National security and Muslim Americans:  Engaging with government

The relationship between Muslim Americans and the U.S. government is oftentimes a distrustful one. This is reflected in the mainstream media’s well practiced theme of Muslims, terrorism, and security. Even in the wake of a bloody and senseless shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last week, the media largely ignored the stories of the victims and the white supremacist assailant, choosing instead to explain how the Sikh faith is unlike Islam—as if to suggest that had the temple been a mosque, the shooting would be less of a tragedy.
When Sikh Americans feel compelled to explain they are not Muslim, and Muslim Americans rush to confirm that they are good Muslims, it becomes painfully clear that Islam and its adherents have a pretty poor reputation in this country. And what better way to correct that misperception than to work in the American government itself? Well, sometimes even that is not good enough. Just ask Huma Abedin, aide to Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Fortunately for Abedin, recent attacks on her reputation did not go very far. In response to a request made by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and four Republican congressmen to investigate Abedin for allegedly peddling a Muslim Brotherhood agenda in creeping and stealthy ways, politicians from both sides of the aisle came out to defend Abedin’s character and career. As gratifying as it was to see heavy hitters like Senator John McCain and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who is himself a Muslim, discredit Bachmann’s ludicrous attacks, most Muslims working in the American government cannot rely on powerful allies like these.

Nonetheless, Muslim American women are increasingly playing an active role in government and public life. By engaging with law enforcement and government agencies that view Muslims solely through a security lens, these women are helping to shape what is a fear-based, myopic understanding into a more thoughtful, well-rounded one. This month, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) recognized Aziza Hasan in her role as Southern California Government Relations Director at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). The LAPD awarded Hasan a certificate of appreciation for helping to reform the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program – a tool for tracking behavior linked to political violence. Hasan’s collaboration with the LAPD serves as a model of how Muslim involvement with government agencies that manage public safety can benefit both parties—the government develops a more nuanced, accurate understanding of Muslim Americans, while Muslim Americans have an opportunity to shape security programs and tools that do not trample over their civil liberties.

In Washington, D.C., Humera Khan is the executive director of Muflehun, an independent think-and-do tank that was initiated by the Muslim community to focus on preventing extreme ideologies. Although the threat of political violence from Muslim Americans is miniscule (in 2011, 20 Muslims Americans were accused of plotting political violence out of a U.S. population of approximately 3 million), Khan is doing her part to run a program that provides a space for discourse. At Muflehun Muslim American youth can speak openly about topics ranging from bullying in school to Internet safety. Khan’s organization also informs government policy by participating in debates and discussions with government agencies and maintaining open lines of communication with decision makers in Washington.

While women like Hasan and Khan engage directly with the security sector to build relationships grounded in trust and common goals, Muslim American men are having a hard time doing the same. The intense government and media focus on the threat of political violence by Muslims—in particular by young Muslim men—makes it difficult to escape the stereotype. Too many Muslim American men steer away from becoming involved with the government because they fear it places them at greater risk of government profiling. Working with or in government while simultaneously being considered suspicious is both uncomfortable and demoralizing for Muslim American men.

As Imam Khalid Latif points out in his blog post, although he is a respected Muslim chaplain with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and serves as a State Department representative, he is profiled while traveling and has to endure rigorous checking, long delays, and special questioning. Imam Shamsi Ali, a well-known religious leader in New York City, is another example of this frustrating paradox. Even though Imam Ali has a close working relationship with New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and also collaborates with NYPD, he found out last year that his name appeared in an NYPD monitoring report in 2006. These two examples do not represent the experience of all Muslim American men, but they can be enough to muzzle free speech and discourage collaboration with government.

The conflation of Islam and political violence by both the government and the media is a longstanding problem and will not recede overnight. It is reinforced by misinformed government policies, elected officials, mass media, and hate groups that have a disproportionately loud voice relative to their actual following. Maybe increased engagement will help to break this paradigm, but the cases of Abedin, Imam Latif, and Imam Ali may also lead some Muslim Americans to ask: what’s the point? And in the case of Muslim American men, fitting the ‘terrorist’ profile makes engagement even less appealing. Despite these challenges, many Muslim American men and women are active in government and civic life and will continue to be so. Indeed, this is a dispiriting endeavor at times, but if they were to drop out in the face of negative attitudes towards Muslims, no one would be more pleased than Rep. Michelle Bachmann.
B. A. Shah is a researcher on South Asia, conflict, and security.

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