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salam al-marayati interview

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Salam Al-Marayati is executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). In this interview he discusses the Muslim community's view of the Lodi, California case, the problems with how domestic terror cases are presented to the public and how these cases have damaged the government's relationship with Muslim Americans and, in particular, cooperation between the Muslim-American community and U.S. law enforcement. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 5, 2006.

How do you assess the way that cases of Islamic extremism in the United States have been announced by the government and law enforcement? How does that affect the Islamic community here?

Well, there are a number of problems in the way these cases are presented to the American public. Most of the time the public reacts with hysteria, and definitely with a concern over our national security. What we've tried to do, in our dialogue with the FBI, with the Department of Homeland Security, with the Justice Department, with all of law enforcement, is to demonstrate that no matter what the threat, there is a strong level of cooperation between Muslim-American institutions and law enforcement here.

In my travel throughout the country, there has been a strong condemnation of Al Qaeda in every corner by Muslim-American organizations, by mosques, by individuals. My concern is that sometimes the way the cases are presented, it blurs or it confuses the American public and prevents them from seeing that reality. ...

Is Al Qaeda here, in the United States?

I have not seen Al Qaeda here. ... [M]y sense is that Al Qaeda has no legitimacy, has no presence in the United States, and if anything, the Muslim-American community has rejected Al Qaeda and that the cooperation by Muslim Americans with law enforcement has been a major factor in preventing another 9/11 from happening. What we want to do is to enhance that relationship so that we could help, in partnership with law enforcement, to prevent another terrorist attack from taking place against our country and to protect our country.

You say there's no Al Qaeda here, but a year ago in California, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento and the head of the FBI said that they had found Al Qaeda in Lodi, Calif., a network of people. And similarly, around that same time in Los Angeles, there was a group of Muslims inspired by Al Qaeda.

And the Miami Seven case as well -- that was represented as another case of Al Qaeda wanting to attack Chicago. ...

There's a big difference between those three cases, for example, and the U.K. terror plot. The U.K. terror plot was in its implementation stages, and the plot was foiled mainly because of a responsible Muslim-British citizen coming forward and talking with law enforcement and providing valuable information to them that led to the investigation and foiling the plot.

What we're saying is, 'Do not use religion in describing the terrorist threat -- that's exactly what Al Qaeda wants you to do.' They want religion to be part of the discourse; ... that's their source of legitimacy.

In these other cases, there are more questions that surround the cases than answers that would clearly demonstrate a link or connection with Al Qaeda or, more importantly, that these individuals and groups, in those three cases, represented a clear and imminent threat to the United States. ... [W]e have yet to see any connection with that. So there's a lot more confusion and a lot more concern over the motivation of presenting these cases to the public as if there was an imminent threat by Al Qaeda.

The JIS [Jam'iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, Los Angeles] case, these were young Muslim men who ... have been holding up gas stations, and apparently there's evidence that they were going to attack synagogues, attack military recruiting sites. So there is a threat here.

If these people were involved in terrorist activity and they are convicted, then we stand by the U.S. government in saying that we are very glad to see that there was a terrorist threat removed and foiled by our law enforcement. But again, the point is this particular group had very little, if anything, to do with Al Qaeda. ...

Well, when you hear that the director of the FBI [Robert Mueller] has in public speeches in the last couple of months talked of the JIS case as "Al Qaeda in California," why do you think he's doing that?

I don't know. You'd have to ask him, but my concern is that it leads our community to more apprehension, more confusion, because they don't see the Al Qaeda connection. Unless it is clearly presented to them, then I am concerned that our partnership with law enforcement is going to be undermined.

We have a national grassroots campaign to fight terrorism. In that campaign, we have three objectives: one, to amplify Islam's message against terrorism; number two, to prevent saboteurs from exploiting the goodwill and the generosity of Muslim congregants in the mosques; and number three, to create dialogue and town hall meetings between law enforcement and Muslim institutions.

If they see that in the JIS case or in the Lodi case, where there was an informant and that there may have been the case of confusion of the situation, that it's not a real Al Qaeda threat or the possibility that innocent people might be dragged into investigations and they're going to be penalized, then there's going to be more misapprehension by the community. ...

