27 August, 2004

"Outreach process or racial profiling?" by Ben Duncan in Washington DC. Thursday 26 August 2004 6:59 AM GMT

 

During the past seven weeks, many Arab and Muslim Americans across the country say they have felt the sting of the Bush administration's most recent homeland security crackdown.

On 9 July, the FBI began interviewing members of the two communities as part of the government's latest attempt to thwart terrorist attacks on US soil.

While the FBI and the Department of Justice described the move as an ongoing effort to "establish contacts with community organisations and leaders in their territories", many of those Arab/Muslim representatives say their communities are taking a different message.

Engy Abdelkader, the civil-rights director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said her organisation has received numerous complaints about "coercive or intimidating tactics used by FBI agents".

Reaching out?

In a press release announcing the new round of interviews, Attorney General John Ashcroft said federal law-enforcement agencies had "credible reporting" that al-Qaida was planning a large-scale attack in an effort "to disrupt our democratic process".

"While we currently lack precise knowledge about when, where and how they are planning to attack, we are actively working to gain that knowledge," Ashcroft said.

"As part of that effort, we are again reaching out to our partners in the Muslim and Arab American communities for any information they may have."

For many in the Arab/Muslim community, that outreach effort has triggered painful memories of the post-11 September 2001 security dragnet that landed hundreds of Arab and Muslim suspects in police detention, most of whom were later exonerated of any terrorist-related activities.

Heavy scrutiny

Such tactics have exacerbated a lingering mistrust of federal law-enforcement groups among many Arab and Muslim Americans, who feel they have been unfairly targeted based on religious beliefs and ethnicity, Abdelkader said.

"Really, the only thing that [the FBI and the Department of Justice] are doing is alienating community members," she said.

The new interviews provoked heavy scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has offered to provide free legal representation to those contacted by the FBI for information.

"This dragnet technique used by the FBI is simply racial profiling and violates our most cherished fundamental freedoms," Dalia Hashad, the ACLU's Arab, Muslim and South Asian Advocate, said in a recent press release.

"Casting blanket suspicion on an entire religious and ethnic community is not a productive means of protecting national security or civil liberties."

While FBI officials have declined to provide any specifics of their investigation, including its duration and the number of people contacted, several civil-rights organisations say they have received daily phone calls and emails from citizens approached by the bureau.

Resurgence

Laila al-Qatami, communications director of the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington, said her group has been ontacted by almost 100 Arab Americans who said they had received interview equests from the FBI.

FBI spokesman Joe Parris would only say that the interviews "are ongoing".

Representatives from ADC, the Arab American Institute and the Muslim Public ffairs Committee, recently met with FBI officials to address their concerns over the "resurgence of voluntary interviews, as well as the protocol for announcing arrests", according to a an ADC press release.

The groups asked the FBI to do more to "diffuse misinterpretations, and stereotypes when announcing arrests or actions within the Arab and Muslim American communities", and received assurances from FBI officials that such measures would be taken in the future, the statement said.

Ethnic breakdown

The FBI interviews come at a time when the Arab American community is also dealing with a controversial decision by the US Census Bureau to provide the Department of Homeland Security with new statistics on the Arab American population.

The data, which included detailed information on the number of Arabs who live in certain zip codes, was tabulated in August 2002 and December 2003 at the request of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a division of the Homeland Security Department.

The report documented US cities with more than 1000 Arab Americans residents, along with a second listing for zip code demographics on individuals with Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Moroccan, Iraqi and Lebanese heritage. Two other categories were "Arab/Arabic" and " Other Arab".

Census Bureau officials have said they were legally obligated to provide the information, while CBP officials said they wanted the statistics in order to post Arabic signs in certain airports.

Representatives from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee met recently with CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner to express their dissatisfaction over the formulation and release of such detailed information.

Response awaited

Bonner later released a statement saying his division had not requested the segment of the report containing a breakdown on Arabic-speaking people or "Arabic ancestry by