Bridges of Rhetoric and Suspicion

Supporters of Pakistan's fundamentalist Islamic party Jamaat-i-Islami torch a U.S. flag during a rally in Karachi on June 28. (Photo: Asif Hassan/ AFP-Getty Images)

In his first six months, President Obama has made more of an effort to improve relations with the Muslim world than any other American president before him.

He began with his inauguration speech, stressing the importance of relaxing defensive postures so that the demonization process can stop. He followed with his speech at the Turkish Parliament, offering the reassurance that neither the United States nor the West is at war with the Muslim world. Then in his historic Cairo speech, he emphasized the importance of mutual respect in order for genuine dialogue and understanding to take root.

However, the litmus test should be measured by how quickly unjust policies instituted after 9/11 are reversed, and how impartially America treats Muslims facing the justice system.

"At our department, our Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (C.R.C.L.) is building stronger relationships with Arab and Muslim Americans," asserted Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in her recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. But while Secretary Napolitano projects a pristine picture, the reality on the ground tells a different story—one in which rhetoric is abundant and substance is scarce.

For almost a decade now, the constitutional right guaranteeing the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven was routinely compromised any time the accused was a Muslim. Granted, Muslims, by and large, enjoy more freedom to practice their religion and build religious institutions in America than in any other country, including their own. But Muslims of Arab background continue to be subjected to routine harassment and mistreatment. Recently, another Muslim group—the Somalis—has joined the Arabs in their uncomfortable space under the spotlight.

For Somalis, matters took a wrong turn when 20 young men turned out missing in the Minneapolis area and three turned out dead. These youth are believed to have joined al-Shabab and are feared to come back with militant ideologies. Al-Shabab is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

While the Somali community is generally mindful that a serious investigation is indeed warranted, it is concerned about how sensationalized media reports are already indicting the community and its religious institutions in the court of public opinion. This could set the stage for severe backlash, and for law enforcement to exert unchecked authority.

Now that two Somali youth are in custodym with one pleading guilty to aiding al-Shabab and with the second's process underway, the whispers of the community have been that the stage is set for the F.B.I. to make multiple arrests during the holy month of Ramadan and right before the eighth 9/11 memorial day. The Somali community feels preemptively under siege.

This sense of cynicism settled in when complaints about F.B.I. officers entering homes and businesses under false pretences and without any court warrant were brushed off by the very watchdog mandated to guard against abuses of power and protect constitutional rights—the C.R.C.L.

The cynicism has grown more profoundly when, in what seemed an inexplicable stretch of jurisdiction, complaints about counterintelligence professionals from New York Police Department showing up at homes and businesses in Minneapolis were again defended by C.R.C.L. representatives as standard operational procedure. These kinds of dismissive treatments, needless to say, throw a shroud of suspicion over that office's claim of independence.

To make matter worse, this comes at a time when relations between U.S. Muslims and law enforcement authorities has been strained over the discovery that the F.B.I. has been sending informants and planting agent saboteurs in mosques to provoke worshippers and trap unsuspecting youths.

"While law enforcement professionals are, in general, fact-driven people, a significant number of them still function as though it is 2003 and America is waging an ill-advised war against Iraq. And changing that frame of mind where facts and fiction [conflate] will take time," said one community member with personal experience in the matter.

Earlier this year, a coalition of America's largest Muslim organizations issued an open letter asserting their intention to halt cooperation with law enforcement authorities so long as the F.B.I. continues mixing politics with law enforcement practices and implicating reputable organizations with sheer innuendoes. While men like Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson, Robert Spencer and David Horowitz spread vicious generalizations about the 7 million Muslims in America being "sleeping cells" and "ticking bombs," it is important that the rule and enforcement of law remain just and impartial.

In order to build bona fide bridges of understanding that could significantly reduce elements hindering the U.S. and Muslim worlds from working together on critical issues of mutual importance, the following real change must take place, policies such as the U.S. Patriot Act must be modified and made more balanced. Muslims should be treated as stakeholders, not as agents of terror.

If the administration wants to go beyond the rhetoric and make real progress, both the administration and local governments should appoint competent Muslims as high-level policy advisors, not simply as tokens. The more independent-minded these individuals are, the more credibility they will earn for their respective offices.

Abukar Arman is a widely published writer who lives in Ohio.