Even before the Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s travel ban, trust in law enforcement was eroding—and reaching a nadir—among American Muslims. Many view this administration’s policies as a source of Islamophobia and generalized suspicion of American Muslims. This is a dangerous break with efforts since the aftermath of 9/11 to engage Muslims in the U.S., and it stands to undermine critical partnerships between Muslim communities and law enforcement.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, ordinary American Muslims and their leaders pushed back against the ideologies of al-Qaeda. American Muslim communities and law enforcement established powerful working relationships through dialogue and concerted efforts to build bridges. Hurdles were encountered along the way, including cases involving anti-Muslim trainers at the FBI and New York Police Department surveillance of Muslims. But both sides remained committed to engagement. And those efforts produced results: National security policy focused on terrorist cells immediately after 9/11, then narrowed to lone wolves. Today it focuses on Islamic State-inspired violence through social media instigation. The devolution of terrorist capability is a success—but while that scope has diminished, public fears have expanded from the threat of terrorist cells to risks posed by the mere existence of Muslims in the West.
Cynical rhetorical attacks and the tendency to view American Muslims as suspects rather than potential partners will lead to increased discrimination and, inevitably, exclusion from civic life. The United States is mimicking the ghettoization of Muslim communities in Europe.
Forces of Fragmentation
On a fundamental level, the ways that law enforcement agencies and officials of both parties thought about and viewed Muslims and Islam in recent years was key to enhancing national security policy. Those security advances and civil rights successes are being undermined by short-sighted or cynical forces at the extremes of the U.S. political system.
On the far right, Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Frank Gaffney and others making baseless claims about the incompatibility of Islam and the West increasingly find an audience and place in U.S. politics. Their misrepresentations of American Muslims as threats to the United States or as agents of radical foreign organizations show a lack of understanding or willful mischaracterization of American Muslims by and large. It also illustrates their lack of respect for equality under U.S. law. They aim to exclude American Muslims from civic life and political engagement, or possibly to ban Muslims from this country altogether.
Embraced by the Trump administration, these extreme voices have been amplified abroad as well. Notably, the spike in anti-Muslim sentiments in the U.S. mirrors rising anti-Americanism in majority-Muslim countries. Islam vs. the West is the lie that keeps on giving, and its gifts include war, terrorism, radicalization, psychological ghettoization and hate.
Meanwhile, others are calling not for exclusion from engagement in political or national security issues but, instead, for rejection of engagement. The Muslim Public Affairs Council’s work with the Obama administration on its Countering Violent Extremism summit in 2015 became a source of controversy. What critics failed to acknowledge was that advocating for the civil rights of our community while being committed to U.S. national security allowed us to challenge and in some instances change law enforcement practices and policies that troubled us and civil rights organizations. The federal government’s CVE framework had flaws. But our engagement resulted in meaningful protections against unfair profiling, discriminatory targeting, and abusive intrusion and surveillance by law enforcement. The country as a whole benefited.
Extreme voices are also gaining dominance in policymaking spaces and discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict. As the suffering, tension and violence grow, those hoping for a just, equitable resolution are being pushed to the margins. In this climate, the political right attacks American Muslims concerned about the plight of the Palestinians or casts as anti-American and anti-Semitic those who oppose the policies and actions of the Israeli government. As the public has seen for years, law enforcement becomes the instrument incarcerating or scrutinizing pro-Palestinian voices in America. This silences ideas and arguments that might otherwise be part of a public debate about how the U.S. could approach the situation in an even-handed manner.
If Americans do not take notice of such developments, this nation will go further down the road of ideological warfare. Three significant lessons from American Muslims’ interactions with law enforcement over most of the past two decades merit closer examination.
These are the pillars on which our previous successes were built.
1. Treating American citizens as partners, not suspects, in national security efforts.
Recognizing the successes of community-oriented programs, federal and local law enforcement across the country, from the Justice Department down, made sustained, varied and comprehensive efforts after 9/11 to develop meaningful working relationships with Muslim communities. Regular meetings and consultations helped members of both groups better understand and address national security issues while allowing people to address concerns about discrimination or abuses. The results were predictably positive. Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2010 that American Muslim communities provided “critical assistance to law enforcement in helping to disrupt terrorist plots and combat radicalization.”
