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Muslim Americans Gauge Civil Liberties

  • Jela Franceschi

Six American imams were removed recently from a U.S. airliner because of what they claim is a persistent "fear and prejudice" against Muslims in the United States, but others say there is an understandable demand for strong national security measures.

The incident occurred in early November. The six Muslim scholars were taken off a domestic flight after a passenger reported overhearing them criticizing the U.S. war in Iraq and speaking angrily near the terminal gate. The men denied the accusations, saying they were only praying. After being questioned by the F.B.I. and the Secret Service, they were released.

Leading Islamic advocacy groups, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, called for an investigation of the incident. Many prominent American Muslims voiced concern that the plane's crew and passengers may have acted out of fear and prejudice based on stereotyping of Muslims and their faith.

Kareem Shora, Executive Director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says it is disturbing that so many Americans know so little about Islam and are often weary of American Muslims. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Muslim Americans are proud patriotic Americans. We have worked very strongly with our government to both enforce the United States Constitution, while at the same time protect our country. And we are trying to get the message out as much as possible that first and foremost, we are Americans. Anyone who questions our allegiance is going back to a bygone era," says Shora.

New Surveys, Old Ideas

Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at the University of Delaware who writes frequently on relations between Islam and the West, says that anti-Muslim sentiment has been steadily rising in the U.S. since 2002. He argues that an increasing number of strong anti-Muslim voices have been depicting Islam as a violent religion.

"And as a result of that, if you look at surveys taken in March of 2006, you will find that nearly 46 percent of Americans say that they have very strong negative perceptions about Islam and Muslims. And only two to three percent of people say that they have positive attitudes about Islam and Muslims, and this is really worrisome," argues Professor Khan.

But others counter that the US Airways incident was the result of poor judgment and insensitivity by the six imams toward their fellow travelers because people are still fearful and there is an understandable demand for strong measures to prevent terrorism in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Many experts also point out that since September 11, U.S. airlines have transported an estimated two-and-half billion passengers without giving way to ethnic and religious intolerance.

Seth Stodder of The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute says that while the U.S. Department of Justice explicitly prohibits the use of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, only Islamic radicals want to inflict mass casualties on the United States.

"So the question then becomes in the context of the war on terror: 'What is the definition of racial-ethnic profiling?' We know that al-Qaida is an Islamist organization that has declared jihad on the United States and that's what 9/11 was all about. It would not make much sense to pull off [airplanes] every single Presbyterian from Scotland in the defense against al-Qaida. Most Americans are opposed to racial and ethnic profiling and think it's unconstitutional. Now how does that work and how do we deal with that in practice? That's the hard question after 9/11," says Stodder.

Broader Issues

A growing number of experts argue that security efforts should focus on the tools used by terrorist, no matter who might use them. Among them is Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute,

"Better security doesn't focus on people, but it protects all infrastructures against any attacker. The best example is hardened cockpit doors and the resolve of airline passengers not to let anybody take over a flight. That doesn't require you to know who your attacker is or anything about them, but it protects all of us against commandeering of an aircraft as we saw on 9/11. So the most focused security actually doesn't have to do with who people are or who might do what next," contends Harper.

He says traditional investigative methods are also less controversial than the post-9/11 intelligence gathering technique called "data mining", which harvests people's names and personal information from airline passenger lists or phone records, for example. He says data mining does not catch terrorists, but conventional sleuthing does.

"Two of the 9/11 attackers were known to be in the United States and known to have connections to the bombing of the [U.S. navy warship] U.S.S. Cole in the Aden, Yemen harbor. Had U.S. national security authorities pursued them, they could have found them. Had they pursued their connections to others, they could have found others. The 9/11 Commission itself concluded that very likely the 9/11 attacks could have been rolled up. There is no need for new technology. There is no need for new laws. New energy is what we needed. We got it, starting in late morning on September 11th," explains Cato’s Jim Harper.

Security specialist Seth Stodder who served in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as Director of Policy and Planning for U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it is vital to show that the United States is a welcoming place for Arabs and Muslims.

"I think there is a broader foreign policy issue to think about with regard to racial and ethnic profiling in the war on terror. There is some concern that the United States is undermining its image in the world as a place where people are treated fairly and not differently on the basis of their race and ethnicity. I think the most important thing in the war on terror is focusing on the changing of minds of ordinary people in the Arab and Muslim world to reject al-Qaidaism in favor of a tolerant society that doesn't attack people on the basis of their race, ethnicity or religion," says Stodder.

Meanwhile, leading Washington-based Muslim organizations have welcomed the latest cultural sensitivity training provided to government security personnel. One month after the removal of the six imams from a US Airways flight, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Transportation completed special training for 45-thousand airport security personnel on Islamic traditions related to the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Both departments are also investigating the US Airways incident.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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