Muslim Americans and US law enforcement: not enemies, but vital partners

But first, both Muslim Americans and law enforcement have to change the way they interact.

The stigma on Muslim Americans worsened in 2009. The latest events, including arrests of the Newburgh Four in New York, Michael Finton in Illinois, and Hossam Smadi in Texas; then the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre by Nidal Malik Hasan; and most recently the arrest in Pakistan of five young Muslim men from Virginia attempting to join a militant group there have only added to difficulties.

Each of these events was unique. The first three involved the questionable use of FBI informants, one case involved a man going on a violent rampage, and another involved youth seeking violent adventures abroad.

Yet, at a time when terrorism remains a challenge to US national security, these events feed into the false and dangerous fear that Muslim Americans cannot be trusted.

America can’t afford that.

The US must identify and apprehend terrorists while avoiding the alienation of its mainstream Muslim communities. And it is critical that tactics used by law enforcement agencies to achieve the first goal do not undermine the second, as it is not only contrary to the values of a free and democratic society, it creates counterproductive counterterrorism.

In the current climate of fear, it’s difficult to gain trust. In order to heal relations between Muslim American communities and law enforcement, and create a more effective barrier against terrorists, both sides need to revise their respective approaches to extremism and violence.

Many Muslims Americans are concerned by news that paid FBI informants, including ex-con men such as Craig Monteilh in southern California and Shahed Hussain in New York, have been targeting impressionable Muslim Americans to incite and then entrap them. The Muslim community is also concerned by reports that law enforcement agents are coercing Muslim Americans to serve as informants in exchange for immigration ease.

This should matter to all Americans, because fearful communities are less willing to talk to law enforcement – and we need all the help we can get from Muslim Americans. After years of building trust with local law enforcement, the Pakistani community in Lodi, Calif., is trying repair relations that were tattered by the highly questionable use of an FBI informant in a counterterrorism investigation just after Sept. 11.

Muslims themselves have helped authorities in two recent cases. The Virginia men in Pakistan were detained and the Detroit-bound airline bomber was flagged because family members bravely stepped forward to tell law enforcement about suspicious activity.

However, fear within communities can cut off the goodwill and sources of information needed to prevent another attack.The Texas arrest of Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, a 19-year-old charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, is a case in point. Normally, individuals with extremist views would be identified by local community members and religious leaders would intervene to conduct an ideological detox. No such intervention took place because those doing the intervention were worried that they, too, would become subjects of an investigation.

Enforcement actions running afoul of the Constitution – such as the surveillance of individuals without a legal standard of “reasonable suspicion” and the questionable use of informants – must be investigated and policies allowing it to occur must be revised.

Another example of many problematic procedures is in the FBI Domestic Investigation Operations Guidelines issued last fall. It effectively sanctions racial and religious profiling.

Such tactics are ill-considered. They may be seen as preventive actions by law enforcement but they waste limited investigative resources and, more important, give undue credibility to extremists’ false narrative of a war against Islam.

Developing and maintaining partnerships between the American Muslim community and law enforcement can be challenging, but they are possible – and they’re vital to our national security. To improve them, several steps are in order: First, law enforcement must rely on credible information to develop its understanding of Muslim communities. There is far too much shallow analysis being fed to law enforcement from a cottage industry of anti-Muslim bigots. In the complex arena of law enforcement, there’s no substitute for solid facts and thorough analysis.

Second, any partnership must operate with a clear division of labor. Law enforcement should focus on criminal activities, while Muslim communities should focus on tackling the causes of radicalization that can lead to violence.

Muslim efforts to counter extremist ideologies are gaining more attention – as they should. Yet more needs to be done. Radicalization is a complex phenomenon that cannot be boiled down to one factor, such as bad theology.

To effectively counter extremist narratives, Muslim community leaders must combine ongoing religious literacy efforts with stronger programs addressing identity issues, premarital sex, drugs, and healthy expressions of social and political grievances. These efforts must also be expanded to the cyberworld where mainstream “e-Dawah,” or electronic religious outreach, must counteract extremists’ deceptive image of “jihadi cool.”

Third, the civil liberties and privacy of all Americans – including Muslims – should be fully protected. US moral commitment to democratic values, and the safety of the American people, depend on it. Other Muslims cannot effectively confront extremists if all congregants – especially the mainstream majority – fear they will become the subject of an investigation. The best antidote to extremist views is the free marketplace of ideas.

Attorney General Eric Holder should also revisit the current FBI Domestic Investigation Operations Guidelines. He should include community input in the review process to strengthen civil liberties protections for all Americans.

With 2010 upon us, the US must learn from the mistakes made in 2009 regarding terrorism and the treatment of the Muslim American community. Law enforcement and Muslim Americans have to overhaul strategies toward violence and extremism.

Alejandro J. Beutel is the government liaison with the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the author of “Building Bridges to Strengthen America: Forging an Effective Counterterrorism Enterprise between Muslim Americans and Law Enforcement.”


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