This community-oriented approach upholds shared ideals and legal norms while also being effective law enforcement practice. Dialogue and engagement encourage transparency and accountability. They are far more effective for identifying and stopping terrorist activities than dragnet, mass-surveillance approaches, as well as being more resource-efficient and cost-effective. This approach also reflects a point made by J. Edgar Hoover that is emblazoned on a wall at FBI headquarters: “The most effective weapon against crime is cooperation … the efforts of all law enforcement agencies with the support and understanding of the American people.”
2. Protecting civil liberties and promoting accountability.
That commitment to a resilient partnership led to implementation of meaningful policies and mechanisms for protecting the civil liberties of American Muslims and holding law enforcement accountable at the local and federal levels.
Recognizing that real partnerships meant not merely the “securitization” of American Muslim communities, or engaging with them only to extract information or widen surveillance, law enforcement leaders set out to build more robust relationships. They came to understand Muslims in their communities far better. They attended or hosted forums and discussions, answering sometimes tricky questions. They attended interfaith events and saw the ways that American Muslims integrate into our broader communities.
While all this was happening, damaging abuses and discriminatory actions took place as well. Implementation of the Patriot Act initially involved a shutdown of Muslim-run charities that had nothing to do with 9/11. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program established after 9/11 involved registering immigrants and non-residents from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries. Early Transportation Security Administration screening baldly profiled Muslim passengers. But thanks in part to the transparency that emerged from dialogue, leaders in government and law enforcement put in place and enforced civil liberties protections and accountability systems. In the face of abuses, this good-faith commitment to American Muslims’ civil rights kept the partnership firm.
American Muslims believed that they could engage politically and redress problems within the system—to which, critically, they also recognized that they belonged. They were more likely to feel like they had the power of the law behind them rather than that the rule of law was being wielded against them merely because of their faith.
3. Law enforcement rejecting Islamophobia.
The dialogue and cooperation changed the way many in law enforcement and government thought about Muslims.
As local and federal officials came to understand Muslims in their communities, some emerged as advocates for American Muslims. When they spoke out, they helped to counter the bigotry, misrepresentations and violence that targeted Muslims in the wake of 9/11 (violence that has resurged in recent years).
Examples include when Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca sharply criticized New York Rep. Peter King's hearings on radicalization within mosques in March 2011. Baca, who had spent time with Muslims in Los Angeles County, testified that Congress knew nothing about American Muslims who were an asset to the country and not a threat.
In major U.S. cities, Muslim community affairs is routinely categorized within counterterrorism issues. The Los Angeles police chief recently told me that he planned to separate Muslim community affairs from counterterrorism issues. This exemplifies that it is not too late to broadly start treating Muslims like other U.S. communities: Jewish, LGBTQ, African American, Hispanic.
When the Bush administration Department of Homeland Security issued a policy statement rejecting the identification of Islam with terrorism in 2008, this sent a strong signal to law enforcement, government officials, Americans and the rest of the world that bigotry would not be tolerated by a Republican administration unquestionably committed to fighting terrorism. The impact of the statement was not merely semantic—which can be understood from the reaction of those who vehemently opposed it. Even in 2016, President Obama had to explain at a town-hall meeting why he would not tie Islam with terrorism.
As we work to mitigate and repair the damage to U.S. national security capacities and Muslim civil rights under this administration, it should be noted that Donald Trump’s presidency and politics are only symptoms of the underlying racial and cultural divides in the U.S. So too are the forces at the extremes of U.S. politics.
These forces of fragmentation and division shouldn’t determine the way forward.
Fostering good-faith communication between communities and government while also being actively involved in our system of democratic government is the most effective way to simultaneously promote the well-being of Muslim communities and our country.
Muslims have both the right and the duty—to the country, to themselves and to their posterity—to be full participants in our political system. The way forward for American Muslims cannot be a choice between allowing the extreme right to exclude us from American political life or excluding ourselves from the mechanisms of political self-determination that are available to us as Americans.
Recycling centuries-old ignorance and bigotries pits Americans against one another. When such falsehoods are amplified by political officials or through policies, they erode the ideals and institutions inherent in the American identity. They also endanger lives by stoking fear, bigotry and violence against Muslims.
An engaged, active pluralism is the best defense against extremism and abuse of power. Attacks on the crucial center space are likely to continue for some time. But holding the center open is essential to the survival of the ideal and practice of American pluralism. And that is best served by building mutual trust and overcoming mutual suspicion. These kinds of efforts don’t generally attract much media attention, but in the long term they best serve our society as a whole.