Community Reacts To Alleged Times Square Attempted Bomber

A Pakistani-American is in custody for allegedly trying to set off a car bomb in Times Square. Host Michel Martin speaks with civil rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar, the founder of The Muslim Guy.com; and with Shuja Nawaz, the director of Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, for their reaction.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to continue our conversation now with Arsalan Iftikhar. He's a civil rights attorney, the founder of themuslimguy.com. Of course he's a regular on this program. Also with us is Shuja Nawaz, he's the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlanta Council here in D.C. He's also been a guest on our program and we thank you both so much for joining us again.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney, TheMuslimGuy.com): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip from a press conference held by New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg upon the arrest of the young man in question. He made a point of framing this as a matter of a few bad apples. I just want to play that clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of clip)

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): All of us live in the city and among any group, there's always a few bad apples. But the people that live in this city are proud of the fact that this is the city that gives everybody from every place in the world an opportunity no matter what religion they practice, no matter where they or their parents came from, it's the city where you can practice your religion and say what you want to say and be in charge of your own destiny and we're going to keep it that way.

MARTIN: Arsalan, you're a civil rights attorney, obviously you're very interested in the system working to protect the rights of each individual. But you've also written about what you call a Jihadi cool, the idea that there's this sort of an attitude taking a hold among some young people, particularly with some backgrounds, who seem to be attracted to this kind of conduct.

And obviously let's just assure everybody that, you know, this individual is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Having said all that, what do you make of this incident? Do you think this is indicative of an individual? Or is there some larger issue here?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I think it's a little bit of everything, Michel. I think that, you know, a little bit of that, you know, sort of wannabe thuggish Jihadi cool does come into play here. You know, what's interesting to note is in the first few hours after the incident came to light, authorities said that they were looking for a 40-something-year-old white male, you know, leaving the scene. And it would have been interesting to know had it been, you know, say, a Tea Party activist who had done this. Would we be seeing this seem sort of, you know, domestic terrorism coverage? You know, we had the IRS...

MARTIN: Well, wouldn't it be terrorism regardless of who engaged in this conduct?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: It would technically be. But what I'm saying is how we frame it, you know. We had Joe Stack who flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas; that wasn't framed as domestic terrorism. But if it was a brown Muslim man named Ali Muhammad who had flown this plane into an IRS building, I assure you we would have called that terrorism. And so, it's interesting to see how this is going to be framed in the future.

MARTIN: Shuja, what are some of the elements that would cause an individual to have this level of discontent with the United States, a person who is a naturalized American citizen who presumably at one point did, you know, swear his allegiance to this country? What are some of the issues you think that might be aggravating this kind of sentiment?

Mr. SHUJA NAWAZ (Director of South Asia Center, Atlantic Council): There could be a lot of personal issues. We don't know how successful this young man was at what he was doing in the U.S. He may have been disheartened and left the country or took his family back to Pakistan.

Of course the people that he hung out with would have affected his thoughts and his actions. And the fact that he was in Pakistan recently for five months is interesting because this was the period during which there was a tremendous upsurge of anti-Americanism inside Pakistan, fueled in large part by U.S. policies...

MARTIN: Which ones in particular?

Mr. NAWAZ: ...in addition to making it extremely difficult for Pakistanis to travel to the U.S. to get their visas, which is a near impossible task for people. And I've only recently come from Pakistan. So I've talked to a lot of the people that don't want to go through that hassle.

But in addition, the special screening procedures that had been set up and that thankfully the government has now retracted, certainly gave a very powerful signal to people in that part of the world and in the other countries that were on the list that they were not welcome here.

So, you cannot separate the expatriate community from their homelands, even though they've sworn allegiance to the United States. And all the preventive measures that we are talking about are really dealing with the symptoms. You're not dealing with the real causes, which is unhappiness with U.S. policies either in the region or in other parts of the world affecting Muslims and so on. This is a very serious issue. The president has seized with it, but it's not something that will be solved overnight.

MARTIN: We want to talk more about that when we come back. We're going to need to take a short break in just a minute. But before we go, Arsalan, in the minute we have left, do you mind if I ask you how you reacted when you understood that this young man was a man, an American citizen originally from Pakistan as your family is originally from Pakistan? Did you have a sense of, oh no, here we go?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I always have a sense of oh no, here we go. You know, whenever there, like I said, you know, when the plane was flown into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, I sat there with bated breath saying, you know, please, God, don't let it be a brown man who did it. And I think that, you know, many minorities, post-9/11 affected communities, Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, you know, have that, you know, visceral reaction when we hear of something like this happening and I think that that has sadly become part and parcel of our post-9/11 lives.

MARTIN: What about, though, what Congressman Thompson was talking about? This effort to reach out to communities to identify individuals who may have these kinds of impulses or may be engaged in this kind of conduct. I mean, I think we'd all agree that this society does have a right and responsibility to protect its citizens from this kind of behavior.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely. Well, and I think, you know, like Congressman Thompson said, that community policing has always been a sacrosanct part of American law enforcement. But, you know, again, he sort of still painted it between us and the other where, you know, like I said, there have been acts of domestic terrorism by white Americans who, you know, have never been to a foreign country before. And so, you know, to categorize terrorism as only being committed by brown, foreign-sounding men is something that I think is a bit of a misnomer.

MARTIN: All right, we're going to continue this conversation with author and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar and scholar Shuja Nawaz about the developments in that failed Times Square bomb attack. And a suspect was arrested earlier today. We're going to talk more about that. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE.

From NPR News, I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a moment we'll hear from a congressman from Arizona who's calling for a boycott of his own state in response to that tough new immigration law in Arizona. That's in a few minutes.

