We need to stop pretending that radical Islam is not a threat. The whim of Islamist extremists poses a potentially devastating threat to the world, including other Muslims. In an age of nuclear proliferation and increasingly accessible biological and chemical weapons, the ability of “one angry man” is amplified to the extreme. This ability is exponentially increased by organizations, like Al Qaeda, which are well funded, endorsed, and protected by a larger network of Islamist governments and sympathetic Muslims. Even in America, 13% of Muslims believe suicide bombings carried out against civilians are often, sometimes, or rarely justified (rare suicide bombings also cause ample destruction). In New York State, the location of the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 and their eventual destruction by Al Qaeda in 2001, the fear is especially acute – and not at all unfounded. Revelations that the New York City Police Department has been spying on Muslim organizations across the Northeast, therefore, come as no surprise. America, including American Muslims, is at war with radical Islam, and has been for decades. Let us fight better.
I recently spent an enjoyable evening at a Halal restaurant in Albany, NY, with several Muslim friends. Two of them, both Palestinian, were in town to give a presentation about living life as a refugee and had been onstage with a Jewish refugee of Nazi Germany just hours before our dinner. Our talk inevitably turned to issues of racial profiling, especially the type that typically transpires on a regular basis at airports. “They look at my veil and don’t know what to do,” said one of my friends, a refugee from Gaza, describing her experiences with the Transportation Security Administration. “One of them told me to pat down my veil while they watched – as if I would tell them if I had a bomb!” The insanity of the procedure she explained was, of course, telling of the misunderstandings which often confuse interactions between Muslims and the American population at large.
Another of my dinner companions, a Palestinian refugee from Jordan who now works in the United States, said it is even worse being an Arab man going through security checkpoints. “You can’t even imagine,” he said, “in America, it really pays to be white.” And it’s true enough that white people in America have it easy. Even while other whites are blasting away at abortion doctors, blowing up state buildings in Oklahoma, shooting up high schools, and sending bombs in the mail, we get off easy at the airports. Continuing, however, my friend admitted that “anyone who isn’t American” has a hard time. The four of us sitting around the dinner table, being given suggestive glances by the owner who wanted to close early, agreed that so-called “random” searches at airports are far from random; the TSA should drop the charade: random searches do us no good.
I relayed a story of a recent flight I took where I made it through security without being stopped, all the while wearing a belt buckle with a gun imprint on it and carrying a book sporting a large image of Bin Laden (“When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Bin Laden”). Instead, the 50 year old woman behind me was taken for enhanced screening. Considering that men my age are far more likely to be violent than 50 year old women (indeed, than women in general), I was shocked that they did not screen me, or any other young men getting on the small Cessna that day. Let us fight better.
In the years following 2001, the New York City Police Department has launched a serious surveillance program targeting Muslims. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, defending the program, said, “We just cannot let our guard down again.” The scope of the intelligence effort, however, is the problem. NYPD agents were responsible for undercover surveillance operations across Northern New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey – far from the city limits. As noted by the Associated Press, the NYPD is one of the largest intelligence agencies in the United States with roughly 1,000 officers dedicated to intelligence and counter-terrorism. It is tasked with protecting the city of New York, and, obviously, threats often come from outside. However, there are several problems, beyond simple issues of jurisdiction, which result from the actions of the NYPD. The AP reports:
In the past few days, the department has come under fire from university officials and others, including the president of Yale University, after the AP revealed that police agents had monitored Muslim student groups around the Northeast and had sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip with some college students.
More criticism came from public officials in New Jersey after another AP report detailed a secret effort by the NYPD to photograph every mosque in Newark and catalog Muslim businesses.
That operation was an extension of a similar tracking effort within New York's city limits. Plainclothes officers swept through Muslim neighborhoods, photographing mosques and eavesdropping on businesses. Informants reported on what they heard inside mosques, including the sermons. Police monitored and kept files on Muslims who Americanized their names. They also infiltrated Muslim student groups.
