America's Muslims: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland. This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.

Alioune Niass, the Sengalese Muslim vendor who first spotted the now infamous smoking SUV in Times Square and alerted police, is no hero.

If it were not for the Times of London, we would not even know of his pivotal role in the story. No mainstream American newspaper bothered to mention or profile Niass, who peddles framed photographs of celebs and the Manhattan skyline. None of the big television stations interviewed him.

As far as the readers of the New York Times are concerned -- not to mention the New York Post and the Daily News -- Niass doesn't exist.  Nor does he exist for President Obama, who telephoned Lance Orton and Duane Jackson, two fellow vendors, to thank them for their alertness in reporting the SUV. The New York Mets even feted Jackson and Orton as heroes at a game with the San Francisco Giants.

And Niass? Well, no presidential phone calls, no encomiums, no articles (though his name did finally surface briefly at a New York Times blog several days after the incident), no free Mets tickets. Yet as the London Times reported, it was Niass who first saw the clouds of smoke seeping from the SUV on that Saturday night.

He hadn't seen the car drive up, because he was attending to customers -- and, for a vendor in Times Square, Saturday nights are not to be taken lightly. Niass was alarmed, however, when he saw that smoke. "I thought I should call 911," he told the Times, "but my English is not very good and I had no credit left on my phone, so I walked over to Lance, who has the T-shirt stall next to mine, and told him. He said we shouldn't call 911. Immediately he alerted a police officer nearby."  Then the cop called 911.

So Lance got the press, and he and Jackson, who also reported the SUV, have been celebrated as "heroes." As the Times interview with Niass has made the internet rounds, there have been calls for the recognition of his "heroism," too.

These three men all acted admirably. The two other vendors did what any citizen ought to do on spotting a smoldering car illegally parked on a busy street. But heroes? In the case of Niass, characterizing him as a hero may in a sense diminish the significance of his act.

A vendor in New York since 9/11, he saw something amiss and reported it, leading him into contact with the police. That a Muslim immigrant would not think twice about this simple civic act speaks volumes about the power of American society and the actual day-to-day lives and conduct of Muslims in this nation, particularly immigrant Muslims.

This was a reasonably routine act for Orton and Jackson, but for Niass it required special courage, and the fact that he acted anyway only underscores what should be an obvious fact about Muslims in post-9/11 America: they represent a socially responsible and engaged community like any other.

Assault on American Muslims

Why do I say that his act required courage?

Like many Muslim immigrants in New York City and around the country, Niass senses that he is viewed with suspicion by fellow citizens -- and particularly by law enforcement authorities -- simply because of his religion.  In an interview with Democracy Now, that essential independent radio and television news program, Niass said that, in terrorism cases, law enforcement authorities view every Muslim as a potential threat.  Ordinary citizens become objects of suspicion for their very ordinariness. "If one person is bad, they are going to say everybody for this religion. That is, I think, wrong."



As far as Niass is concerned, terrorists are, at best, apostates, irreligious deviants. "That not religion," he told his interviewer, "because Islam religion is not terrorist. Because if I know this guy is Muslim, if I know that, I'm going to catch him before he run away."

The New York Police Department Intelligence Division, the FBI, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement all routinely run armies of informers through the city's Middle Eastern and South Asian communities. In the immediate wake of 9/11, sections of New York experienced sweeps by local and federal agents. The same in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, and communities on the West Coast -- everywhere, in fact, that Muslims cluster together.

I've been reporting on this for years (and have made it the subject of my book Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland). Despite the demurrals of law enforcement officials, these sweeps and on-going, ever-widening investigations have focused exclusively on Muslim enclaves. I have seen the destructive impact on family and community such covert police activity can have: broken homes, deported parents, bereft children, suicides, killings, neighbors filled with mutual suspicions, daily shunning as a fact of life. "Since when is being Muslim a crime?" one woman whose husband had been swept up off a street in Philadelphia asked me.

Muslim residents have been detained, jailed, and deported by the thousands since 9/11.  We all know this and law enforcement and federal officials have repeatedly argued that these measures are necessary in the new era ushered in by al-Qaeda.  A prosecutor once candidly told me that it made no sense to spend time investigating or watching non-Muslims. Go to the source, he said.

Radicalization Is a Problem of Limited Proportions

There are many problems with this facile view, and two recent studies -- a onefrom a think-tank funded in large part by the federal government, the other from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and the University of North Carolina's departments of religion and sociology (using a U.S. Department of Justice grant) -- highlight some of the most glaring contradictions.

