Over the past several weeks, a growing number of law enforcement documents have surfaced pointing to the institutional profiling of Muslims in the decade after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. First, an Associated Press investigation revealed a large-scale New York Police Department effort to collect intelligence on Muslims in the New York area, with police conducted surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods, mosques and businesses, even checking out immigrants who changed their names to sound more American.
Also controversial has been the use of counterterrorism training materials by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, under fire for using materials portraying Muslims in a negative light. And late last month, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report alleging that the FBI targeted specific ethnic communities across the United States based on race, ethnicity, religion and nationality for potential criminal investigation.
While Muslims weren't the only ones scrutinized, the organization said that FBI documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act showed that agents monitored Muslim and Arab-American communities in Michigan as a probable terrorist recruitment ground. Law enforcement officials have contended they were engaging in effective crime mapping, not ethnic profiling.
KPCC intern Yasmin Nouh spoke with several American Muslims in California after the latter report was released, some of them community leaders, others rank-and-file citizens. Some have been subject to law enforcement scrutiny themselves, including the president of an Orange County, Calif. mosque infiltrated by an FBI informant.
While most aren't surprised by the recent news, it's disappointing, they say. Some have chosen not to engage with law enforcement for lack of trust; others see an opportunity to foster dialogue. "If you’re not at the table," one man said, "you’ll be in the menu." Some of their thoughts:
- Issa Edah-Tally, president of the Islamic Center of Irvine, an Orange County, Calif. mosque where the FBI used an informant to collect information on possible terror plots. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the FBI for religious profiling; Attorney General Holder invoked state secret rules to prevent further information from being released on the surveillance. Notwithstanding, the mosque leadership has continued engaging with law enforcement.
We continued to maintain our relationship because at the end of the day, although we were disappointed, we still gave the FBI the benefit of the doubt that they are doing what they need to do to protect citizens of the U.S..
It doesn’t make us happy to hear that FBI agents are being trained about Muslims and Islam by individuals that don’t know anything about Muslims and Islam and they’re feeding law enforcement agents with incorrect and inaccurate information. I’m pleased to see and hear that Muslim organizations have spoken out against this and as a result, Muslims are being called to the table to meet with law enforcement, and review materials, because if you’re not at the table, you’ll be in the menu.
- Shakeel Syed, head of the Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization of local mosques and Muslim groups. After meeting with the FBI regularly since mid-2004, the council officially suspended relations with the agency in 2008, after Syed found out that the agency was collecting information on his activities. In 2007, the Shura Council and several other Muslim groups filed a lawsuit against the FBI over surveillance.
In terms of alienation, I don’t feel alienated. This is my country. I feel insulted. I feel betrayed. You fool me once, shame on you. You feel me twice, shame on me. And hence we [Shura Council] continue to remain engaged for the purpose of everything else except mutual understanding and dialogue, and all that time wasted on meeting with the FBI.
But if there is an imminent situation, they can reach out to us for the sake of communication. Our engagement will remain in the area of advocacy and righting these wrongs but not in getting to know one another.
Edina Lekovic, program director at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who sees the FBI’s actions as further reason to strengthen ties with elected officials and law enforcement:
It’s when things go wrong like this that we have to go back and meet these people and call them to task. This is the time we need the most engagement. And engaging doesn’t mean agreeing. It means engaging in direct discussion and calling for direct action.
In terms of the surveillance, the spotlight is being shown on the problem and it’s only a matter of time until more elected officials call for subsequent reform and it’s our job to work with officials to make that a reality.
The problem with this kind of wide net surveillance is that it sends the message to the average Muslim American that they’re being looked at as a suspect. This perception becomes reality. These kinds of surveillance methods aren’t only problematic on civil liberties and civil rights standpoint. But it undermines law enforcement’s own goals to work with Muslims.
- Amir Mertaban, manager of advance and group sales at the Fairplex in Pomona, who says that local police officers once questioned him and his friends after they prayed at a gas station during a pit stop while a road trip to a national park. Two weeks later, Mertaban says, the FBI questioned him at his house about a nonexistent “terrorist training book” in his van.
If I’m harassed during a road trip to beautiful Zion, how do you think I feel about civic engagement? They’re systematically killing activism through intimidation tactics in the Muslim community and they’re doing it on purpose. Honestly though, I’m not affected one bit from this information. This is old news and has happened in the past way too many times. This only makes me a stronger and more passionate advocate for the Muslim community and for freedom overall.
We pride ourselves as Americans to uphold liberty, freedom and justice but we’re backstabbing the very backbone of those values. We are selective on who gets them, and it sucks. The FBI have created such a level of distrust between them and the community. They are not doing the nation a favor by singling out Muslims.
- Sameera Ali, a second year law student at the University of Pacific who says she was outraged by the news, but that it motivates her to be more civically engaged:
The sense of injustice generally created by these programs in our society has impacted my career goals. I want to be a public defender and help people in communities that have been criminalized and don't have access to defend themselves.
From the very little I do, if I am able to help these individuals get out of the criminal justice system, in turn they will be given an opportunity to strengthen their communities and perhaps access resources and be able to join the fight against injustice.