Monday, July 20, 2009

Landmark Senate Hearing on Islamists- Insights into Explaining Government Behavior Towards Muslims in the US and Abroad- Part I-

Puzzling Reality

A few years ago I worked for an Islamic charity, Life for Relief and Development (LIFE). LIFE wanted to bring national and international attention to the crisis facing Muslim charities in the aftermath of 9/11. LIFE and Interaction, a major umbrella organization for non- governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in relief work co-sponsored a forum at Interaction's annual conference dedicated to the issues facing the Muslim charity sector. LIFE retained an Arab American interlocutor to handle its contacts with the government. LIFE gave the interlocutor a list of Muslim charities in the Arab and/or Muslim world and asked her to check the list with the government and help with the visa issue. It turned out the government had a problem with about all of them. The government seemed to have a problem with all of them.. A puzzling reality until one reviews the testimonies at the Senate hearing entitled "[T]he Roots of Violent Islamist Extremism and Efforts to Counter It," held on July 10 2008 before the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs headed by none other big- time Israel supporter Senator Joe Lieberman.

Listening to those Who Validate Islamophobia: The Media Focuses on Hysterical Baran over Reasonable Mandaville

One of the witnesses before the Committee is Professor Peter Mandaville of George Mason University. Not much media attention was given to Mandaville's testimony. The witness whose testimony got the most attention and coverage is that of "observant Muslim" Turkish- born Zeyno Baran, wife of US diplomat Mathew Bryza. Baran's native Turkey has adopted European secularism that is anti religion in a most vulgar form. Ms Baran provided an "observant Muslim" cover for waging a war against all the Islamists painting them all as the enemy who wants to "impose Sharia law." As an "observant Muslim" making blanket accusations against all non secular activist Muslims she received the bulk of media coverage. The Christian Action Network dedicated 18 lines to her testimony versus the 4 lines given to Mandaville's. Surprisingly, the Congressional Quarterly (CQ) Newsletter also dedicated the bulk of its coverage of the hearing to the spread of the hell and brimstones testimony of Baran. Baran was in effect screaming the Muslim Brotherhood is here the Muslim Brotherhood is here and they want to impose Shariah law on the US.

Islamism is not a Monolith: Mandaville's Case for Engagement

Mandaville advocates that the US engage the nonviolent Islamists who constitute the overwhelming majority of the world's Islamists. Mandaville told the Senate that there is "a diverse universe of contemporary Islamic political thought and activism" and that "there are various manifestations of Islamism-violent and nonviolent. "Just as Islam cannot be said to be a monolith, the same goes for Islamism as an ideological project" he added. While other speakers such as Baran blamed violence unfairly but squarely on Islamism, Mandaville stated that there is "no definitive determination whether Islamism as a political ideology fosters or hinders violent extremism."

The testimony Mandaville gave before the Committee resonates with an article he wrote in CTC Sentinel published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point entitled "Engaging Islamists in the West" June 2008 volume 1, issue. It is helpful to go back to that article to put his testimony in its proper context. Mandaville wrote:

"In recent years , US national security policy orthodoxy has deemed it too far "out of the box" to suggest that Islamist groups might have a role to play in countering terrorist threats. According to this reasoning, even if movements such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates in other countries have renounced violence or are not actively involved in fostering militancy, they still at some level, have common ideological foundations with groups such as al-Qaida."
Islamism and Violence: The Relationship Between Ideas and Behavior
In reality, the general tone and name of the session and the politics of its leadership indicate that the premise is that Islamism fosters violence.- that Islamism as an idea breeds violence. Mandaville responds: "While ideas are undoubtedly important, they will only drive an individual to act if articulated in terms that resonate with and seem to provide solutions that can address a person's own life circumstances and needs. In this regard I believe that the sociological and psychological contextualization of Islamist ideology holds the key to understanding the conditions under which it potentially poses a violent threat."

Slouching Towards a "Grievance Base"

Mandaville compares favorably the situation of American Muslims to British Muslims: "In the case of the UK, the experience of Muslims in that country as being a community subjected historically to discrimination and, more recently, singled out and defined in terms of the threat it potentially poses to security has provided a tangible basis on which to graft violent Islamist ideology. Heretofore, such a "grievance base" has been largely absent among Muslims in the United States. Should Muslims in this country begin to feel more markedly singled out and/or defined in terms of terrorism and threats to national security, the easier it may be for some among them to understand the worldview and vision of Islamic extremism as something that addresses their life circumstances." There is a real threat that with the extremists and bigots such as Daniel Pipes and Robert Spencer campaign of hate, along with government targeting of institutions run by Islamists or individuals sympathetic to Islamism, we are seeing, slowly but surely, the manufacturing of a "grievance base" were none has existed before.

American Islam: The House the Muslim Activist Built

It is naïve to think that institutions such as Muslim charities that are run by American Islamists or individuals sympathetic to Islamism can be targeted for selective prosecution/persecution with this action not contributing to the creation of a "grievance base" even among those who are Muslims in the most marginal and superficial sense. The real threat that Mandaville does not highlight is that an open season on the Islamists and those sympathetic to them will play out as a war on Islam itself in the United States. There is no doubt about this. It is a fact that individual Muslims in the US enjoy rights and freedoms just like every other citizen. However, by targeting the Islamists and those sympathetic to them in the US the government in effect is waging a war on the organized American Muslim presence. The segment of our population that is wantonly designated as the enemy is the force behind the institutions that make us (practicing Muslims, secular Muslims, lapsed Muslims, etc.) a community- the mosques, the centers, and the charities. The Rand Corporation has advocated government engagement of anyone but the Islamists: liberal Muslims, seculars, and the neo-Sufis. But these groups, as Mandaville points out have insignificant grassroots following, and worse, little credibility in the broad Muslim community. The activist Muslims, call them Islamists if you will, whether they belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or are sympathetic to its ideology, have built the institutions of the organized American Muslim presence. Therefore, irresponsibly and arrogantly tagging all American Islamists as the enemy within presents a real threat that the American institutional Muslim presence itself is at risk.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