What we are seeing taking place is an aggressive policy of religious profiling targeting Muslims. There are justifications, however. A top concern is the fact that Muslim student groups, the Muslim Student Association in particular, have been proven recruiting grounds for terrorist groups. Founded in the 1960’s by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the MSA is in the same family as organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Al Qaeda – all of which were also Brotherhood spinoffs. The Brotherhood’s current motto is: “God is our objective, the Quran is our Constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our way, and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations.” MSA alumni include:
- Anwar al-Awlaki, an influential American-born al-Qaida cleric who recruited a series of homegrown jihadists before being killed by a U.S. drone strike;
- Aafia Siddiqui, convicted of attempted murder and assault on U.S. officers and employees in Afghanistan;
- Zachary Chesser, convicted of attempting to provide material support to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab and soliciting attacks on "South Park" producers for an episode in which the prophet Muhammad was shown in a bear suit;
- Jesse Morton, convicted with Chesser of threatening the South Park producers with murder;
- Adam Gadahn, an al-Qaida spokesman who is on the FBI's Most Wanted List for treason and material support to al-Qaida;
- Waheed Zaman, who was convicted of plotting to blow up transatlantic flights;
- Adis Medunjanin, who is awaiting trial for plotting to bomb New York subways;
- Ramy Zamzam, who was convicted in Pakistan of conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks;
- Omar Hammami, who was indicted on charges of providing material support to al-Shabbab and is designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for his terrorist connections;
- Muhammad Junaid Babar, who pled guilty to his support to al-Qaida; and
- Syed Hashmi, who pled guilty to providing material support to al-Qaida.
This is not to say that the MSA is a violent organization. It simply is not. However, it has been a fruitful ground for terrorist recruiters and an incubator of political Islam, therefore, it should be on the radar. And while it is true that non-Muslim extremists also pose major threats to the United States, it so-happens that it is Islamic fundamentalism which now dominates the world as the single largest supplier of terrorist funding, recruitment, rhetoric, and training.
The large net cast by the NYPD, however, is clearly unnecessary. While there is simply nothing wrong with cataloging the online publications of anyone, as the NYPD did with MSA websites and forums, the undercover operations and the sheer scale of the surveillance program is, at best, wasteful.
According to the RAND Corporation, between 2001 and 2009 a total of 125 people were identified in 46 cases of “domestic radicalization and jihadist terrorism.” Most of these people were operating alone and most were also American citizens. Indeed, even while Arab and South Asian immigrants disproportionately represent the cases of radicalization, they still account for a small percentage of the total Muslim community. Only 1 out of every 30,000 Muslims in America have joined a jihadist organization or attempted to do it alone. Even more obvious is that at least 23 of the 125 jihadist ideologues had prior criminal records. These people were already threats to Americans at large, including Muslims. As RAND says, “A mistrust of American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced.” Let us fight better.
The issue is less complex than it is often made out to be. On the one hand we have a very real threat of Islamic terrorism and Muslim communities which have proven receptive to their recruiting methods. On the other hand we have an American Muslim community which is overwhelmingly non-radicalized, anti-terrorist, and willing to cooperate with the authorities against efforts by those who pose a threat to us all. Muslims are not immune to terrorist attacks. Efforts similar to those taken by the NYPD which group all Muslims together, as they have been doing since 2001, are disastrous as they create a trust gap between the police and those communities best able to identify targets within their own membership. Muslims need to be encouraged to work with the police; the current regime of religious profiling is only making it harder for this to happen. In as much as random searches at the airports do us no good, neither do random searches of American Muslims. We need anti-terrorism programs which include, rather than ostracize, the American Muslim community. We need anti-terrorism programs which seek to build, rather than destroy, bridges. We need, in short, anti-terrorism programs which protect citizens, not victimize them. Let us fight better.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.Then they came for meand there was no one left to speak out for me.-- Pastor Martin Niemöller