Sunday, November 30, 2008

CAIR: Unequivocal Condemnation of Terror and Clear Support for American Muslim Integration

Terror has struck India and the suspects seem to be radical and violent Islamists. In response to the terror attacks, CAIR executive director, Nihad Awad, stated in CAIR's press release: “We condemn these cowardly attacks and demand that all hostages taken by the attackers be released immediately and unconditionally. We offer sincere condolences to the loved ones of those killed or injured in these senseless and inexcusable acts of violence against innocent civilians. American Muslims stand with our fellow citizens of all faiths in repudiating acts of terror wherever they take place and whomever they target.”

This is a clear and unequivocal condemnation of terror that reminded me of a conversation with a former longtime FBI agent. The former agent told me that the people at CAIR "don't get it.," they condemn terror and in the same press release they mention political issues or disputes and link the two together. He added that this linkage in the context of condemnation gives the impression that they are not sincere in their condemnation and gives the appearance that they are somehow justifying the terror act. I disagreed with the man because I give CAIR the benefit of the doubt but I sensed that he was sincere in his critique of CAIR. The press release on the India terror attack leaves no room for speculation on where CAIR stands on the issue of terror.
This might not pacify its many enemies but it does help their friends defend them.

Another criticism of CAIR has been that they are a civil rights group that does too much foreign policy and not enough domestic policy. CAIR is also sending a clear message on that as well. On the 23rd of November CAIR held its annual banquet in Arlington, Virginia. The emphasis of the event was on American politics. The theme of political engagement was hard to miss. Speakers emphasized the need to engage the American society at large and get involved in the political process. Debbie Almontaser, a guest speaker demonized by the anti Muslim bigots spoke of the support she received from her" Muslim, Christian and Jewish brothers."

It is clear that CAIR is pushing hard the theme of engagement and integration . This is important because a community that is politically engaged is not a marginal community ripe for radicalization. It's important when these themes are heard from individuals like Nihad Awad, a man who is trusted and liked by the grassroots supporters of CAIR and by Muslims overseas. Awad stated that "America is not the enemy of Islam and the Muslim world is not the enemy of America." This is a message that is diametrically opposed to what the hate mongers in the US and abroad are selling. The US government has been repeating what Mr. Awad said albeit the government did it unconvincingly as far as the Muslim world is concerned. It means a lot to the Muslim world when this message comes from Nihad Awad himself. CAIR was, as result of a political witch hunt, listed, in addition to a long list of who's who in Islamic advocacy in the US, as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case.

The India press release and the banquet themes show that CAIR is becoming sensitive to its critics. Instead of investigations and prosecutions, the Obama administration should engage CAIR to make sure that their stands of condemnation of terror, rejection of Islam-US confrontation and advocacy of American Muslim engagement and integration are heard clearly in the US and abroad

Friday, November 21, 2008

Is that a Bomb in your laptop or Bad Speech? Laptop Searches at the Border

I am attending an international conference in Washington, DC this week. I received an email containing this alert: “There is recent controversy regarding the search and seizure of laptops… by border and customs agents for people entering the US from abroad. This applies to US citizens and non-citizens. Agents seem able to make arbitrary seizures of laptops and these devices for indefinite periods of time based upon any criteria they choose…What does this mean? It is recommended that all laptop data be backed up in a secure location before you travel. Further, sensitive research data should be encrypted, and references to research participants should be encoded in such a way as not to identify or harm them. Consider the practical aspects of having your laptop seized at the border. What will you do if your laptop is seized and kept for an indefinite period of time (days, weeks, or even months)?”
Another email that I have seen on this issue is from an attorney concerned about traveling to Canada with attorney- client privileged material and whether to allow the border agents to see it and if they are to see privileged material, does this sharing breach the ethics rules. These e-mails come close in time to a local related laptop seizure at Detroit international airport. On November 7, Greg Krupa of the Detroit News wrote an article “Airport Laptop Seizures Angers Muslims” on an incident that occurred with Imam Elahi of Dearborn Heights. Imam Elahi was returning from a trip to his native Iran when he was subject to secondary inspection. His laptop was seized and searched away from his sight. It was returned to him with a damaged hard drive. What I found most troubling is that he was questioned about an article on his hard drive. This questioning about content usually occurs in countries like North Korea and Cuba, not the United States.
Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post wrote an article on the issue of laptop searches on August 1, 2008 entitled “Travelers' Laptops May Be Detained At Border-No Suspicion Required Under DHS Policies.” Ms Nakashima wrote under DHS policies “federal agents may take a traveler's laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies” and that “officials may share copies of the laptop's contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons.” Agents can seize and search "any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form," including hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes.” The search and seizure power also applies to “all papers and other written documentation," including books, pamphlets and "written materials commonly referred to as 'pocket trash' or 'pocket litter.' "
Of course there is a need for security at international borders and the government has an intrinsic sovereign power to search those coming into the country. Federal courts have set border searches and seizures as an exception to the fourth amendment requirements- border searches are different because they occur at the border. However, if safety and smuggling of contraband are the issues and not bad speech, what the border agents need to know then is that the laptop or other electronic devices international travelers have are not in fact a bomb or hiding contraband. They can tell if a laptop is a shell or a bomb by simply turning it on. I personally have travelled overseas a number of times and had my laptop put through the scanner as well as infrequently turned on and off to check that it is in fact a functioning laptop and not a bomb. I had no problem with that. But for an agent to turn on a laptop or other electronic device, without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, and read articles to search for content protected by the first amendment, this is a completely different matter.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Obama's Rahm

