TOPICS : Dispelling mistrust of US Muslims

John Tirman:

One of the mysteries surrounding the 9/11 attacks and the frequent terrorist alerts ever since is the role played, if any, by American Muslims in supporting Al Qaeda operations. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said during the Republican convention, “We know there are Al Qaeda cells” operating inside the country.

The anti-terror campaign has shaken the five million or so Muslims in the US, a large majority of whom are American citizens. Law enforcement agents have interviewed nearly 200,000 Muslims and others from predominantly Islamic countries; hundreds have been deported or detained; thousands were subject to a “special registration,” and now hundreds have been indicted in widely publicised “terrorist” prosecutions.

But the question of whether domestic Muslims pose a security threat remains unanswered. We know that most politically violent groups require a “social base”. Such a base is likely to exist where such groups carry out attacks. Diasporas often support such groups with money, communications, and political access. None of this is new, but before 9/11 the violence was always somewhere else. Now the nexus of threat is here, and the rules of the game are altered. Are radical imams preaching violence against America? Are Koranic schools training future terrorists? Most Americans would probably consider these as legitimate concerns in the wake of 9/11. The evidence thus far, however, indicates that Muslims living in America haven’t constituted a social base for Al Qaeda. Nothing else in the public record of this massive law enforcement and intelligence effort suggests that a conspiracy exists. Notably, the 9/11 Commission itself found no evidence of a domestic social base knowingly aiding the hijackers prior to their attack. If Al Qaeda didn’t have such a support base in the US prior to the attacks, it’s even less likely they have one now. That doesn’t mean there are no operatives here; they could, like the 9/11 cabal, sneak into the country and keep to themselves. Yet the supposition of many in the US government is that American Muslim communities are likely to harbour, support, or perhaps even initiate terrorism. This suspicion is rocking those communities in ways that not only challenge their civil liberties but also seem counterproductive. So it can scarcely come as a surprise that in surveys in the Muslim world, even in friendly places like Turkey and Jordan, the US is viewed as a menace, at war with Islam. The great danger here is that with years of suspicion, innuendo, and harassment, buttressed by a new culture of internal security, Muslims in America will feel increasing isolation and hostility, beyond even what they sense today. This could even result in a strain of radicalism among their youth. Thus, for this new national security state, a new security dilemma — its creation of the forces it fears, certainly abroad and possibly now even at home, where no such force existed. But even the less alarming consequences, the palpable sense of fear and exclusion from American society, are a travesty of justice and fair play. We need in all our institutions a commitment to holding innocent what is not proven guilty and welcoming these communities as a growing part of America’s dreamland of rich diversity. — The Christian Science Monitor