By Haris Tarin
In the year since Osama bin Laden’s death, senior government officials and national security experts have gone out of their way to assure the public that Al Qaeda’s capacity to attack the U.S. has been vastly diminished. They’ve also painted bin Laden as a delusional leader who was been on the run for years. Their assurances, however, have done little to shrink the colossal impact that bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks had on western governments’ and their relationships to their Muslim citizenry over the past ten years.
It is time to address the proverbial elephant in the room that so many people have ignored for so many years. For the past decade, the relationship between Western Muslims — especially American Muslims — and their governments have been unable to move past the events of 9/11.
For too many years, there has been a ceremonial declaration by senior government officials that Islam is a “religion of peace” and Muslim communities do not share the burden of association with terrorists or those who are hell-bent on destroying our nation. Muslim leaders have rushed to declare that they have a relationship with government agencies at least in part to ensure that they remain safe and are not caught up in the web of guilt by association.
For this relationship to become normalized and so that we may have future generations whose identities are not shaped by the actions of a few terrorists, both governments and communities must take steps to move beyond this sticking point. So lets approach this as adults.
First, policy-makers must decouple religious affiliation from criminal activity. For many years, policy makers have played into Al-Qaeda’s assertion that their criminality is a form of faith-based resistance. The Bush administration used various terms, such as “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamo-fascism,” to describe simple ideological criminality. The Obama administration’s efforts to decouple that link with evidence overwhelmingly took the wind out of the sail of al Qaeda’s narrative. Furthermore, Osama bin Laden himself noted this change, as seen in newly released documents taken from his compound.
Second, policy makers must ensure that racial or religious profiling are not used by law enforcement. The easiest way to marginalize communities and present them as suspects is to engage in wholesale profiling, as is currently being done by the NYPD. The issue is not only one of legality but also the lens that communities are seen through, a national security lens. In a recent Senate hearing on racial profiling, Senator Lindsay Graham condemned profiling when it comes to race and immigration status, yet on “national security” (the code word for Muslims), he had a different view saying, “How do you fight homegrown terrorism without fighting a particular faith?” He added, “I hope we will not get too sensitive to this issue that we will unilaterally disarm.” Our policy makers must be honest with us. Either we choose profiling or know that it is ineffective and be willing to say it privately and publicly.
Third, politics must be taken out of the national security conversation. Since the mid-term elections of 2006, we have seen a proliferation of destructive political rhetoric when it comes to national security. Local, state and federal candidates running on anti-Muslim and simply xenophobic platforms have been tolerated because the frame their bigotry in terms of national security. This politicization has allowed for hysteria to take hold around headline-grabbing controversies, including the Park 51 center in Lower Manhattan, Rev. Terry Jones’ Quran burning stunt and the fabricated Shariah threat.
American Muslim leaders and institutions also have a responsibility to further normalize this relationship. Although communities should not be made to feel like they have a “special” responsibility to track down the world’s terrorists, institutions should be willing to engage in the national security debate and policy making process. Experts and organizations must develop alternative approaches to addressing the very real and evolving threat facing our country.
It is not enough to cry foul when privacy and civil liberty abuses take place. Experts must be proactive in developing partnership models that work and can be implemented by local and federal law enforcement agencies. There must be clear definitions of what partnership means for both law enforcement agencies and community institutions.
Finally, leaders, intellectuals and public figures within the American Muslim community need to further develop a discourse and identity for civic and political action. Being critical of government policy is the epitome of American civic conscience, but we must also develop strong attitudes of encouraging communities to be involved even if they disagree with polices, both domestic and foreign, and take responsibility to change all of America’s ills as proud American Muslims.
As Dr. King so eloquently put it, “Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho’ we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.”