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US works to bridge its Muslim trust gap

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 27, 2006


It was an awkward moment for Martin Ficke, the special agent in charge of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New York.

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He was seated next to a member of the British Parliament for a panel on the "War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations." Why, the moderator asked Mr. Ficke, was this prominent British citizen with a diplomatic passport questioned for almost an hour when he landed at the airport?

To the audience, filled with Muslim-American students, the answer was obvious. His name is Shahid Malik, a Muslim name. "I've already talked to him about it privately and apologized," Ficke said. "It shouldn't have happened."

Across the country in conference rooms like this, as well as in local cafes and community meeting halls, officials of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI are reaching out to Muslim-Americans in an attempt to bridge the huge gap of mistrust that developed on both sides after 9/11. It's sometimes an uncomfortable process, as Ficke found. It's also not being applied consistently across the country, working well in some places – like New York, where the Muslim Advisory Council meets regularly – and not so well in others. But homeland-security experts and Arab- and Muslim-American leaders believe such outreach is crucial to maintaining the nation's security and strengthening its social fabric.

"9/11 created a pretty big divide and we still have a ways to go, but there has been progress," says Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. "With five years of retrospect at our disposal now, we as a nation are able to see more accurately what are and what are not effective law-enforcement initiatives and how it is important to reach out to the Muslim-American community and make them feel as partners in our society."

There's no question the US Muslim community felt the brunt of the FBI's counterterrorism and law-enforcement initiatives after 9/11, say experts. More than 1,200 immigrants, mostly Arab and Muslim males, were detained and denied due process for months. The Justice Department's own inspector general concluded that their detentions were "indiscriminate and haphazard," with no clear distinction made between those held for immigration violations and those who were suspected terrorists. The report also found "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" by correction officers. Ultimately, only a handful of those detained were charged with a terrorism-related offense, and 231 were deported.

Registration requirements for males

The Justice Department also set up a special program that required male visitors from 24 Arab and Muslim countries to register with local immigration offices. More than 80,000 men did so. Immigration officials found an estimated 13,000 were "out of status," which means there were problems with their visas. They're now awaiting deportation hearings. But experts say many of the visa problems were caused by inaccurate data and long delays in processing applications for permanent status. The Justice Department eventually canceled the program.

"By singling out a large group of mostly Arabs and Muslims, [these programs] involved a massive investment of law-enforcement resources with negligible return," says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, discrimination against Muslim- and Arab-Americans also soared. In 2001, the FBI reported a 1,600 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes and an almost 500 percent increase in ethnic-based hate crimes against persons of Arab descent, according to Mr. Zogby.