped up its outreach to Muslim neighborhoods and efforts to recruit sources and gather intelligence in those areas. Though the federal government says those two efforts are completely separate, civil rights lawyers and some Muslims have complained that the FBI uses one to accomplish the other.

One of the most proactive and aggressive Muslim-oriented groups is the Muslim Legal Fund of America, which finances legal cases in which they perceive a civil liberties violation or where the government is criminalizing lawful behavior under the guise of fighting terrorism.

John Janney, Communications and Operations Director of the MLFA, responded to Prism’s question about government intrusion into mosques and Muslim communities. He told us the problems he sees are three-fold:

First Amendment: We feel that recruiting imams to spy on their communities for the government is an encroachment of the First Amendment's separation of church and state as well as the freedom to exercise religion without fear of government interference or retribution. The state has no legitimate business undermining the constitutionally-protected religious activities of any faith group.

Preemptive Prosecution: The FBI is recruiting, motivating, creating the plot, selecting the targets, and supplying fake explosives to individuals who would likely never be engaged in such activities without the FBI's encouragement. Essentially, the FBI is creating criminal acts in order to foil them. They are utilizing Dick Cheney's 1% Doctrine that says if there is a 1% chance of something bad happening, treat it as if it is a certainty. The FBI is finding naive community members and convincing them to commit crime -- not catching them, but convincing them first and then trapping them.

Makes us Less Safe: If the FBI is focusing so much attention on creating fake terrorists plots for individuals they recruit to carry out, then who is looking for real terrorists? It's a rather frightening thought and it seriously lowers confidence in those who are sworn to protect us.

However, there is a central reality that we must face: our messages are best communicated to and received by those who we have greater chance of influencing -- those who will actually listen and consider the message. So, any communication or advocacy we do will be for the Muslim community and supporters of civil liberties in general. One campaign we are starting soon is called "Think."

For the MLFA, standard operating procedure has morphed from ‘cooperate with law enforcement, reach an accommodation,’ to encouraging community members to THINK before answering any call to violence by someone who has befriended you, because that person might actually be an FBI informant.