hunting bin laden

The suburban community of Arlington, Texas is the home of Wadih El Hage, a U.S. citizen and one of the participants in the 1998 Africa U.S. embassy bombings who was arrested and later convicted. FRONTLINE correspondent Lowell Bergman went to Arlington to talk with local Muslim community leaders about their reactions at that time to El Hage's arrest and their concerns about prejudice confronting Muslims throughout the world. Note: This interview was conducted in 1999.
Muslim Community Leaders with Lowell Bergman
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What was your reaction when you heard about the bombings, and then heard that the United States had identified Muslims as their chief suspects - Osama bin Laden and company?

Yasmin Khan
(Doctor and local Muslim leader):

Well, Islam hates terrorism as such. Islam means peace and all Muslims around the world feel offended when terrorism is immediately thought of as an Islamic behavior pattern or something of that sort. But that is not true. Islam propagates peace and so, when immediately, non-Muslims think that somebody who's a terrorist has to be a Muslim, Muslims feel a great deal of pain and lack of understanding by other people of what Muslims are really all about. ...

Was there a sense of dread, of fear?

Khalid Y. Hamideh
(Lawyer and Muslim activist):

Always. There's always a sense of fear when an international act such as the two acts that happened in Africa occur. ... The reality is anytime something like that happens, we, as Muslims, living in America, feel that we immediately become the usual suspects. We are the targets. Our institutions receive bomb threats, our wives and sisters are attacked in malls and we become targets, whether rightfully or wrongfully. ...

Khalid Y. Hamideh & H. Ibrahim Salih, phdH. Ibrahim Salih, Ph.D.
(Professor of Political Science):

And also, we hope that the media ... will understand ... that these people represent the minority, not the majority ... . Anytime any incident that takes place, why should we be labeled as the terrorists? There are radical elements in the United States, the KKK, we have the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army and we have the Republic of Texas militia. Why don't we label them as individuals committing these atrocities? Why are we the first one on the list?

The suggestion is that the U.S. is at war with Islam, that there is a psychology that all of you who adhere to this faith are our enemies.

Cherie Lyle
(Lawyer and Muslim leader):

And that is the subtle suggestion that is projected when you identify the suspects as Muslims. Islam is a religion. It's not even a nationality. Why not this person was from whatever the country, Tunisia, Morocco? But why Muslim? Why is this singled out?

Donald Jackson, Ph.D.
(President, Fort Worth Chapter, ACLU of Texas
Professor Of Political Science, Texas Christian University):

....there have always been fanatics who claim the authority to act under Catholicism, under Protestantism, under Judaism, and now we have people who claim to act under Islam, and that's an equal opportunity enterprise. And the problem for Americans is that most of us come into contact or know quite a few people who are Catholics or Protestants. We know that they're not fanatics. We know they're perfectly reasonable people. And the problem for most Americans is they have very little contact with people from the Islamic community and therefore, the tendency is to stereotype.

I've lived in the south most of my life. When a criminal, alleged criminal, is portrayed on the newspaper or television and I see it's an African America, I have a sense of dread because I know that in the south, there's going to have all the stereotyping that's going to go with African Americans and crime. And it's exactly the same phenomenon. It's been going on for years. It's as American as apple pie and the way you cure that, to the extent you can, is by the reduction of ignorance and by maximizing contact between people...

Cherie Lyle:

... the media is the message. It's the message that people get. This person is a Muslim. He committed a terrorist act, therefore, all Muslims are terrorists. That's where everyone from the President down has to be very careful when they lead with that label.

What is the effect of this all been on your own life, and on your liberties? Do you experience this everyday?

H. Ibrahim Salih, Ph.D.:

You're singled out as Muslims and the media contributes to that. When you report, let's say, from the former Yugoslavia, during the crisis in Bosnia, you always refer to the Muslims as Muslims. But Croatians were never referred to as Catholics, Serbians were never referred to as orthodox Christians. So why this distinction?

Khalid Y. Hamideh:

Make no mistake about it, this phenomenon affects every single one of us who's a Muslim. At home, when your children come from school and say, Dad, 'are we bad people? Why do Americans think we're bad?' ... Americans made a mistake. They think we're bad people. It affects us in our pocketbook. There's a glass ceiling that somebody with a beard or a Muslim name, Mohammed or something else, cannot achieve a level of success someone else can. It affects us in our public lives. As an attorney, I see it every day in the jury system. Unfortunately, you cannot get a fair jury trial if you're a Muslim. ...

