CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — 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 US 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 US.
The antiterror campaign has shaken the 5 million or so Muslims in the US, a large majority of whom are American citizens. Law enforcement agents have interviewed nearly 200,000 Muslims and others from predominantly Islamic countries; hundreds have been deported or detained for long periods; thousands were subject to a "special registration," and now 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 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" - knowing supporters who don't participate directly in militant operations. Such a base is likely to exist where such groups 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.
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. Muslims, like many immigrants before them, tend to gravitate toward one another into neighborhoods where mosques, common language, social networks, and opportunities exist.
It is these communities in Brooklyn, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere that have attracted law enforcement attention.
Are radical imams preaching violence against America? Are Koranic schools training future terrorists? Are charities really supporting Al Qaeda, Hamas, or Chechen murderers? Most Americans would probably consider these as legitimate concerns in the wake of 9/11.
The evidence thus far, however, indicates that Muslims living in America haven't 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. Prosecutions of alleged terrorist-related activities, which should represent the most definitive picture of the internal threat, have established very little - if any - evidence of domestic Al Qaeda cells. Nothing else in the public 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 knowingly aiding the hijackers prior to their attack. Some of the 19 conspirators received minor assistance from an individual or two, but those individuals haven't been identified, described, or prosecuted; if they existed, they were very likely not rooted in local communities, and indeed the hijackers stayed clear of such attachments as well.
If Al Qaeda didn't have such a support base in the US prior to the attacks, it's even less likely they have one now. That doesn't mean there are no operatives here; they could, like the 9/11 cabal, sneak into the country and keep to themselves. Yet the supposition of many in the US government is that American Muslim communities are likely to harbor, support, or perhaps even initiate terrorism.
This suspicion is rocking those communities in ways that not only challenge their civil liberties but also seem counterproductive.
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 victims of the US occupation of Iraq is now considered precarious. Donating to charities is especially hazardous because so many of these institutions have been targeted by law enforcement as terrorist-related.
Speech is constrained - self-censored, but also restricted by Washington's actions. The denial last fall of a work visa for Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan, an inspirational professor who was to teach at Notre Dame, signals that moderate voices will be excluded. In surveys, interviews, and meetings Muslims and Arab-Americans 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 voiced concern about internment should another act of terrorism befall America.
So it can scarcely come as a surprise that in surveys in the Muslim world, even in friendly places like Turkey and Jordan, the US is viewed as a menace, at war with Islam. The great danger here is that with 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 today. This could even result in a strain of radicalism among their youth.
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 executive director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is coauthor and editor of the book 'The Maze of Fear: Security and Migration After 9/11.' This article is excerpted from a longer commentary that ran in the National Catholic Reporter.