US works to bridge its Muslim trust gap

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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."

Recommended: Default

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.

Last week, six imams returning from a conference on religious tolerance were removed in handcuffs from a US Airways flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix after a passenger raised concerns about "suspicious behavior." Three of them were seen praying in the waiting area and a fourth reportedly asked for a seat-belt extension. DHS's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has opened an investigation.

Efforts to bridge the gap

"One of the most disturbing things is that [polls show] more than half of the country views Islam as a violent or an extreme religion," says Faiza Ali, a student at Pace University, who spoke at the conference in New York.

The FBI found many such misperceptions about Islam among its agents as well, according to Andrew Arena, the special agent in charge of the New York FBI office. And so, as as the bureau began a concentrated effort to reach out to the Muslim community, education became one of its first priorities. At the FBI Academy and in ongoing field training, agents are now taught about the Muslim faith – its basic tenets and things like the difference between Shiites and Sunnis.

"It's helped to make our agents more culturally sensitive to the concerns of not only the Muslim community, but all of the communities that we deal with," says Mr. Arena.

Although the outreach and educational efforts have had some success in New York, they are inconsistent nationally: Quality is dependent on the priority that local federal offices give to such outreach. For instance in New York, members of the local Muslim Advisory Council are in weekly contact with FBI and DHS officials. They meet formally each quarter. But in other places, similar efforts are floundering. It's been two years since the Arab American Advisory Board has met with top officials at FBI headquarters in Washington, according Zogby, who is a member.

"I don't understand why it's dropped off, but I want better cooperation," he says.

Still, federal officials are trying to place emphasis on other concerns in the Muslim-American community. The FBI, for one, has stepped up its investigation of anti-Islamic hate crimes. In 2005, it probed 128 of them, compared with 28 in 2000.

And it's made recruiting a top priority in the Arab- and Muslim-American communities. In fact, outside the New York conference, both the FBI and DHS had tables staffed with recruiters. Arena made it a point to pitch the bureau when he spoke to the students.

"You could have a great career and really make a difference," he told them.

That was met with some skepticism. One student told Arena that she was interested in law enforcement, but because of her experiences since 9/11, she's afraid she'd face hostility at the FBI because she is a Muslim. Arena said she would not, noting the changes in FBI training as well as the importance it now places on having good relations with the Muslim-American community.

The process of reaching out can also be a two-way street. Suhail Muzaffar, chairman of Muslim Majlis of Staten Island, who organized the conference, is one who in the aftermath of 9/11 let the FBI know that some of its tactics were doing more harm than good in New York's Muslim community. He said that was particularly true on immigration matters.

"Before 9/11, the procedure was simple: You never saw an agent, you never talked to an agent, it was all paper," he says. "Suddenly, it became personal. People would visit you, they would call you. It created a lot of confusion and fear."

So agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) created what they call "calling cards" in English and Arabic that explain their procedures and why they've come. They also started intensive cultural training of their agents in terms of Muslim customs, as well as others, according to Ficke. For instance, the traditional Sikh dress includes a ceremonial dagger. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Sikhs were routinely challenged for carrying them. But the blades are blunt, Ficke says, and officers have been trained to recognize them and let them go.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...