Your Muslim community has been drawn into this through one member who is currently incarcerated in New York. What kind of impact has this had directly? Is there a climate of fear here in Arlington?

Khalid Y. Hamideh:

... If you start with the premise that this person was--you use any term you want, fundamentalist, fanatic, Muslim, if you start with that premise and he is from Arlington, and you paint with the broad brush that goes on to show there's others like him, or the people that pray the same messages as he that are like him, or people that attended the same prayer activities are just like him, or people that went to school with his children are like him, people that worked or congregated with him are like him. If you start with those premises, then you end up with the logical conclusion that everybody in Arlington is fanatics. Unfortunately, as stupid and as naive as that sounds, there are people out there that believe that and so, there has to be a climate of fear here in Arlington, because there has been irresponsible reporting by the media. There is this negative stereotyping and there is the perpetuation of this myth that Islam cannot coexist with the western values and the family values and the social structure and everything else. Because of those things, there is fear. There has to be fear. ...

H. Ibrahim Salih, Ph.D.:

But besides the media, I'd also say that the institutions of higher education in the United States do not do us justice. We never get credit for any contribution to western civilization. Islam has done tremendous work and passed it on to western civilization...

Yasmin Khan:

... basically, Islam is not teaching anything that causes terrorism. It is teaching about tolerating each other and good family values and education and the first word of the Holy Koran, which is - we call the book of guidance for all mankind and it does not say it is only for Muslims. It is for all mankind. Any person, Jew, Christian, Muslim, can pick it up and read a book and extract what they feel is right for them.

So, the message the media has to propagate, not just the United States, but around the world, [is] that Islam is a way of life. And whoever so chooses to follow it, they should have the freedom and they should not be penalized for it, just as much as we, for centuries, have Christian communities and Jewish communities living among the majority of Muslims and treated like brothers and sisters. ...

inayat lalani Inayat Lalani, MD
(President, American Muslim Caucus):

As Dr. Salih said earlier, not only is the West's debt to Islam not acknowledged, but there's a systematic effort to extirpate all reference to it. And I'll give you an example. PBS had a 25-part series produced and edited by the late Carl Sagan, whom I respect tremendously. In those 25 parts, he covered the entire history of astronomy-from the most ancient times until the most modern-without making a single reference to Arab contribution. Now, I didn't know that it could ever be done, but he did it. You can't go over the history of astronomy without mentioning Arabs repeatedly, but he managed to totally extirpate any reference. To me, that looks like a very conscious effort to obliterate any acknowledgment of debt to the Muslim civilization. ...

It's understood that all of you are opposed to the violence that took place and condemn it. But when we were talking with people in the Muslim communities, particularly in Africa and also in New York, they said we condemn the violence - but when I asked them about what might be the motivation for it, there was some sympathy for the motivation, that the Muslims have been put down, that the United States has joined their enemies...

H. Ibrahim Salih, Ph.D.:

I think you have to say, what are the symptoms of terrorism? I don't know if you ever went to the refugee camps in Lebanon ... . I don't know if you had gone to refugee camps in Jerusalem and I don't know if you have gone to refugee camps in Jordan. But these people are hopeless. They have no future, they have hunger and they are helpless. They need education, they need clothing, they need food, they need medicine and they want to attract attention to their cause and sometimes they do it in a way that we don't approve of. Resorting to terrorism may be justifiable for them because they have to hurt you because they are being hurt and you're not paying attention. Not that I sympathize with it, but I met these people. If you were in the same condition, in the same predicament of having no future, nobody caring for you-what is the alternative? What do you expect them to do? Will they act the way we expect them? If you treat an animal cruelly, the animal is going to react to you cruelly. If you behave in a cruel way towards a human, that human is going to turn into an animal. ...

Khalid Y. Hamideh:

But don't confuse the issue with the word terrorism. The word Islam or Muslims should not be used in the same sentence as terrorism. We don't condone it, we don't allow it, we don't preach it. But George Washington and Nelson Mandela were accused of being terrorists. They are two great freedom fighters to others, to most. It's all a matter of perspective. The refugee camps the professor was talking about are the people that I've talked to and I've seen the way they live. And the people that you're talking about are people that sympathize with their plight because we, as Americans, don't have clean hands when it comes to foreign policy. Some of the decisions we've made have adversely affected others around the globe. People that live in refugee camps, whether in Lebanon, Jordan or Syria that are Palestinian, don't have this great affection for us as Americans and the reason they don't is they see the billions of dollars of my tax dollars and your tax dollars going to support the state that keeps them in this current state that they're in. So, make no mistake about it. There are people that sympathize with those things, but Islam and terrorism should not be used in the same sentence and there's nothing in Islam that allows terrorism to be sympathetic to its cause.