... [What is your feeling about the use of undercover informants infiltrating the Muslim-American communities and reporting information back to the FBI?]

I think the question that has to be asked about them is, are they providing us valuable information about terrorism, or are they just instigating people to say stupid things and as their meal tickets to justify their salaries right now? I don't have much respect for informants, but if the FBI feels that they have to utilize informants, then I would like them to make the case to us on how they've been useful in their terrorist investigations. And if they have been involved in entrapment, then I would like that to be made clear as well.

So in the community, when it comes out that there's an informant involved in the case, what's the reaction?

The reaction in the Muslim-American community is, "Yeah, of course there was an informant, because the informant is the person who instigated this talk about terrorism to begin with." Some of the reports from Lodi and from the Miami Seven case showed that the informants themselves were -- at least the case in the Miami case, I believe -- acting as an Al Qaeda agent. ... People are confused now: Are we talking about these potential Al Qaeda agents, or are they talking about informants who try to exploit the community so that they can justify their salaries and give information to law enforcement that they themselves are instigating in many cases? …

When you talk with your fellow Muslims around the country about the FBI and what's going on, what's [their] reaction?

Right now, there's a lot more skepticism toward the FBI. There's a lot more concern over the press conferences that have been held by the attorney general [Alberto Gonzales] and the FBI director and some other members that talk about jihad, talk about Al Qaeda, talk about all these things. The community senses that there's something missing here, that the facts are not clear to them, to really prove to them that there is such a connection.

The Miami case is the perfect illustration. These people were not even Muslim, and yet the term "jihad" was used to describe their behavior. The whole exploitation of jihad, to us, does not mean "holy war" or "terrorism." "Jihad" means "striving" or "struggling." So when that term is dragged into terrorism investigations and the whole lexicon in the war on terror, we feel that that is an exploitation and a distortion of that term, definitely distorted by Al Qaeda. The U.S. government should not allow Al Qaeda to continue to exploit that. We believe that that should not be used in describing the terrorism cases that are presented in these press conferences.

Well, another term that was used in the Lodi case is "madrassa." In February, the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, delivered his threat assessment to Congress, and the major example he gave of the homegrown threat were imams in Lodi setting up a madrassa to send students back to Pakistan and back to the United States to carry out violent jihad. Is a madrassa a dangerous place?

Well, "madrassa" is simply an Arabic word that means "school." So there are a number of schools. There are Muslim schools everywhere. We have to look at the schools and see exactly what is their ideology or what are they preaching. None of the 9/11 hijackers attended a madrassa in Pakistan, so the notion that these schools in Pakistan are a threat just because they are schools I believe is misplaced. We have to look to each individual school and see exactly what their objectives are and what they're trying to do.

I think this is what we're talking about when it comes to conflation, is that when terms are used very loosely, it gives the American public the sense that every Muslim school is a threat, and so every Muslim student is a suspect, and Muslim youth are suspects. The question is, should we look to Muslim Americans as partners in the war on terror or suspects in the war on terror? We are arguing that law enforcement should look to Muslim Americans as partners in the war on terror, that we'll get a better yield, a better result in preventing another terrorist attack, rather than looking at all of them as suspects now. ...

In the Lodi case, the U.S. attorney and the head of the FBI announced it as an Al Qaeda-linked case and talked about Al Qaeda in Lodi, Calif. What was the reaction here in your community?

Again, it was confusion, because ... we don't know of any Al Qaeda presence in our community, and there's always been a strong condemnation of Al Qaeda throughout the Muslim-American community. So when it was announced that there was Al Qaeda in California, then obviously it was of concern to us, because people then start the finger-pointing and start looking at all Muslims in America as being supporters or members of Al Qaeda when there is no such support. In fact, there's been strong condemnation of Al Qaeda throughout the Muslim-American community. ...

[T]he Muslim-American community can play a vital role that's needed in terms of educating its members and educating future generations of Muslims against the ideology of hate with an ideology of love. Islam is the ideology of life and of compassion and of mercy, of justice, of love toward people of other faiths, toward humanity. That's the vital role that we can play in terms of helping in the war on terror. But to continue to talk about Muslim Americans as suspects and to continue in the finger-pointing doesn't help at all.

