American Muslims and the FBI
American Muslims and the FBI
Tuesday, March 31,2009 14:50
By Hesham A. Hassaballa

It was deemed remarkable and unprecedented: President Obama issued a video message to the people of Iran on the occasion of the Persian New Year. In the message, he told the Iranian people that he is seeking "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." As leading British writer Patrick Seale recently wrote, this message was part of a broader strategy on Obama"s part to "build bridges to the Arab and Muslim world in order to restore America"s battered image and tarnished international standing, and make it safer from terrorist attack."

This strategy is indeed laudable and a welcome change from the previous Administration"s policies and philosophies. But there is another group of Muslims with whom America must have an unshakable bond -- American Muslims -- and recent actions by the FBI have raised great concern.

It began last fall, when the FBI announced that it had ended all formal ties with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The FBI declined to mention specifically why it severed ties to CAIR, but spokesman John Miller said, "We have made CAIR"s national leadership aware of these issues." CAIR disputes this characterization: "They have not communicated specific issues to us," said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper. "When we ask, they say, "Well, let"s have some future conversation about it." And we say, "No, we"d like to know now.""

In February, it became public that the FBI had sent an informant to several California mosques talking of terrorism and jihad, seeking to actively recruit terrorists. His actions prompted members of the Islamic Center of Irvine to report the informant"s inflammatory statements to the FBI and ask for a restraining order against him. Muslims accused the man of being an "agent provocateur" and were shocked by this action. In another incident, an FBI agent allegedly told a mosque member that his life would be a "living hell" if he did not become an informant for the FBI.

These "McCarthy era tactics," as they were called by Muslims, prompted a coalition of Muslim groups to consider suspending ties to the FBI. In a statement, the coalition said: "If the FBI does not accord fair and equitable treatment to every American Muslim organization...then Muslim organizations, mosques and individuals will have no choice but to consider suspending all outreach activities with FBI offices, agents, and other personnel." The statement continued, "This possible suspension, of course, would in no way affect our unshakable duty to report crimes or threats of violence to our nation."

The FBI has declined comment on the specific allegations, but these actions by the FBI clearly shows that it does not trust the American Muslim community. "It"s pretty devastating," says Kareem Shora, executive director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "What this has done is undermine what was a 10-year relationship of trust -- or what we thought was trust." Yet, there should be no credible reason for this. American Muslims have proven themselves to be unwavering as loyal citizens, with unshaken dedication to America"s safety and security.

When questioned on Capitol Hill on March 25, FBI Director Robert Mueller confirmed that the Muslim community "has been tremendously supportive and worked very closely with [the FBI] in a number of instances around the country."

CAIR is the nation"s largest and most respected Muslim civil rights organization, and to sever ties with the organization is quite counterproductive. A source within the FBI confirmed to the Christian Science Monitor that CAIR"s alleged ties to the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity recently convicted for ties to Hamas, were the basis for the FBI"s decision. But those ties are nothing more than the designation of CAIR and some 300 other Muslim groups and individuals as "unindicted co-conspirators" with the Holy Land Foundation. Publicizing this designation violates the Justice Department"s own guidelines, and it wrongly implies that these groups are involved in criminal activity.

Despite this treatment, I disagree with the Muslim organizations that they should sever ties with the FBI. As Former CAIR board chairman Parvez Ahmed wrote, "Even if CAIR feels that it is unfairly taking one on the chin, it should not issue self-serving calls asking members of the American Muslim community to break off relationships with the FBI, especially when such relationships, in small measures, do help in promoting mutual understanding." I also agree with the FBI"s spokesman John Miller that "limiting honest dialogue, especially when complex issues are on the table, is generally not an effective advocacy strategy." Thankfully, large mainstream organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council are not in favor of ending contact with the FBI.

Sadly, this whole situation has set back the relationship between the Muslim community and the FBI. In a statement issued on March 26, ISNA said: "National Muslim American organizations met with the FBI last week to voice concerns about undercover agents in mosques, to stress the need for government agencies to engage with Muslim American groups...and to discuss ways the FBI can continue to protect American citizens while operating with transparency." This is very important, and this sort of dialogue must continue, now more than ever.

Although it might take some time to rebuild trust, having a strong relationship between American Muslims and law enforcement is absolutely vital. Let’s not jeopardize it further through increased mistrust. Rather, the Muslim community should keep dialoguing even if it is justifiably angry about unfairness.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a physician and writer living in Chicago. He is co-author of The Beliefnet Guide to Islam (Doubleday).

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