H. Ibrahim Salih, Ph.D.:

But isn't it also true that each state's national interest is the determining factor as to who is a freedom fighter and who is a terrorist? Afghan mujahedeen were freedom fighters. Contras against the Sandinistas were freedom fighters. PLO are terrorists ... . If it doesn't suit our national interest, they're definitely terrorists. But if it suits our national interest, they're freedom fighters. ...

You're an immigration lawyer?

Thomas Spaniola
(Immigration attorney and civil rights activist):


How has all this affected your practice?

thomas spaniola Thomas Spaniola:

From what I can see, many Arabs seem to be targeted by recent legislation that has been passed during the Clinton administration. Specifically, I refer to the [1995]Anti-Terrorism-Death Penalty Act and also to 1996 Immigration Act. Both of those acts, which have been enacted into law, set up a system whereby people can be deported, whereby people can be held basically indefinitely, whereby secret information can be used against them, whereby the attorneys representing those individuals are not allowed to see and basically have very little input into the decision that's going to be made. This law is on the books seemingly applying to everyone, but all the applications of this law that I have seen have been to Muslims specifically to Arabs, most specifically to Palestinians.

My question is, why is this? Why is this law being applied to these people, as opposed to other people, other terrorists. There's all kinds of other groups that would be targeted, could be looked, but the application of this law is so specifically targeted to this population, you have to wonder why that is. Who's making those decisions and what's the motivation for those decisions?

H. Ibrahim Salih, Ph.D.:

And besides the law, if you fit the profile when you're traveling, you are always thoroughly searched and why are we targeted, from the Middle East, to be searched thoroughly? Like if we are all terrorists, as soon as you are from the Middle East, we have on our forehead, "terrorist."

It's been suggested to us over and over again in Washington and elsewhere that really what this all is about is finding a substitute for the Soviet Union. We don't have the Soviet Union, so we have you guys.

H.H.A. (Tony) Cooper
(Teacher of terrorism class, University of Texas, Arlington):

I don't agree. I'm sorry, but this is another little piece of media fiction that is persuasive to many people. Let me revert, if I may for a moment, to something that you raised earlier and we didn't deal with...

The first thing-do you really want to apprehend Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice in the United States? If you do, then it really makes no sense whatsoever to rocket those who purportedly were holding him. And a very distinguished gentleman from the Central Intelligence Agency, who had served in that country during the Russian or the Soviet occupation said, you know,' this is futile,' he said. The Russians dropped 200,000 tons of bombs on this same area. All it did was move around the rubble.

The Afghani people, after perhaps the Uzbekis, are some of the most warlike in the world. They are not frightened by Americans who bomb from afar. They fight hand to hand. Don't try and fight people like that.

The Taliban, you may not like them, you may not understand them, you may not appreciate their position in relation to womankind, but one fact, undeniable fact, is they are good Muslims.

Now, let me make this point to you. The majority of the people killed an injured in Kenya were Kenyans and among them was a large number of Muslims. Bombs, whether they're set by Israelis, or by Muslims or by Christians, are not set by accident. They are set deliberately.

And in the Koran, if you'll permit to just read this to you, "He that kills a believer by design shall burn in hell forever." Now, if I had been in charge of trying to get hold of Osama bin Laden, I would have sent somebody to talk to the Taliban with that text who could sit down and drink perhaps innumerable cups of coffee, but who would get that point over to them. They would have dealt with him, if you could make your case.

Now, why was this not done? The only answer that I can give you is either the people who were in charge were ignorant or they didn't want to get Osama bin Laden. Take your choice. I rest my case on that.

But they said they presented their evidence to the Taliban and the Taliban replied by saying, 'this is no evidence.' ... Everywhere we went people said to us, "We don't support terrorism." Or, "We don't support indiscriminate violence." So we asked, "Why would people do this against the United States?" Then we got answers...that their governments were oppressive of them and the United States was a major supporter of that particular government. That's why the U.S. gets targeted--we are friends of the enemies of these people...