My discussions with law enforcement indicate that they don't appreciate all of the sensationalism in the counterterrorism industry. People are finger-pointing at Muslim-American organizations and institutions, talking about them as if they have Al Qaeda connections, as if they're supporting Hamas and Hezbollah when they do not in any way, and really treating them as suspects, when in fact they are the partners with law enforcement. ...

... [Does the Muslim community in Lodi and around the United States believe that the Hayats (father Umer and son Hamid) were terrorists?]

[T]he perception within the Muslim-American community [is] that these are not real terrorist threats that they're talking about. These people are guilty of stupidity, guilty of saying dumb things, wrong things. They think that the young man should be educated, should be taught the right way. But are they Al Qaeda conspiracists that are part of this larger network in the United States? I don't think you'd find many people believing that right now. ...

[Do you get the sense that after the Lodi case, members of your community no longer trust the FBI?]

Well, I think that has to be a major concern for all of us in terms of factoring the results of the Lodi case into the continuation of cooperation between the Muslim-American community and law enforcement. If the Muslim-American community continues to have this perception that the FBI is targeting them and harassing them and just looking for inconsistencies and then conflating that to be Al Qaeda connections, then it's going to be very difficult to argue for more cooperation.

People want to be ensured that they have the right of free speech. That's the issue right now in the Muslim-American community. They do not feel that they have that right. There's no guarantee of free speech for Muslim Americans; that if they criticize the president or if they criticize U.S. foreign policy, they're going to be equated with Al Qaeda and terrorism and extremism. Until we can correct that, then ... the partnership will be detrimentally affected. ...

[W]hat we've asked the FBI to do is to communicate with us in a more clear way so that we are seen together in fighting the war on terror. We appreciate some of the efforts by the FBI. For example, the field offices in Washington, in Los Angeles and in Buffalo have done a tremendous amount of dialogue and cooperation, even coming out and answering questions to our community. But we do not see that kind of communication at the national level. ...

There was a partnership program that we had asked the FBI to fund, and actually it was being housed by Northeastern University. Initially it was supported, and there was funding for this partnership program where we can bring community leaders and law enforcement people and talk about what's difficult in terms of the dialogue, what are the obstacles, where are the differences of opinion and how we can connect the two, how we can reconcile between the two. And while there was initial support there, it was canceled. The report that we received is that one member of Congress didn't like it, so he started a campaign to cancel it, and unfortunately, the FBI national office canceled it after that point. ...

We were interviewing Mark Leap, who's head of counterterrorism for the LAPD, and I asked him about the reports that the U.S. government has been monitoring conversations without warrants and how has that affected cooperation in the Muslim community. And he said, "It's hurt me, because people think they're under surveillance and that we're not playing by the rules." Is there a sense in the Muslim community that you're the subject of surveillance?

Oh, definitely there's that sense. There's that perception that we're always under surveillance; that we're under more scrutiny than other Americans; that our civil rights are compromised. [It's] as if you take away my civil rights, and you'll get more national security. That's a false sense of security. I think people need to understand that taking away civil rights from a certain group is not going to get us more national security. ...

Our response to that, quite frankly, is, you know what? We have nothing to hide. Come in. [But] rather than coming in through the back door, why don't you come in through the front door, and let's talk? Why don't you check out everything? But once you've completed your investigation, why don't you tell the American public that we have checked, and the American Muslim community is squeaky clean, because that's our belief, that the mainstream American Muslim community is not only clean, but is a vital resource for our counterterrorism efforts. ...

[Is there any danger of Al Qaeda creating a branch here in the United States, in California?]

No, I don't think so. I don't think that there is a danger. There's definitely not an imminent danger of Al Qaeda growing in the United States. There's a strong condemnation of Al Qaeda throughout the Muslim-American community. If Al Qaeda is going to get any attraction, it's usually with a lunatic, if anything, or with people who have already had criminal behavior in the past. Let's face it: A terrorist is a criminal, and they have to be a criminal to commit acts of terrorism. They may use religion to justify terrorist activity, but it's the criminal segment of our society that we need to look at in terms of dealing with all crimes. ...