American Subjects Celebrating the 4th of July and the Promise of Equal Citizenship:

In a few days we will be celebrating the 4th of July. Americans of all backgrounds, all religions and nationalities, celebrate the day of the birth of America as a nation. We will also be celebrating the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, rights and freedoms that define America as a nation. These are promised to all American citizens. American history, however, shows that for many groups the enjoyment of these constitutional rights has been a struggle. The struggle of African Americans, for example, to overcome slavery and Jim Crow laws is the most powerful example of promises going unfulfilled without a prolonged and costly struggle. At this historical juncture, it is our turn to struggle to have our rights and freedoms respected by the government.

The Political Persecution of the Holy Land Foundation

We celebrate the 4th of July while we are the subjects of unfair treatment by the government. Many of our American Muslim charities have been shut: Holy Land Foundation, Global Relief Foundation, Benevolence International Foundation, and Help the Needy. Individuals of high moral caliber, such as the group that ran the Holy land Foundation, find themselves convicted and serving many years in prison on a flimsy legal theory of prosecution. Muslim charities are pursued ruthlessly while we see real spies for Israel receiving a slap on the wrist and our most infamous spy, Jonathan Pollard, receiving Israeli citizenship with the Israeli government treating him as a hero and lobbying for his release. Also, despite the fact that a number of Jewish organizations and other organizations are on the terror list, the bulk of law enforcement attention is focused on American Muslim organizations, especially the charities. When is the last time anyone was charged with supporting the Zionist fanatics of Kiryat Arba who have built a shrine to the terrorist and mass murderer Baruch Goldstein?

Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Blanket Conviction of Muslim Charities

National security scholarship sees American Muslim charities as a threat to be eliminated. Michael Scheuer, a veteran CIA officer writes in Through Our Enemies’ Eyes:
“Islamic NGOs have been another source of funding, as well as a fairly easy and secure mechanism for invisibly transferring funds to Bin laden and other Islamist leaders. These organizations proliferated and matured during the Afghan war and are now found in virtually every location in the world where Muslims are at war, suffering, in refugee camps, where there are populations susceptible for conversion to Islam…Most Islamic NGOs are overwhelmingly occupied with humanitarian work…All are equipped, however, to knowingly or unknowingly, assist Bin Laden’s movement and other Islamists because they can provide employment, move and distribute funds and acquire legitimizing documents and work permits.” He adds “[T]he use of Islamic NGOs as conduits for funds and contraband, and as curtains behind which to hide illicit activities is an excellent example of how Bin Laden and other Islamists have manipulated the West’s legal system to their benefit.”

Muslim NGO Abiding by the Law Seen as a Disaster

The fact that the NGOs are law abiding is seen by Mr. Scheuer as a disaster: “Disastrously for Western countries, Islamic NGOs are largely immune from western police action because they are almost always legally registered, certifiably involved in humanitarian and charitable activities and affiliated with legitimate religious organizations. The use of Islamic NGOs as conduits for funds and contributions, and as curtain, behind which to hide illicit activities is an excellent example of how Bin Laden and other Islamists have manipulated the West’s legal system to their benefit.”

National Security Scholarship and Arabs and Muslims Americans: Subjects, not Citizens

Reading the scholarship on national security as it relates to Arab and Muslim Americans it becomes clear that these communities are not being thought of as communities of American citizens. Missing from the writing of individuals such as the 22-year CIA veteran Michael Scheuer and CIA veteran Marc Sageman are references to the rights of citizens, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, due process, free exercise, freedom of association- all these key democratic values are missing form their analyses. The government, which seems to be listening to these writers and implementing at least some of their ideas, needs to be reminded that Arab Americas and Muslim Americans are also citizens covered by the constitution and the promises of the Declaration of Independence. However, it is a big net being cast. The former attorney general John Ashcroft in Never Again (it is interesting that this is the same title as one of the late terrorist Meir Kahane’s books) writes: “The truth is, we don’t know how many people we caught who may have been involved in terrorist activity. But if they were involved in any criminal or immigration violations, we prosecuted them aggressively, incarcerated them, or sometimes expelled from the country, if we had that option.”

Recognizing Our Heroes: ACLU, ADC, CAIR

This Fourth of July, the Arab and Muslim communities should be celebrating groups that are fighting for the civil rights of Arab and Muslim Americans- fighting to have Arab and Muslim Americans treated as citizens and not as subjects. They are doing so by injecting into the national security debate the key democratic terms of Constitution, civil rights, civil liberties, free exercise, free association, chilling effect on exercise of rights; all terms that have been absent from the national security scholarship and seemingly forgotten by the government. Of these groups the American Arab anti Discrimination Committee (ADC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) deserve special recognition. Recently the ACLU issued its report on American charities that highlighted the heavy price that government policy on Muslim charities has inflicted on the American Muslim community. ADC continues to fight for our rights locally and nationally. CAIR, despite enormous pressures, continues to educate on American Muslim issues and fight for the civil rights and liberties of American Muslims.

Joining, Donating or Simply Thanking

Let the Fourth of July be an occasion to recognize the vital work of the advocates that toil tirelessly to make this country what it promises to be. To show appreciation, you can engage in any and all of these constitutional rights’ affirming activities: joining, donating or simply saying thank you.

Happy Fourth of July ADC, ACLU and CAIR- and thank you.