Thomas Spaniola:

We put many of those people in positions of power. We support them. Those people would not exist without American support. Look at Pinochet. ... Look at the Shah. I mean, you can go through the whole list. The United States has supported countries that have been not only anti-democratic, they have been dictatorial, oppressive countries. The United States has been behind those countries supporting them economically every step of the way. It's not just friends. These are like client states. ...

H. Ibrahim Salih, Ph.D.:

I disagree. Every country has a national interest. So does the United States. We are not running a Salvation Army or United Way. You make a policy [based on] the national interest of the United States. Friends are temporary. National interest is permanent. If we can use, let's say, [Pinochet], if we can use Spain for our national [gain], we're going to do it.

The Saudi royal family?

H. Ibrahim Salih, Ph.D.:

Sure, we are using them. As long as it serves the national interest of the United States, we're going to use the family until they're kicked out. Just like what happened to the king of Iran. I mean, we all know who put him back on the throne in 1953. CIA did. ... Until 1979, he was the best man we could find in the Middle East. But once he became a detriment to the interest of the United States, we practically kicked him out along [with] Ayatollah Khomeini. ...

H.H.A. (Tony) Cooper:

Let me give you another perspective...this is perhaps unspoken among a lot of people but it has to be said. If there were not a state of Israel, you wouldn't have a program. Let me explain to you.

Why the focus on Islam? You have terrorism in Northern Ireland. You have terrorism through out Africa. You have terrorism in Asia. You have terrorism everywhere that does not have an Islamic focus. The Islamic focus is entirely generated by the magnet of Israel. And let me explain to you why that is [a] matter for the United States. If you study the history of this, you will understand very clearly why Israel began to adopt what from it's perspective in the short term, certainly was a very fine anti-terrorism strategy. Imagine for a moment, that you are a little boy in a playground and you're being bullied. They all pick on you. They don't like your nose. They don't like your dress. They don't like your religion. What are you going to do? ... Certain people said, "We must do what is necessary to save this country. We are surrounded by enemies. All of whom are sworn to destroy this nation and throw us into the sea. We need a champion." They found that champion in the United States, after Eisenhower. But the real problem was this--and this is where Dr. Salih is absolutely correct--countries act in national interest. Why bother with a tiny little [country] sitting on 10,000 square miles? The answer, very, very simply is that we have been induced, in terms of terrorism, into seeing the terrorists not as Israel's enemy but as our enemy. And in order to do that, terrorists have had to attack the basic interests of the United States.

Khalid Y. Hamideh: ...the Palestinians, the Muslims, the people in the Middle East-- we're the victims. Still are the victims. But we are made to be the villains by the media. When you see tens of billions of dollars--of our tax dollars--go to support the state of Israel, and you see the suffering of the people in the refugee camps, then you know the basis of the anti-American feelings that may or may not lead to some of these bombings you're talking about. But the genesis of the problem, as the doctor has said, is, if you want to go back to history and study the root cause of all of these things, it's the creation of the state of Israel. That was the problem. . ...

Let me ask you about an issue that has come up because of all the bombings. And it has been raised by Mr. bin Laden. Is the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia truly an affront to Muslims?

Abdul-Rahman Amjad
(Political Science Student):

Yes, it is. The perception that America has about the troops in the Middle East [is] that we liberate[d] Kuwait. We help[ed] to defend [against] the enemies of democracy and Saddam Hussein. I grew up in Saudi Arabia. You did a good favor [there], defend[ing] Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We appreciate that. We give you how much billions you ask for. However, [to] the average Arab or average Saudi citizen--it's like you have a Thanksgiving party. All your relatives came to visit you from out of town. Thanksgiving is over. You know, "Please leave." You have [30] in your house. And they don't want to get out. ...

And a lot of Arabs, they say, "Okay, you've done good." The average Saudis and Kuwaitis, they don't want the troops to be there. But they can do nothing about it. ... And after a while people said, "Wait a minute." ...

But is it a religious insult for U.S. troops to be in Saudi Arabia?

Khalid Y. Hamideh:

A huge religious insult. And that's the underpinnings of all the anti-American fervor. We see the second holiest place in Islam--in Jerusalem--has been under occupation for almost 50 years now. Now, most Muslims [see] that the holiest sites in Islam are also becoming under occupation. It's unfortunate that we as Americans ... don't view our foreign policy with at least ... a small bit of inclination towards the Islamic religion or culture. It is an insult for most Muslims for the American troops to be there.