The appointment of Congressman Rahm Emanuel as President Elect Obama’s chief of staff made headlines in the Arab media. His Israeli roots were emphasized and his service in a civilian capacity in Israel during the first Iraq war was noted. This raises the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Obama and Mr. Emanuel, as to the Arab-Israeli conflict, deserve the benefit of the doubt.

In an interview in the weekend November 8-9 Wall Street Journal Mr. Emanuel told Mr. Jason L. Riley

“I think the country is incredibly pragmatic” “Pragmatic and progressive. But you still have to mix and match different objectives. You have to be flexible.” “I don’t think the country is yearning for an ideological answer.”

When speaking about policy change, he did not mention the Arab-Israeli politics. The elections, he noted, provided “clear directions” to change health policy and energy policy. On energy- “to change an energy policy that has been exporting $700 billion of our wealth to countries overseas.”

This is good. The man does not think ideologically- he values pragmatism. And when he talked about energy policy he did not do what others have commonly done-link oil exclusively to Arab countries (leaving Canada, Mexico and Venezuela who are key exporters of oil to the US) and to terrorism.

This is a reasonable man who would help move along the peace process.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ralph Nader Owes America an Apology

Ralph Nader is a remarkable activist and citizen.

His impact on American life is tremendously good. As an Arab American, I am proud of his achievements.

Yesterday, however was not good.

While America was celebrating this historic moment, Nader made a racially insensitive remark about President Elect Barak Obama, saying that President Obama should not be an Uncle Tom.

Nader does not have a racist cell in his body. No one can doubt this fact. The Uncle Tom comment was just unbelievable in its insenstivity and harshness given that day.

That was a terrible offense. At a time of historic moment, when especially Black Americans are overjoyed by Obama's achievement, to have Nader make that remark was appalling and infuriating.

He rained on America's parade and gave the impression that he is a sore loser who is hating.

Ralph Nader should apologise.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Free Speech and Self Censorship: Arab Americans in the Street and in the Classroom

On 10/28/08,the London- based Asharq al Alwsat newspaper published a report on the US elections. The reporter, Raghida Bahnam, interviewed a number of Michigan Arab Americans for the story: "Arab Americans Strongly Support Obama…Hope he will understand their Concerns." The story emphasized how Arab Americans are excited about Obama's candidacy. One interviewee told her that he wants to vote for Obama because Obama is Black and as a Black American he would understand the fears and concerns of other minorities such as Arab Americans.
It was a good report but what concerned me in the story was the response of a man named Hassan. Hassan told the reporter that he is not interested in politics, that though he lives in the US, he does not get involved in politics. He said after 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, there is no longer freedom of speech and we can't speak freely or we get dragged for questioning and get thrown in jail for no reason. ..I don't discuss politics and I don't vote.
Hassan is an alarmist. His fears are overblown. He is paranoid.
I am not sure how many people think like Hassan. Driving to my office on Warren Avenue, I know that Hassan is in the minority. Anyone driving down Warren Avenue between Greenfield and Wyoming would see all these Arab Americans for Obama signs. Arab American excitement about Obama is obvious.
But the fear of adverse consequences for free speech seems to be present on college campuses as well. Last week, I was speaking with a friend of mine who teaches political science at a state university in Michigan. The professor told me that he thinks that his Arab and Muslim students are self censoring themselves in their assignments and in classroom discussions. While there is normal variation in the responses of non- Arab and non- Muslim students, he noted, his Arab and Muslim students almost uniformly have positions that are strongly pro- national security over civil liberties and civil rights. It seems, he said, that these students think this is the pro-American position and they need to prove their patriotism by taking 100% pro national security positions.
This is troubling. College is where future leaders learn important skills. Freedom of speech is a core value of higher education in universities and is vital for democracy. The Arab college students of today are the future leaders of the Arab American community. The fact that some are self censoring themselves instead of expressing themselves intelligently and freely is an issue of concern. Government and community organizations should take note of this reality.