Racial Profiling by Law Enforcement Is Poisoning Muslim Americans’ Trust
In the same week, a Moroccan 29-year-old man was caught attempting to bomb the Capitol in a government-led terrorism sting operation and the NYPD was caught systemically spying on Muslim students at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, and other universities on the US east coast. These two seemingly distinct events epitomize the fundamental flaws in the government’s counterterrorism policies.
On the one hand, the government, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, has expended significant resources to conduct “community outreach” meetings with Muslims across the nation. On the other hand, while Muslims are lured into trusting their government, they are systematically spied on, investigated, and sometimes prosecuted.
Millions of dollars are spent flying bureaucrats from various federal agencies to meet and greet Muslim leaders, most of whom are male, in an attempt to earn their trust. In those meetings, local and state law enforcement is invited to build long-term relationships with the Muslim communities in their jurisdictions. On the face of it, the meetings appear to be a good-faith effort to demystify Muslims and counter false stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists. In practice, the objectives are more duplicitous.
In a blatant violation of their trust, local and federal agencies are recording these community outreach meetings, as well as the names and personal information of the attendees. Even Muslim imams who have been engaging with the government for years have found themselves under investigation. Community outreach meetings appear nothing more than a tool within a broader fishing expedition of Muslim communities nationwide. The strategy is that if there is no evidence of terrorism, then the government must go out there and create it through community outreach meetings that set the groundwork for sting operations.
In doing so, the government is alienating its most important ally, the Muslim community, which has been the most effective counter-terrorism tool the government has.
As witnessed in recent reports of the NYPD’s long-term surveillance program, this information gathering is part of a much broader surveillance scheme targeting community leaders, Muslim students, and any other Muslim with the misfortune of interacting with an undercover agent or informant. Without any evidence of criminal activity, informants infiltrated Muslim student organizations at Yale, Rutgers, and other universities. The undercover agents attended student meetings, academic conferences, and participated in field trips. The attendees’ names and conversations became the basis of personal files in intelligence databases and subsequent investigations.
Meanwhile, the government admits that “lone wolf” terrorists are currently the primary threat of homegrown terrorism in the United States. Despite the conclusions of a recent report by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security (pdf) that terrorism committed by Muslims in America is declining, the government is focused solely on Muslims. To be sure, religious profiling is the least of the government’s concern, especially during an election year when politicians earn political capital by Muslim-bashing.
Herein lies the paradox.
Assuming the government’s conclusions are correct, lone wolf terrorists are very difficult to detect because they do not have co-conspirators or networks of support. They are often mentally unstable individuals at the margins of society. To the extent that the lone wolf terrorists who are Muslim seek to recruit other Muslims, they risk detection. This is explains the government’s appetite for community engagement in hopes that Muslims will report such interactions.
But can we reasonably expect Americans who are themselves collectively targets of surveillance and suspicion to trust the very agencies spying on them? One need only study the experiences of African Americans systematically harassed, investigated, and prosecuted by police. The result is an understandable distrust of law enforcement – so much so that young African-American men go out of their way to avoid any contact with the police. Rather than view law enforcement agencies as protectors, they are viewed as persecutors. So long as the police engage in systemic racial profiling and attendant criminal punishments, community outreach is futile , as well as disingenuous.
Thus, American Muslims face a palpable dilemma. If they report suspicions about terrorism, they invite government scrutiny into their lives and are likely to become targets of informants, investigations and surveillance (if they are not already). This entails very serious risks to their liberty. If they avoid interacting with law enforcement to protect their civil liberties, however, they are accused of condoning terrorism and disloyalty.
Like any other Americans, American Muslims report terrorism about which they have knowledge. But revelations about the NYPD’s surveillance program, coupled with proven surveillance of community outreach meetings, make one thing clear: no good deed goes unpunished for Muslims in America.
Sahar F Aziz is an associate professor at Texas Wesleyan University school of law and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. She is the author of Caught in a Preventive Dragnet 10 Years Later: Selective Counterterrorism in a Post-9/11 America (2011). She previously served as a senior policy adviser at the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Homeland Security
This article was published by The Guardian on February 21, 2012. Read it here.