Cover story -- Stalking Non-Terrorists
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Issue Date:  January 14, 2005

Mistrusted Muslims

Investigations of U.S. Muslims turn up little terror


One of the mysteries surrounding the 9/11 attacks and the frequent terrorist alerts ever since is the role played, if any, by American Muslims in supporting al-Qaeda operations. The U.S. government acts as if there is a support base of some kind. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told a CNN reporter during the Republican convention, “We know there are al-Qaeda cells” operating inside the country. During the early August scare about terrorists targeting financial institutions, newspaper reports often alluded to, but did not identify or describe, a support network or individuals living in the United States.

For the 5 million or so Muslims in the United States, a large majority of whom are U.S. citizens, such implications are troubling. Their communities across the country have been shaken by the post-9/11 antiterrorist campaign: Law enforcement agents have interviewed nearly 200,000 Muslims and others from predominantly Muslim countries; hundreds have been deported or detained for long periods; thousands were subject to a “special registration,” and now some hundreds have been indicted in widely publicized “terrorist” prosecutions. Charities and other social institutions have been shut down or disabled, and surveillance in these communities is now a given. But the cardinal question of whether or not domestic Muslim populations actually pose a security threat remains unanswered, indeed, unarticulated, in public discourse and official pronouncements.

The question is neither impolite nor unimportant. We know that most politically violent groups require a “social base” -- clusters of knowing supporters who do not participate directly in militant operations. Such a social base is likely to exist where such groups are hiding and where they carry out attacks. Diasporas often support such groups with money, communications and political access. None of this is particularly new, but before 9/11 the violence was always somewhere else -- Northern Ireland, Palestine, South Africa and the like -- and not in America.

Now the nexus of threat is here, and the rules of the game are altered. There is no territorial struggle, and the numbers of ethnic and national populations involved number two dozen or more. International migration has created enormous flows of people, including many thousands of new immigrants seeking work every year. Muslims, like many immigrant waves before them, tend to gravitate toward each other into neighborhoods where mosques, common language, social networks and opportunities exist.

It is these communities in Brooklyn, New Jersey, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere that have attracted the attention of law enforcement officials. Are radical imams preaching violence against America? Are Quranic schools training future terrorists? Are charities really supporting al-Qaeda or Hamas or Chechen murderers? Most Americans would probably consider these as legitimate concerns in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities.

The evidence thus far, however, indicates that Muslims living in America have not constituted a social base for al-Qaeda. It is striking, in fact, that so little illegality has been uncovered in a population so thoroughly investigated and watched. The prosecutions of alleged terrorist-related activities, which should represent the most definitive picture of how the government views the internal threat, have established very little -- if anything -- that could be described as evidence of al-Qaeda cells operating in the United States. Nothing else in the publicly known record of this massive law enforcement and intelligence effort suggests that a conspiracy exists, a remarkably clean bill for these communities.

Notably, the 9/11 Commission itself found no evidence of a domestic social base prior to 9/11 that was knowingly aiding the hijackers. Some of the 19 conspirators received some minor assistance from an individual or two, but those individuals have not been identified, described or prosecuted; if they existed, they may also have been here, like the attackers, on temporary visas from Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. They were very likely not rooted in local communities, and indeed the hijackers stayed clear of such attachments as well.

If al-Qaeda did not have such a support base in the United States prior to the attacks, it is even less likely they have one now. That does not mean there are no operatives here; they could, like the 9/11 cabal, sneak into the country and keep to themselves. But the supposition of many in the U.S. government is that American Muslim communities are likely to harbor, support or perhaps even initiate terrorism.

This suspicion is rocking these very communities in ways that not only challenge their civil liberties but also may be counterproductive in numerous ways.

One of the first victims of the post-9/11 climate of fear in Muslim and Arab-American communities is charitable giving. Support for both Palestinians and for victims of the U.S. occupation of Iraq is now considered precarious. Material support -- donations through charities, most prominently -- is especially hazardous because so many of these institutions have been targeted by law enforcement officials as terrorist related. More non-political philanthropy is also drying up because of the fear that appearing on any such list creates vulnerabilities for the donor.

Speech is constrained, often self-censored, but now, too, by Washington’s actions. The recent denial of a work visa for Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan, an inspirational professor who was to teach at Notre Dame, sends a signal that moderate voices will be excluded. In surveys, interviews and meetings of Muslims and Arab-Americans, they describe strong feelings of isolation and alienation from the American mainstream, disrespect for their views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Palestinian question, and a sense of hopelessness about finding a place for Islam in American society. At a gathering of national and local leaders of Muslim and Arab-American communities at the Social Science Research Council in Washington this fall, a few spoke openly of internment should another act of terrorism befall America.

All of this turmoil has its consequences. It can scarcely come as a surprise that in surveys in the Muslim world, even in friendly places like Turkey and Jordan, the United States is viewed as a menace, at war with Islam. The treatment of Muslims in the United States is one element of those perceptions. The great danger here is that over years of suspicion, innuendo and harassment, buttressed by a new culture of internal security, Muslims in America will feel increasing isolation and hostility, beyond even what they sense nowadays. Among their youth, this could even result in a strain of radicalism. Thus, for this new national security state, a new security dilemma -- its creation of the forces it fears, certainly abroad and possibly now even at home, where no such force existed. But even the less alarming consequences, the palpable sense of fear and exclusion from American society, are a travesty of justice and fair play. We need in all our institutions -- law enforcement, news media, education, businesses and others -- a commitment to holding innocent what is not proven guilty and welcoming these communities as a growing part of America’s dreamland of rich diversity.

John Tirman is coauthor and editor of The Maze of Fear: Security and Migration After 9/11 (The New Press), and is executive director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2005

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