Khalid Y. Hamideh:

Well, ... women in our religion aren't supposed to be in shorts. Not supposed to co-mingle and drink and stuff with the males. That happens in our US bases there. Other parts of our religion that deal strictly with forbidding certain things--eating of pork and things of this nature, things that are fundamental to us, are routinely violated by the US troops there. ...

yasmin khanYasmin Khan:

[For Muslims], Saudi Arabia is like a very holy place for Judaism or Christianity. And when you enter a church or you enter a synagogue, if I went with a friend who was either Jewish or Christian, I would ask them what are the rules and pay respect to the rules when you enter such a holy place. You don't want to cause a disruption in their worship. The same thing goes for Saudi Arabia. It's not just a country for Saudi Arabians. It's the place where Muslims from around the world--we are talking about almost two billion people--they worship. ... And they pray five times a day towards [Mecca]. Now, it is [felt] by the Muslims that it is being contaminated. No one wants their church or synagogue or place of worship to be contaminated or made unclean. ...

So the opinion that Osama bin Laden expresses in his statement is not a wild statement that people in general find unpalatable--that he's opposed to US presence in Saudi Arabia. ... He's not just spouting something that's out of his own head. This is something the people in general agree with--that US troops should leave.

Donald Jackson, Ph.D.:

It's a widely-accepted notion.

Khalid Y. Hamideh:

... Osama bin Laden's objection is not so much to the United States presence per se, as to the legitimacy of the present guardians of the holy places. He would challenge the right of the Saudi government to be the guardians of the holy places. That is his objection. ... America is ancillary to that. And he sees America as, in effect, propping up a regime which he cannot accept. ...

... A lot of people we spoke with--I'm thinking now of the mosque in Mombasa as well as in Dar es Salaam--they said that America's targeting Osama bin Laden, making him public enemy number one, has turned him into a folk hero in their communities. He's willing to stand up to the United States. He's willing to oppose the Saudi royal family. Do you have any sense of how this has happened and what this may mean?

Inayat Lalani, MD:

... I think it would be the greatest error on the part of the United States to somehow capture bin Laden. Bring him here. Convict him. And either send him to jail or hang him. Because that would really turn the Muslim world. It's irrational. I agree with you. It shouldn't be that way. But that will be the result if Bin Laden is made into a true martyr. ...

H. Ibrahim Salih, Ph.D.:

He's not as popular as you make him out to be. ... But [if you] continue with your intent on capturing him, then you'll make a folk hero out of him. And then the radicals will further rally behind an individual like him. But as far as the Muslim community goes around the world, he's not a hero. He's not a prophet. He's nobody. You're going to make him one, just like what we have made other individuals.

When a member of community was arrested and charged in these bombings, what was your reaction?

Khalid Y. Hamideh:

Our community's a very normal peace-loving, hard-working, tax-paying community. Just like the Italians, the Irish, the African Americans, the Mexican Americans. Just like everyone else. And so, when you have anyone that you see come to a holy place and worship being accused of a crime--it's utter disbelief. The fact that none of the evidence has come out, no true statement of what he is being held for--what the specifics are--has really come to the surface, still leaves us in the same utter disbelief state ... .

Thomas Spaniola:

.. There is this assumption that this man is guilty. He hasn't been tried. The most fundamental tenet of American law is a person is not guilty until they have been tried...Very little proof has been proffered by the government. ... But yet, there's this assumption that he is somehow linked with this. He has not been convicted of anything. He's still an innocent man. ...

The Imam of the mosque is apparently under investigation, [the story of the local Arlington Iman] so this case is going to get closer to home...

Syed A. Ahsani
(Former Pakistani Ambassador to the Sudan, Italy and Brazil
Visiting Professor, University of Texas, Arlington):

I have known Imam for the last ten years, after I came back from Pakistan. He is a very nice, good person. ... He is very conservative. He is so much engrossed in priestly activities, various religious activities ... performing marriage ceremonies and so on, that he has hardly any time. And trying to help others is his job. For instance, somebody is incarcerated for a lack of visa and over stay. He asked the community to raise funds to help him to go back home. So if this gentleman wants to talk to him on the telephone, what is the harm? And I told the press, to raise money is a just legitimate function of the Imam. To help this man to get out on bail. Now, what are the factors which persuaded the judge not to allow the bail? We do not know. Maybe he had more facts. But as Mr. Thomas Spaniola said, until he is proved guilty, he is innocent, and he has certain rights. ...

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