But is there an Al Qaeda network in mosques and Muslim schools and Muslim institutions? No, it's not there. We don't see it happening any time soon, and we are working diligently to prevent that from ever happening. That's why we're so concerned about the alienation and the ghettoization of the Muslim-American community. Right now the ghettoization does not exist, but we should work very hard and double our efforts in preventing the ghettoization of the Muslim-American community.

Because?

Because ghettoization is also a factor, like we see in Europe, for disenfranchisement and anger and frustration, and we do not want to replicate the situation in Europe vis-à-vis the Muslim-American community here in America. Right now, America is very different from Europe. There is integration. There is an acceptance of Muslim Americans throughout the American public. The American public is very compassionate and wants to understand the Muslim-American community. But as we see more hostility toward Muslim Americans by these self-styled experts on terrorism, by the counterterrorism industry, then there's going to be more alienation and frustration that may create this sense of the Muslim-American ghetto, which has a number of social harms -- not necessarily terrorism, but [it] might lead to further radicalization in the community, and that's one thing that we want to prevent. ...

Muslim attitudes toward the Bush administration

I suppose the foreign policy of the United States right now is not what most Muslims in the United States would support.

Oh, definitely they don't support the current foreign policy. …

You must be getting pretty cynical over the last five years?

We're dealing with a lot of cynicism within the community, of course, and people are wondering if the Muslim-American community is simply the scapegoat in the war on terror, even though we know that none of the 9/11 hijackers were from the Muslim-American community. They were outsiders. There was no Muslim American that was an accomplice to 9/11. ... So there are a lot of misperceptions about 9/11, and we're still demanding that our government, the United States government, help in setting the record straight. ...

[W]e had a meeting with the president on Sept. 26, 2001, and we asked the president at that time not to use Islam in describing the terrorist threat, and he upheld that promise. ... He also spoke out against anybody that would try to accuse the whole Muslim-American community over what happened on 9/11. But later on, as the war in Iraq became more of a priority, then we saw that certain public officials and people within the administration began to use Islamic adjectives to describe the terrorist threat, leading the people to believe that the Muslim-American community is the "fifth column." ...

So over time, you've seen the administration change its attitude?

There has definitely been a change after the first three to six months after 9/11 in terms of engagement and in terms of nomenclature in describing the terrorist threat.

What we're saying is, "Do not use religion in describing the terrorist threat, because that's exactly what Al Qaeda wants you to do." They want religion to be part of the discourse, because that's their source of legitimacy. They exploit religion; they exploit legitimate grievances to get legitimacy and popularity throughout the Middle East and South Asia. ...

We've been in the White House. We have met with the FBI director [Robert Mueller]. I've met with the secretary of homeland security [Michael Chertoff]. We've been to a number of White House events, so we've had a number of national security clearances conducted on us in order to be at these events. If we're good enough to be participating in those events, then I believe it is the responsibility of the U.S. government to publicize the relationship and not to keep that relationship behind closed doors, and not [succumb] to the political pressuring of these special-interest groups that continue to smear our name and continue the character assassination of our leadership.

This is not only an issue of civil rights, but this is also an issue of America's national security, because America needs us. It needs us because we are at the apex in the war on terror as we educate everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, about Islam's message against terrorism. That is the number one factor in terms of success in the war on terror.

People keeping saying: "We need Muslim moderates. We want to hear the Muslim moderates." We're speaking out. It just seems that very few people are listening. ...

Where is the hope? Why won't the Muslim population in the United States get radicalized, and isn't a psychological ghetto already being created?

There's definitely a psychological ghetto being created, but there is still hope, because we believe that the Muslim-American community, out of Islamic obligation, is not going to allow any form of terrorism or extremism to infiltrate our mosques, our schools, our institutions. We have a difference in foreign policy; that should not be equated with supporting extremism. In fact, we would like to see a debate on our foreign policy because we feel a change of foreign policy is [in] the best interest of America.

It's out of patriotism that we dissent on a number of these foreign policies. I think people would like to listen to our points of views on foreign policy, but because we're politically marginalized and excluded and considered political untouchables right now, there is no foreign policy discourse. And I think that's to the detriment of American national security, of American international interests and of American pluralism. ...

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posted oct. 10, 2006

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