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American Muslim Council Discusses Profiling, Civil Liberties in Annual meeting - 2002-07-01

At the annual meeting of the American Muslim Council, participants expressed deep concern about the impact on their community of the September 11 terrorist attack. Some feel they have become the target of government and public anger, but others cited their efforts to reach out to non-Muslims who often respond with warmth and sympathy.

Interrogations. Fingerprinting. Detentions. Military tribunals. These were among the fears and complaints of people attending the annual conference of the American Muslim Council. They said the entire Muslim community in America is paying for the violence of an aberrant few.

Greg Nojeim, legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, warned of possible legal problems ahead for Muslims. "This new homeland security department is bringing together under one roof more law enforcement agents with arrest powers than any other agency in the federal government," he said. "It is a fundamental reordering of the government, and we have to face up to it, and we have to make sure that it is subject to checks and balances."

The Bush administration is intent on checking terrorism, a new kind of threat that requires new ways of coping. So the FBI has increased its authority to conduct searches, including at mosques where terrorists have sometimes gathered. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says previous restrictions have given an advantage to the terrorists who make skillful use of advanced technology. He asserts "our philosophy today is not to wait and sift through the rubble following a terrorist attack." At the same time, the White House insists the new procedures will not infringe on basic civil liberties of Americans. Mr. Nojeim acknowledged these good intentions, but worried about the reduced role of judges in the war on terrorism. "They are being written out of your lives," he said. "The USA Patriot Act is one example. It includes many provisions that minimize the role of judges, particularly in their ability to oversee the searches that the government does, whether it is electronic searches or whether it is physical searches."

Too many of these searches will now be done in secret without court approval, said Mr. Nojeim. Who knows where they will stop and how many innocent victims they will claim.

One of the most impassioned speakers, civil rights attorney Stanley Cohen said the U.S. government is confused about which Muslims are dangerous. While denouncing some as terrorists, it works with others who would appear to be equally terrorist. Why, he asked, is the United States aiding the Indonesian army with its record of human rights violations?

He said it is time to fight back, saying, "How are we going to fight back? Jihad good things for your people, to struggle for your community. That is Jihad. I am talking about legal, appropriate, responsible resistance. Organize. Lobby. Demonstrate. Fight these policies at home and abroad."

That is one way of fighting. Yasmin Shafiq, a recent graduate of a northern Virginia high school, proposed another: working closely with non-Muslims on common, useful projects. She said after September 11, she had no unpleasant encounters at school. On the contrary, classmates and teachers were sympathetic and supportive.

"When the entire country was looking at us and questioning our position in society and questioning us as Muslims," she said, "I had not one single problem at Langley high school. They knew us as we were involved. We were humanitarian. We helped to set up a blood drive after September 11. So simply by becoming involved in our Muslim community, we can help promote the image of Muslims in general."

There must be many more Yasmin Shafig's around the United States, said Bashir Ahmed, a board member of the American Muslim Council. He noted surprising results from two recent surveys of American opinion after September 11. "The positive image of Islam had gone up to 59 per cent, which means a lot of our brothers and sisters are very, very active out there, talking about the truth of Islam," he said. "The most striking figure was that since 9/11 the conversion rate to Islam has quadrupled."

Even if other polls may not be as comforting, Mr. Ahmed said there have clearly been gains as well as losses since 9/11. He said it is up to Muslims to continue the gains.