Arabs, Muslims Puzzled by Govt ‘Outreach’

Groups representing Arab and Muslim-Americans are confused by what appear to be conflicting signals from the Bush administration – which claims to be making serious efforts to "build bridges" to these constituencies, but simultaneously continues to practice discrimination and harassment.

They note the following:

– In Washington, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller refers to Muslim and Arab-Americans as "partners" in the "war on terrorism."

President George W. Bush tells a roundtable of Arab and Muslim-American leaders, "Americans of Muslim faith share the same grief that we all share from what happened to our country [in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001]"; that "they’re just as proud of America as I am proud of America"; that "they love our country as much as I love our country," and that Islam is "a faith based upon love, not hate."

– But in Tempe, Ariz., in the weeks leading up to the third presidential debate on Oct. 13, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies step up their programs of "voluntary" interviews of Muslims and Arabs, with the stated aim of thwarting terrorist actions prior to the Nov. 2 elections. Similar "interviews" are conducted in other U.S. cities with large Arab and Muslim populations.

– The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it is "not conducting a ’roundup’ or a ‘sweep’ in any community [and is] not profiling based on race or religious affiliation [or] instituting a blanket detention policy."

But since 9/11, some 5,000 people – most from these communities – have been arrested and detained by the FBI acting on behalf of the DHS. Many have been held for long periods without legal counsel, and many others have been deported – but there have been no convictions for terror-related crimes.

– The FBI’s Washington field office organizes an advisory committee designed to help the bureau better understand and resolve Arab and Muslim fears. One of its members is the prominent head of a leading advocacy group, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

At the same time, ADC and 15 other human and civil rights groups file suit against the Department of Justice (DOJ) demanding release of information about persons arrested and detained since 9/11.

– Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI’s Mueller meet with national leaders of Muslim, Sikh, and Arab-American organizations to address issues including hate crimes and civil rights violations, and to enlist the assistance of their communities.

Meanwhile, the parents of a 23-year-old college student sue to compel the government to release information about their son, a U.S. citizen of Saudi descent who was arrested in Saudi Arabia at the request of the FBI, and was being held in detention without charge 18 months later.

These are but a few of the many conflicting issues currently spreading doubt about the U.S. government’s announced strategy of "outreach" to Arab and Muslim-American citizens, and the depth of the administration’s commitment to protecting their civil liberties.

What are the government’s "outreach" programs?

According to Daniel Sutherland of the DHS, "We have created an Office for Citizenship, which promotes among new immigrants an understanding of the civic principles upon which this nation was founded [and] an Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties [CRCL] to ensure that we protect both our physical safety and our American ideals."

The DOJ’s civil rights division has held more than 250 town and community meetings. The assistant attorney general has spoken out against violence and threats against individuals perceived to be of a certain race, religion, or national origin, and he has met about 25 times with leaders of Arab-American, Muslim-American, Sikh-American, and South Asian-American bodies.

The DOJ has also launched the "Initiative to Combat Post 9/11 Discriminatory Backlash" to deal with such issues as the rising incidence of hate crimes. It has held community forums in Chicago, Dearborn, Arlington, Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, Seattle, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Boston, New York, and New Jersey.

Alex Acosta, the DOJ’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, has written to the heads of school districts throughout the country urging them to be vigilant about hate crimes against young Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs. Incidence of hate crimes against these groups has risen some 1,600 per cent in the past few years.

When the ADC, the Arab American Institute (AAI), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), told the FBI of their "disappointment about not being informed prior to the resurgence of ‘voluntary’ interviews," they say the bureau "agreed to issue advisories to all agents informing them that questions regarding a citizen’s or resident’s political or religious views are inappropriate [and] promised to report to the media the high level and invaluable work of the Arab and Muslim-American communities with law enforcement."

Similarly, groups representing Arab and Muslim-Americans objected to disclosure of detailed information about the Arab-American community by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The groups met with the commissioner of the bureau of customs and border protection (CBP) and the head of DHS’ office of civil rights and civil liberties, and obtained a reversal of this Census Bureau practice. "CBP policies specifically prohibit the use of ethnic background, race, gender, color, or religion as a factor in determining whether to conduct a personal search at the border," said a bureau official following the meeting.

Yet, spokespersons for Arab and Muslim-American organizations appear ambivalent about the administration’s efforts.

ADC Communications Director Laila Al Qatami suggested to IPS, "What might seem like a simple program of voluntary interviews like those initiated by the FBI leadership becomes far more troubling when agents are asking outrageous questions and acting outside their authority."

"The [agencies’] leadership is usually aghast when we communicate what has been reported to us by our members across the country. When we tell the FBI headquarters what some of their agents are doing, or when we tell ICE/INS [the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement] that their field officers aren’t following proper procedures, or that the census [bureau] needs some guidelines to follow when releasing data, we realize that there simply is no real quality control."

According to Human Rights First, a lawyers’ advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., "From secret mass arrests, to the ‘voluntary’ interviews of thousands, to fingerprinting and registration for those legally here, to selective enforcement against those who have been held deportable, Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims – mostly immigrants – have borne the brunt of many of the government’s new police powers."

"Federal law enforcement are concerned that many of these policies, which have generated such distrust and fear in Arab and Muslim communities, are simply ineffective," it adds.

Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counter-terrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), believes the FBI’s decision to round up 5,000 Arabs and Muslims for questioning is counterproductive. "It alienates the very community whose cooperation you need to get good intelligence."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.