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Some Muslims Rethink Close Ties to Law Enforcement

posted on: May 4, 2009

Mohammad Qatanani’s mosque was full of FBI agents the night before he was to find out if he would be deported.

But even though the federal government was trying to link Qatanani to foreign extremists, the agents weren’t there to keep an eye on him. They wanted to show their support for a Muslim leader they considered a valued ally for the relationships he helped forge between the FBI and Muslims in the wake of 9/11.

Across the nation, such grass-roots relationships between Muslims and the federal government are in jeopardy. A coalition of Muslim groups is calling for Muslims to stop cooperating with the FBI — not on national security or safety issues but on community outreach.

The coalition is upset over what it says is increasing government surveillance in mosques, new Justice Department guidelines that the groups say encourage profiling, and the FBI’s recent suspension of ties with the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

A petition that opposes FBI tactics is circulating in Muslim communities and has been gaining support, said coalition chairman Agha Saeed. The coalition, represented by the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections, has requested a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss what it sees as the deteriorating relationship between the FBI and Muslim communities.

“We have to decide what we’re doing as a country. If it’s not a war on Islam, then these practices must be stopped,” Saeed said. “We’re not asking for special treatment, just equal treatment.”

A number of Muslim groups — including some of the nation’s most prominent — have declined to sign the petition. Other organizations say they agree with parts of the petition but also support ongoing dialogue with law enforcement.

FBI spokesman John Miller said the agency values its relationships with Muslims and has worked hard on outreach efforts that range from town hall meetings to diversity training for FBI agents.

“I think a lot of these inaccurate statements and claims have the potential to do damage to those relationships,” Miller said. “What we’ve suggested to the major (Muslim) groups is that we try to separate the real issues from the sound bites, and if we can identify those real issues, tackle them together.”

Supporters of the petition cite recent cases in California and Michigan where the FBI has been accused of using informants and coercive tactics to spy on mosques.

A federal judge in California ordered a review last week of FBI inquiries into several Muslim groups and activists who claim they have been unfairly spied on and questioned. A Muslim organization in Detroit asked Holder in mid-April to investigate complaints that the FBI asked mosque attendees to spy on Islamic leaders and worshippers.

Miller said there is no factual basis for claims the FBI infiltrates mosques or conducts blanket surveillance of Muslim leaders.

“Based on information of a threat of violence or a crime, we investigate individuals, and those investigations may take us to the places those individual go,” Miller said.

Miller questioned the timing of the petition, noting that it comes after the FBI suspended ties with CAIR, partly because it was named as an unindicted coconspirator in the case against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development — a group charged with bankrolling schools and social welfare programs the U.S. government says are controlled by Hamas.

Afsheen Shamsi, a spokeswoman for CAIR’s New Jersey chapter, dismissed the idea that the petition is retaliation. She said it reflects the concerns of Muslims who have grown tired of being stopped at airports, constant questioning and relentless scrutiny eight years after the attacks of Sept. 11.

“I believe the Muslim community is questioning whether the mosque visits and the handshakes are just a big show by the FBI, while behind the scenes, they continue to engage in questionable practices,” she said.

The petition is gaining little traction in New Jersey, home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Muslims, and a place where relationships between Muslims and law enforcement were heavily tested in the aftermath of 9/11.

New Jersey lost 744 residents in the attacks; many Muslims were among the victims. Several of the 9/11 hijackers had lived in Paterson for a time, and many Muslims detained after the attacks were held in New Jersey jails.

But Muslim leaders say the FBI distinguished itself by reaching out to Muslims, Arab Americans and groups like Sikhs in the wake of 9/11. Relationships forged between the FBI and Muslim leaders in New Jersey have endured since.

At Qatanani’s mosque in Paterson after 9/11, the imam invited FBI agents to lecture congregants on how to recognize terrorists. Qatanani also helped train FBI agents on how to deal respectfully with Muslim detainees and community members.

When Qatanani became the subject of a high-profile deportation case last year, several high-ranking law enforcement officials took the stand on his behalf.

Aref Assaf, a mosque member and supporter of Qatanani who heads the Paterson-based American Arab Forum, say despite the imam’s immigration ordeal, he has urged his supporters not to sever ties with federal law enforcement. When the petition came up at a recent meeting of New Jersey Muslim leaders, Assaf said many declined to sign it.

“I’m a believer that law enforcement does not have a built-in anti-Muslim policy,” he said.

“I know from dealing with FBI leaders they have been very forceful in their expressions of solidarity with our faith and culture, but there is a line, where we have to accept that as part of our dealings with them, they have a job to do, to make sure there are no terrorists in our midst or anywhere else.”

Agha Saeed says relationships between the FBI and Muslims in other parts of the country have been more one-sided.

“There was a sense of mutuality at first. … These local connections people made, they wanted to see it as working with law enforcement and making the community better,” he said. “I am stupefied by the fact that they (the FBI) are burning down the bridges that they need.”

Samantha Henry
Associated Press

Picture caption:
Afsheen Shamsi of Princeton, N.J., community relations director for the Council on American-Islamic Relation-AP