The Rand Corporation studied the incidence of terrorist acts since September 11, 2001, and found that the problem, while serious, was wildly overblown. There have been, Rand researchers determined, all of 46 incidents of Americans or long-time U.S. residents being radicalized and attempting to commit acts of terror (most failing woefully) since 9/11. Those incidents involved a total of 125 people. Think about that number for a moment: it averages out to about six cases of purported radicalization and terrorism a year. Faisal Shahzad's utterly inept effort in Times Square would make incident 47. In the 1970s, the report points out, the country endured, on average, around 70 terrorist incidents a year. From January 1969 to April 1970 alone, the U.S. somehow managed to survive 4,330 bombings, 43 deaths, and $22 million of property damage.
The Rand report, "Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States since September 11, 2001," argues that ham-handed surveillance and aggressive police investigations can be, and often are, counter-productive, sowing a deep-seated fear of law enforcement and immigration authorities throughout Muslim communities -- whose assistance is vital in coping with the threat of Islamic terrorism, tiny as it is here.

Family members, friends, and neighbors are far more likely to know when someone is headed down a dangerously radical path than the police, no matter how many informers may be in a neighborhood. "On occasion, relatives and friends have intervened," the Rand researchers write. "But will they trust the authorities enough to notify them when persuasion does not work?" And will the authorities actually use the information provided by family members when they receive it? Don't forget the perfunctory manner in which CIA officials treated the father of the underwear bomber when he tried to report his son as an imminent threat.

The second study, conducted by a research team from Duke University and the University of North Carolina, found similarly small numbers of domestic terror plots and incidents since 9/11. The report identifies 139 Muslim Americans who have been prosecuted for planning or executing acts of terrorist violence since September 11, 2001, an average of 17 a year. (Again, most of these attempted acts of terror, as in the Shahzad case, were ineptly planned, if planned at all.)  Like the Rand report, the Duke-UNC study highlights the meager numbers: "This level of 17 individuals a year is small compared to other violent crime in America but not insignificant. Homegrown terrorism is a serious but limited problem."

The Duke-UNC researchers conducted 120 in-depth interviews with Muslims in four American cities to gain insight into the problem of homegrown Islamic terrorism and the response of Muslim Americans to it. Why so few cases? Why so little radicalization? Not surprisingly, what the researchers found was widespread hostility to extremist ideologies and strong Muslim community efforts to quash them -- efforts partially driven by a desire for self-protection, but more significantly by moral, ethical, and theological hostility to violent fundamentalist ideologies.

Self-Policing Viewed as Key Tool

Both of these reports underscore the importance of what the researchers call "self-policing" within Muslim communities.  They consider it a critical and underutilized factor in combating terrorism in the U.S. Far from being secretive breeding grounds for radicalism, the Duke-UNC report argues, mosques and other Muslim community institutions build ties to the nation and larger world while working to root out extremist political fundamentalism. It was not for nothing that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed instructed his 9/11 hijackers to steer clear of Muslim Americans, their mosques, and their institutions.

The UNC-Duke report urges federal and local officials to work aggressively to integrate Muslim communities even more fully into the American political process. Authorities, it suggests, should be considering ways of supporting and strengthening those communities by actively promoting repeated Muslim denunciations of violence. (Such condemnations have been continuous since 9/11 but are rarely reported in the press.) Public officials should also work to insure that social service agencies are active in Muslim neighborhoods, should aggressively pursue claimed infractions of civil rights laws, and should focus on establishing working relationships with Muslim groups when it comes to terrorism and law enforcement issues.

The Times Square incident -- and, yes, the small but vital role played by Alioune Niass -- illustrate the importance of these commonsensical recommendations. Yet the media has ignored Niass, and law-enforcement agencies have once again mounted a highly public, fear-inducing investigation justified in the media largely by anonymous leaks. This recreates the creepy feeling of what happened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: the appearance of a massive, chaotic, paranoid probe backed by media speculation disguised as reporting. A warehouse raided in South Jersey. Why? No answers. A man led away in handcuffs from a Boston-area home. Who is he? What is his role? Was he a money man? Maybe. But maybe not.  Suspicious packages. Oddly parked trucks. Tips. Streets closed. Bomb squads cautiously approaching ordinary boxes or vehicles. No answers -- even after the all-clear rings out and the yellow caution tape comes down.

More importantly, the controlled flow of anonymous leaks to the mainstream press has laid the groundwork for the Obama administration to threaten Pakistan harshly -- even as Iraq and Afghanistan sink further into deadly and destructive fighting -- and to ponder extreme revisions of criminal procedures involving the rights of suspects. The administration's radical suggestion to suspend Miranda rights and delay court hearings for terrorism suspects amounts to a threat to every American citizen's right to an attorney and a defense against state power. Is this the message the country wants to send "the evil doers," as President Bush used to call them?

Or have we already taken the message of those evil doers to heart? Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen taken into custody on American soil, disappeared into the black hole of interrogation for more than two weeks -- despite President Obama's assertion to a CIA audience over a year ago that "what makes the United States special... is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy, even when we are afraid and under threat, not just when it's expedient to do so."

When the going gets tough, as Attorney General Holder made clear on "Meet the Press" on May 9th, the tough change the rules. "We're now dealing with international terrorists," he said, "and I think that we have to think about perhaps modifying the rules that interrogators have and somehow coming up with something that is flexible and is more consistent with the threat that we now face." None of this is good news for Muslims in America -- or for the rest of us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

By Stephan Salisbury
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
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