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A 'good' American citizen: Citizenship vs. civil liberties

One Muslim American's tough challenge to his community.

By Mansoor Ijaz / April 1, 2003



NEW YORK

In the days leading up to the start of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," a Muslim American civil rights lobbying group, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) sent out a nine-page "Muslim Community Safety Kit" enunciating a series of largely ineffective steps for Arabs and Muslims living in the US to take if war backlash were to materialize against them.

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It wasn't the first time such knee-jerk civil rights lobbying had been done by a group purporting to represent America's Arabs and Muslims. But it should be the last.

The CAIR memo highlights the raging debate in US Arab and Muslim communities about whether protection of civil liberties should take precedence over the responsibilities of citizenship.

The continuing anger shown by immigrant Arabs and Muslims, whether about racial profiling at airports, or about charities being shut down for sending money to terrorist groups, or the failure to stop what many believe is an unjust war against Iraq, is misplaced and irresponsible.

It demonstrates an inability to put US national security interests ahead of doubtful claims that our civil rights are being violated, or to put loyalty to the state before religious and ethnic allegiances. The growing frustration also defines a critical leadership problem in our communities, that if not resolved soon, could doom another generation to the prejudices and venal hatred many of our parents brought when they made difficult choices to migrate to the US.

The voice of America's 6 million-strong Arab and Muslim population is dominated by special-interest groups such as CAIR, the American Muslim Council, and others who have hijacked the community's larger interests by expertly learning lobbying techniques of more experienced immigrant communities. They use elaborately constructed schemes to bring foreign money in to fund their operations and then make boisterous claims that they represent the community in matters of national importance. They do not.

They neither understand the value of the citizenship they so brazenly exploit, nor represent the growing but still silent majority of American-born and -educated Arabs and Muslims who are busy getting college degrees, decent jobs, and that first home. But not having the cash, or the time, to play Washington's power politics is no excuse for the next generation to forgo learning the central tenets of model citizenship that sometimes require personal sacrifice.

Shortly after Sept. 11, I voluntarily left a flight I was booked on because some of the passengers were nervous about traveling with a "Middle East looking person." It was as much my fault they felt the way they did as it was about me being the target of traditional cultural prejudices that have confronted other minority communities throughout American history.

Muslim Americans need to define a common blueprint, not just for the larger issues facing our communities, but for the immediate problems that concern our collective welfare against a threat we understand far better than our fellow citizens. We need to become the key resource for our government to develop strategies that combat terrorism at home and convey the power of democracy and capitalism abroad. Here are the steps we must take:

• Forbid the use of mosques and other religious institutions to discharge bigotry and hatred. Too many imams seem beholden to the agendas of the foreign, often radical, donors who support them. Each imam should have to pass minimum competency exams about their knowledge - beyond words - of how the Koran relates to daily American life. Congregation members should be the adjudicators of these tests - democracy at its best. Congregations might evaluate whether US citizenship, or at least permanent residency, should be qualifications for imams leading them. This might insure an imam understands that preaching in the context of national identity and responsibility is as high a calling as belonging to the global Ummah.

• Open Muslim charities to greater financial scrutiny, at least until we as a nation have grappled with the sources that fund terrorism around the world. We should ask our charities to voluntarily limit foreign donations to 5 to 10 percent of operating budgets and certify under penalty of perjury that the rest of the donors are US citizens who give from US taxable-income sources.

• Form Muslim American citizenship councils that bring together and organize communities of American-born Arabs and Muslims to teach new immigrants the ropes of American life without prejudice and hatred thrown in. These groups could also facilitate liaisons with federal law-enforcement agencies to police our communities for sleeper cells and other critical assistance in combating terror at home.

• Elucidate our respect for the separation of church and state, because Islam commands us Muslims to respect the traditions of the societies in which we choose to live. It is patently hypocritical for Muslim-Americans to demand civil rights enshrined by the state and then use the excuse of belonging to some abstract global Ummah, or Islamic community without borders, to criticize the state's requirements for being model citizens.

• And finally, whether we support war against Hussein or not, we should stand up in prayer for the men and women of our armed forces who are fighting, and dying, for our right even to have this debate.

Mansoor Ijaz is chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York and serves as foreign affairs and terrorism analyst for the Fox News Channel.

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