Targeting American Muslims - Where's the Beef?

John L. Esposito

On Friday, November 9, the United Press International (UPI) reported that the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) counterterrorism bureau plans to identify Muslim enclaves in order to determine, which might likely become isolated and susceptible to "violent, ideologically based extremism" according to Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing. To do this, LAPD would "take a deeper look at the history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socioeconomic status and social interactions" of the city's Muslim communities. Downing’s comments reflect a similar mentality revealed in the New York Police Department (NYPD) “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.” So where’s the beef?

Neither the comments of LAPD’s Downing nor the NYPD report provide any substantial evidence to warrant their concerns. In fact, both seem to be influenced by studies of radicalization in some European Muslim communities. They overlook the significant demographic and economic differences between European and American Muslim communities. In contrast to the large numbers of Muslim immigrants who came to Europe as laborers, often from rural areas with poor educational backgrounds and skills, immigrant American Muslims came with educations and skills or came to the U.S. to acquire university educations and job skills. By and large, American Muslims do not share the significant educational, employment, and housing problems of many European Muslims. The American Muslim community (immigrant and descendants of immigrants as well as indigenous African American Muslims), the vast majority of whom are integrated in American society are educated, professionals and increasingly politically active. The average income of Muslims exceeds that of non-Muslims. 
One significant unintended consequence or fallout from the war on terrorism has been an assault on civil liberties.

“In the name of preventing terrorism, the administration has locked up thousands of individuals without trial—within the United States and abroad—the vast majority of whom have never been accused, much less convicted, of any terrorist act. President Bush invoked the “preventive” rationale to defend his secret order authorizing the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without probable cause that they had engaged in any wrongdoing, without a court order, and contrary to a criminal prohibition on warrant less wiretapping.” Less Safe, Less Free: Why America is Losing the War on Terror (David Cole and Jules Lobel), p. 3.

For years, unsubstantiated claims that significant numbers, if not majorities, of Muslims and mosques in America are extremist have deliberately ignored or overlooked the facts. An FBI internal memo acknowledged in 2005 that it had not identified a single al-Qaeda sleeper cell in the entire United States. More than 80,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants were called in and registered with no tangible results. The National Security Agency’s domestic spying program generated thousands of leads which, in the words of frustrated FBI agents, “were virtually all ‘dead ends or have led to innocent Americans.’”

The vast majority of more than four hundred persons arrested in “terror-related” cases, when brought to trial were not charged with terrorism, but with minor nonviolent offenses. As David Cole, in Less Safe, Less Free has concluded: “The government convicted only five individuals for conspiring or attempting to engage in actual terrorist activities since 9/11, and of those convictions, three cannot be attributed to the preventive program and the other two involve highly dubious charges or evidence.…. The administration has boasted that it has foiled many terrorist plots since 9/11, but has not identified a single terrorist brought to justice for these purported plots.” 
So again, where’s the beef? Where’s the supportive evidence to legitimate community profiling that yields to fear-mongers, brush strokes Muslims communities, and risks creating the very problems of alienation and marginalization that LAPD and similar initiative purport to address.

Dr. John L. Esposito is a University Professor and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.