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.