Not since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has the fear and loathing of Muslims been as virulent, as widespread among Americans, and as close to morphing from hateful rhetoric into life-threatening violence.
It was against that background that TPR correspondent William Fisher sat down to discuss these key issues with Alejandro J. Beutel, government liaison for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). MPAC is one of the principal organizations for Muslim-Americans and for Muslims who are being persecuted all over the world. But much of MPAC’s focus is Washington and the U.S. Government, where the organization appears top be as sophisticated and well informed as any DC lobbying outfit.
Beutel has authored several academic papers, articles and reports on topics of Islam, international security, religious liberty and democratization. He has also been quoted and featured in various media outlets such as the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe, CNN, Al-Jazeera English, and MSNBC. He is the author of MPAC’s counterterrorism policy paper “Building Bridges to Strengthen America.” and a co-author of MPAC’s immigration policy paper, “Ineffective and Unjust: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System.”
TPR: Over the past year, there has been a measurable spike in anti-Muslim attitudes among Americans. Why do you think this has happened and why does it represent a long-term problem for the United States and its citizens?
MPAC: Certainly the national discourse on Muslim Americans has been extremely troubling, especially within the last year. There are two (not three) primary reasons why there’s been a spike in anti-Muslim views in America.
First is sensationalism in the media. Violence and controversy – which are frequently attached to Muslims – attract viewers. It’s no surprise that Media Tenor, a media analysis group, found considerable anti-Muslim bias in American television news programming.
Second are the profiteers. Various pundits and politicians give biased commentary politically and financially benefit themselves. During the election cycles our community become a political football.
The national discussion on Muslims has become so toxic that it’s clearly had an effect on some peoples’ attitudes and behaviors. The ACLU has done some great tracking of anti-mosque activity around the country, and looking their numbers, almost three-quarters of all their cases have come within the past year.
There have been more reports of hate crimes reported in the media. What especially concerns us are the less visible things like the bullying of Muslim schoolchildren. Growing up in a post-9/11 nation, with these kinds of pressures – on top of the other issues faced by youth — Muslim American kids and teens could grow up with a strong sense of alienation. That’s extremely detrimental if Muslim communities seek to thrive in the coming years.
TPR: You mentioned earlier that some people “financially profit” from Islamophobia. What do you mean by that?
MPAC: We have noticed that there is a small circuit of connected individuals who essentially engage in for-profit fearmongering. They claim “expertise” on Islam and Muslims, make alarmist statements to ignorant individuals, and sell their “knowledge” whether in the form of books, speaking engagements or even law enforcement training in order to make money.
It’s an extremely lucrative business that caught the attention of the Gannett News Company and the Washington Post. It’s also extremely counterproductive counterterrorism when used as training for law enforcement officials.
TPR: Still, it seems that there is a real issue with radicalization? Why are some young Muslim-Americans becoming radicalized?
MPAC: There is a challenge of extremism that needs to be dealt within Muslim American communities. However that challenge should not be overblown by the media – it gives way too much undue credit and influence to extremists.
As for why some people become extremist, there’s no one factor, nor one single pathway that determines how a person goes down that road. There are multiple, social, political and economic factors that play a big role in driving someone toward extremism. However two things are clear:
First, perceptions over political grievances are more important as a factor than some people are willing to admit. Terrorists try to tap into deep discontent over violent geopolitical confrontations abroad like Iraq and Palestine-Israel as well as attacking the notion that America is a welcoming and inclusive nation to Muslims. That’s why people like Bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki tries to invoke these issues so often in their recruiting pitches.
Second, experts like Marc Sageman point out terrorists usually lack religious knowledge. Ignorance of Islam appears to be a common vulnerability that allows extremists to recruit effectively.
TPR: What can the US (government or private) do to present a true but more compelling narrative than the jihadis?
MPAC: What MPAC calls for in its counterterrorism policy paper, “Building Bridges to Strengthen America” is a division of labor. Law enforcement focuses on defeating criminal activity, communities focus on countering the extremist narratives put forth by Al-Qaeda and others.
Religious knowledge is going to be a key component to countering Al-Qaeda’s extremist narrative. However strengthening the American Muslim identity through civics education and empowerment is important. Fighting for civil rights and civil liberties and joining in coalitions to get involved in other key issues, like immigration, is also necessary. A sense of exclusion, alienation, and disempowerment are central to the recruiting narrative of Al-Qaeda. Strengthening our America’s civil rights strengthens Muslim Americans’ feelings of inclusion and empowerment. It also strengthens our national security.
Taking the ideological fight to the Internet is also important. Much of Al-Qaeda slick propaganda outreach has been via the web. We need to ensure that our “e-dawah” (electronic outreach) is able to effectively challenge extremists’ image of “jihadi cool.” Al-Qaeda and their extremist ilk are ideological dope dealers that poison young Muslims’ minds. We need to make sure that our message is clear and out there is as many places as possible.
TPR: What is your view of the investigative methods being used by the FBI and local law enforcement against Muslims?
I’m more concerned about the legal standards regulating the tactics, rather than the tactics themselves.
Informants and sting operations were effectively used in the 80s and 90s against organized crimes and terrorists like militant Neo-Nazis and violent right-wing anti-government extremists. They were successful without violating America’s rights and liberties.
Asking “are sting operations and informants bad?” is a distraction. The real issue is “how are stings and informants regulated?”
And the answer to that is they’re regulated very poorly. Since 9/11 the Attorney General guidelines governing informants and undercover operations have become loose. Particularly since 2008, they allow wholesale surveillance of entire communities without needing to demonstrate that a particular person is engaging in criminal activity. This has become extremely harmful to our communities, particularly when there are many religious leaders who want to counter extremists’ narratives.
Mainstream leaders are afraid if they try to directly engage and counter extremists’ ideology they too may become the subject of an investigation. Case in point is the Texas arrest of Hosam Maher Smadi. Normally, individuals with extremist views, like Smadi, would be identified by local community members and religious leaders would intervene to prevent him from engaging in violence. Unfortunately that community-based process got disrupted.
We’re also concerned about anecdotal reports we’ve been hearing directly and indirectly, like the case of Foad Farahi, from congregation members about being pressured to become informants for the FBI in order to avoid immigration troubles. Considering that nearly 40 percent of all Al-Qaeda plots threatening the United States since 9/11 have been foiled with Muslim assistance, this extremely counterproductive. Treating our communities as suspects rather than partners is harmful to national security and it’s un-American.
William Fisher, a regular contributor to The Public Record, has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere for the past 25 years and served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He reports on a wide-range of issues for numerous domestic and international newspapers and online journals. He blogs at The World According to Bill Fisher.