Bridges of Rhetoric and Suspicion

In his attempt to improve relations with the Muslim world, President Obama has done what no other American president has ever done before.

Starting with his inauguration speech in which he stressed on the importance of relaxing the defensive posture so that the demonization process could stop. Following with his speech at the Turkish Parliament in which he offered the reassurance that neither the US nor the West is in war with the Muslim world. And concluding with his historic Cairo speech in which he highlighted the importance of mutual respect in order for genuine dialogue and understanding to take root.

However, the litmus test is how quickly certain unjust policies instituted after the tragic events of 9/11 are reversed, and how impartially America treats Muslims facing the justice system.

“At our department, our Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) is building stronger relationships with Arab and Muslim Americans…,” asserted Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, in her recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. And, while Secretary Napolitano projects a pristine picture, unfortunately the reality on the ground tells a different story- one in which rhetoric is in abundance and substance is scarce.

For almost a decade now, the constitutional right guaranteeing the presumption of innocence until proven guilty was routinely compromised any time the accused was a Muslim. Granted, Muslims, by and large, enjoy more freedom to practice their religion and build religious institutions in America than in any other country, including their own. However, Muslims of Arab background continue to be subjected to routine harassment and mistreatment. Recently, another Muslim group–”the Somalis–”has joined them to share their uncomfortable space under the spotlight.

For the Somalis, matters have taken the wrong turn when 20 young men turned out missing in the Minneapolis area and three turned out dead. These youth are believed to have joined al-Shabab, and are feared to come back with militant ideologies. Al-Shabab is listed in the US as a terrorist organization.

While the Somali community is generally mindful that a serious investigation is indeed warranted, it is concerned about how sensationalized media reports are already indicting the community and its religious institutions in the court of public opinion. For this could set the stage for severe backlash, and for law enforcement to exert unchecked authority.

And now that two Somali youth are in custody and one pleading guilty to aiding al-Shabab and the second’s process being underway, the metaphorical audible whispers of the community have been: the stage is set for the FBI to make multiple arrests during the holy month of Ramadan and right before the eighth 9/11 memorial day.

The Somali community feels “under siege.”

And this sense of cynicism settled in when complaints about FBI officers entering homes and businesses under false pretences and without any court warrant were brushed off by the very watchdog mandated to guard against abuse of power and protect constitutional rights- CRCL.

It has grown more profoundly when, in what seemed inexplicable stretch of jurisdiction, complaints about counterintelligence professionals from New York Police Department showing up at homes and businesses in Minneapolis were again defended by CRCL representatives as standard operational procedure. These kinds of dismissive treatments, needless to say, put shroud of suspicion around that office’s claim of independence. CRCL representatives should never function as the FBI’s public relations office. Of course, there is nothing wrong with projecting a good image of the law enforcement offices and authorities that protect our lives and communities, but that should be the function of a different department.

To make matter worse, this whole thing comes at a time when relations between US Muslims and law enforcement authorities has been strained over the discovery that the FBI has been sending informants and planting agent saboteurs in mosques to provoke worshippers and trap unsuspecting youth.

“While law enforcement professionals are in general fact-driven people, a significant number of them still function as though it is 2003 and America is waging an ill-advised war against Iraq . And changing that frame of mind where facts and fiction confluence will take time,” said one community member who was a victim of that frame of mind.

Earlier this year, a coalition of America ‘s largest Muslim organizations issued an open letter asserting their intention to halt cooperation with the law enforcement authorities so long as the FBI continues mixing politics with law enforcement practices and implicating reputable organizations with sheer innuendoes. Despite the vicious disinformation routinely cooked by the likes of Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson, Robert Spencer and David Horowitz who believe that the seven million Muslims in America are “sleeping cells” and “ticking bombs,” facts indicate the complete opposite.

In conclusion, in order to build bona fide bridges of understanding that could significantly reduce elements hindering the US and the Muslim world to work together on critical issues of mutual importance, the following real change must take place:

First, real policies, such as the US Patriot Act must be improved and made more balanced.

Second, Muslims should be treated as stakeholders and not as aliens with bombs strapped around their waists.

Third, both the administration and local governments should appoint competent Muslims as high level policy advisors, not simply as tokens. The more independent-minded these individuals are, the more credibility they earn for their respective offices.