Four years after the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington, Many American-Muslims say they are underutilized and sometimes unjustly targeted in the fight against terrorism.
According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, the largest Islamic civil liberties advocacy group in the United States, nearly 400 of the complaints it received last year centered around alleged civil right violations, including false arrest and surveillance, interrogation, and search or seizure. Corey Saylor, CAIR’s Government Affairs Director in Washington, says that many of the law-enforcement raids against American-Muslim organizations and offices did not result in formal charges being filed.
Mr. Corey attributes part of the problem of targeting Muslims to the way various law-enforcement agencies implement the Patriot Act, which was passed by the U.S. Congress 45 days after the September 11th attacks.
“The Patriot Act and the ensuing surveillance that we’ve received from law-enforcement agencies have certainly put a chilling effect on the Muslim community. Many Muslims are afraid to say anything one way or another purely because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.”
Bridges of Cooperation
But Daniel Southerland, the civil rights and civil liberties officer at the Department of Homeland Security, or D.H.S., says his department tries to resolve problems as they arise. For example, the D.H.S. works hard to address name mix-ups that affect American-Muslims. In some cases, innocent travelers have been detained because their names are similar to those on the Aviation Watch List, which catalogs suspected terrorists. And even though Homeland Security has been lauded by some Arab-American organizations for improving travel procedures, Mr. Southerland says there is always room for improvement.
“We are trying to proactively resolve concerns that come to us and look to make changes in our policy that help us to really target the people we need to target, while not spending resources on people who are friends and are working with us.”
9/11: Before and After
Many analysts argue that it was September 11th that motivated most U.S. Muslim civil rights organizations to speak out against branding all Muslims as terrorists and explain that the vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. But Journalist Geneive Abdo, who is writing a book about Muslims in America, blames American-Muslims for failing to speak out early on against negative stereotyping and racial profiling that oftentimes lead to their being the focus of law-enforcement investigations.
“Before 9/11, they were not accustomed to being public voices. They often did not write editorials in newspapers. They didn’t have any form of media that extended beyond their own communities. They’re becoming a lot wiser now. But before 9/11, Muslims didn’t really exercise their right to speak publicly.”
Some analysts concede that the U.S. Muslim community as a whole is still developing its media relations skills. But Ahmad Younis, National Director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, rejects the claim that American-Muslims were not actively engaged before September 11th, insisting that they have been combating extremism and reaching out to other Americans for years.
“Before 9/11 we used to fight to have discussions about Islam and Muslims, to have discussions about American pluralism, to have discussions about counter-terrorism. Now everybody wants to talk. Everybody wants to discuss it. So the ‘Johnny-come-lately’ in this situation is the average American and the average American government official. It is not the average Muslim or the average Arab-American on the street.”
As an example, Mr. Younis notes that American-Muslims rallied around British author Salman Rushdie in 1989 to denounce an Iranian edict calling for his execution for writing his book The Satanic Verses, considered by some Muslims to be blasphemous.
Homeland Security’s Daniel Southerland agrees that American-Muslims have long been active in the fight against terrorism and extremism by reaching out to the federal government and law enforcement. Consequently, he says, the United States should do a better job of recognizing their contributions to American society and ensuring that they are not excluded from efforts to make the country more secure.
“They want to participate. It’s their country as well. We saw that reaction, for example, after Hurricane Katrina. We had a number of very generous offers from Arab-American and Muslim-American organizations to try to help with the relief efforts. And now, of course, they’re doing a great job with the Pakistan earthquake recovery as well. So I think people need to recognize that we’re all in this together. This is a large community of Americans who want to work together on this process of keeping our country safe, secure and on the right track.”
A Role for U.S. Muslims
Many analysts agree that American-Muslims have an important role to play in the war on terrorism. Corey Saylor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations points out that the U.S. Muslim community is prosperous and practices its faith freely. Because of that, he says American-Muslims would like the opportunity to help shape the country’s image abroad.
“We’d like to be able to tell that side of the story to the larger Muslim world because the larger Muslim world has learned about America through watching our movies. That’s not usually the best picture of our country. It looks very violent and very indulgent. Equally, they learned about us through the news just like, unfortunately, too many American learned about Islam through the news.”
Most observers note that throughout American history, many immigrant communities, like the Irish and the Chinese, had to struggle to overcome stereotyping and prejudice. By the same token, most American-Muslims realize that they must speak out to be counted and that eventually they will become an integral part of American society.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.