Obama and American Muslims

Is it easier for the American administration to reach out to the “Muslim world” than it is to deal with Muslims in America? Barack Obama’s statements in Turkey this week, welcome as they are, play out against a backdrop of increasing tension between his administration and Muslim American organizations. Unless these tensions are addressed quickly and effectively, they risk undermining his public diplomacy.

A national coalition of Muslim Americans — the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT) — raised these domestic issues even as it applauded Obama’s Ankara remarks. It listed the “deteriorating relations between the FBI and American Muslims, the dissemination of inaccurate and agenda-driven information by DHS-recognized ‘fusion centers’, and Muslims’ concerns about Justice Department guidelines implemented in December 2008 that allow race and ethnicity to be factors in opening an FBI probe.”

The AMT coalition is even considering suspending their outreach relations with the FBI because of recent incidents — though not their support of legitimate law enforcement.

During the Bush years, several Arab and Muslim American organizations reached out to the FBI and the DHS to address the backlash of 9/11, which included “voluntary” registration of Muslim men and secret deportation of suspects as well as immigrants.

For example, the Arab American Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) has organized a training program to educate law enforcement officers and agencies in the United States about the Arab and Muslim American communities. The award-winning program also covers airlines and academic institutions.

Arab and Muslim organizations have also welcomed FBI representatives at community events, in spite of some of their members’ reservations. In 2007, for example, participants at annual conferences and banquets were startled to receive FBI gift bags and to spot recruitment booths alongside those selling books and olive oil. Some recipients wondered, only half jokingly, whether the gifts came pre-equipped with wiretaps.

The problem with the FBI erupted in February when it came to light that it had paid a former convict to infiltrate southern California mosques. The local Muslim American community also alleges that the FBI wanted one of their members to become an informer, threatening to make his life a “living hell” if he refused. That community member has since been arrested on immigration charges, which looks to the community as though the FBI has made good on its threat.

The incident has been a serious disappointment to Muslim and Arab American groups. Safiya Ghori, who heads the government relations department at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), declared, “It’s hit the community very hard, especially organizations that have spent 10 years building a relationship of trust with the FBI. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this.” ADC, MPAC, and other groups are requesting a meeting with FBI director Robert Mueller to address their concerns.

Another major problem is the security establishment’s treatment of Muslim American charities and the individuals that support them. Some community groups are upset that the FBI recently decided to limit its contact with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) — one of the largest and most established groups in the country — reportedly because one of its founders was named as one of 300 or so “unindicted co-conspirators” in the 2008 trial and conviction against a Texas charity.

But there is no such thing as an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ under the law. “It was a legal stunt by the former Department of Justice leadership. Legally, it means nothing, but politically it creates a chilling effect,” said ADC National Executive Director Kareem Shora. “CAIR does some excellent work. Groups should not be subject to a political litmus test and we fear this was the primary cause for the treatment that groups such as CAIR received as ‘unindicted co-conspirators’.”

Especially worthy of note is the terrorism case brought against the Palestinian-American grocer in Chicago, Muhammad Salah. The Bush administration used the case to manipulate standards governing the admissibility of coerced confessions, the use of secret evidence, and other established criminal justice principles. Salah’s lawyers Michael E. Deutsch and Erica Thompson described how this was done in a masterful two-part article in the Journal of Palestine Studies.

Muslim and Arab Americans recognize it is still too early to judge the new Obama administration. Like the rest of the world, they welcomed the concrete actions of closing Guantánamo and banning torture. And there are signs that the administration is moving as fast as it can, given the slow pace of appointments. The DHS deputy secretary, whom the Senate confirmed this week, has already reached out to Arab and Muslim American organizations.

These are all moves in the right direction. But more needs to be done to end both the Arab and Muslim communities’ sense that they are targets — notwithstanding all the nice words in Turkey.

NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Insitute for Palestine Studies.


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