But first, we are going to continue our conversation about the arrest in the case of the failed Times Square bombing. We're speaking with civil rights lawyer and author Arsalan Iftikhar and political analyst Shuja Nawaz.

President Obama of course spoke about these developments earlier today. I just want to play a short clip of what he had to say. Here it is.

(Soundbite of clip)

President BARACK OBAMA: New Yorkers have reminded us once again of how to live with their heads held high. We know that the aim of those who try to carry out these attacks is to force us to live in fear and thereby amplifying the effects of their attacks, even those that fail. But as Americans and as a nation, we will not be terrorized.

MARTIN: Shuja, would you pick up on that point? What would be the purpose of an attack like this?

Mr. NAWAZ: I think it's simply a reaction, probably a copycat type of action on the part of an individual who, particularly if he was in Pakistan in the last five months, may have picked up a lot of anti-U.S. sentiment. And that goes back to the broader issue that I was raising of U.S. policies and how the government of Pakistan has also been handling the situation, which was not very well.

Particularly on the drone attacks which created a big anti-American feeling in the heartland of Pakistan, though not in the borderlands where the drone attacks are actually taking place. For the last few years, the government of Pakistan was publicly denouncing these attacks while privately helping the U.S. government.

It's only in the last few months that they've actually stopped coming out in public and denouncing the attacks. But those denunciations created such a bad mood among the people in Pakistan that even the middle class, the upper middle class, the well-off people that were traditionally seen as friends of the United States, that traveled often to the U.S. and spoke very fondly of the U.S. suddenly became very sour.

And then added to that, as I said earlier, were these visa restrictions and problems in getting visas and then the special treatment of Pakistanis coming and going from the U.S. So there's a kind of a ripple effect within Pakistani society that will take some time to get rid of.

MARTIN: And as you mentioned those - that heightened scrutiny was in response to an incident that did not involve a Pakistani national. But you said they've since been lifted. One imagines that in the wake of this episode that there might be further calls to once again kind of tighten travel restrictions. What is your take on that, of how effective that is?

Mr. NAWAZ: I think this kind of a knee-jerk reaction will only exacerbate the situation. It'll create more problems and particularly among the Pakistani-American community, the majority of whom have no sympathy for this kind of terrorist activity at all. Most of them are very serious, hardworking individuals, very serious members of even police forces in this country.

So for them it creates a very difficult situation because their friends and neighbors look at them with a fresh pair of eyes, you know. It's almost as if you are now painting a whole country with the same brush.

MARTIN: Arsalan, would you pick up the ball from there, as a person who obviously is very concerned about people being, you know, labeled. On the other hand, you are an American citizen, you are also concerned about the security of the country and you're also very in touch with communities and the way they are responding to this. What are your thoughts about how the U.S. could respond to this in a way that doesn't exacerbate the situation?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, like I said before, I think community policing, you know, always plays a major role in all of these investigations. You know, you mentioned the case of the five boys from Northern Virginia who were caught in...

MARTIN: Four young men.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Four young men who were caught in Sargodha, Pakistan. It was actually their parents who had turned them in, you know, even the case of the Christmas Day underwear bomber, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab. It was his father who went to a U.S. consulate in Nigeria to, you know, to turn his son in. And so, you know, what that shows twofold is, first of all, that, you know, an act of terrorism or extremism has, will find zero sanctuary in the American Muslim community, that we will community police ourselves.

And second of all, that there has been a bridge building effort between federal law enforcement agencies and the American Muslim community whether at the state level, at the mosque level, at the grassroots level, at the national level to help ensure that there is a clear chain of communication. So that if something were to ever happen, that there are clear channels in which to report that.

MARTIN: Obviously there's more we want to know about this. We want to know who this young man is, and he's 30 years old, by the way; he's no child.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Sure.

MARTIN: You want to know more about his life. But are there steps that you think could be taken now that aren't being taken that would be helpful here? Are there other messages that could be delivered to understand, you know, what it is that would lead a young man who lives here, built a life here, presumably, to take this route?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Well, you know, I think one of the first things we'd have to, you know, ascertain is whether or not this guy was a lone wolf in the sense that was he a part of a community or, you know, did he live by himself and work at a, you know, at a Domino's Pizza or at a gas station and really kept to himself? Or was he part of, you know, something bigger and greater?

And so I think that, you know, with his arraignment and with the subsequent evidence that comes out in the investigation with the intelligence, I think we're going to find out more about that. And depending on whether or not this guy was an isolated lone wolf or a part of something greater, I think we'll be able to have that discussion further.

MARTIN: Shuja, what if he is part of something greater? What if he is a part of a broader network? What would that tell us? And what else do you want to know, by the way, as this episode goes first? What kinds of information would you want to have to kind of put this into some broader context?

Mr. NAWAZ: I think some of the information that Arsalan mentioned I would definitely want to have about his social network to see if maybe the community failed him in some way. Because if he was part of a network, then perhaps others could have caught some of the signs earlier. But if he's part of a network that has ties back to Pakistan, then clearly this is bringing a new element into this because until now, the Taliban, particularly the Pakistani Taliban have not had this kind of ability to project violence into the heartland of the U.S. or into Europe or anywhere else.

They are only reacting now to the military's actions in the borderland by attacking the hinterland, the cities in Pakistan and creating terror there. So this means that they are now establishing links. And in terms of policies, it means that Pakistan and the U.S. then have to collaborate and cooperate much more effectively to shut all the routes for the expatriates going back into that region.

Just yesterday there was an attack in which a German national was killed. So clearly there are ways in which you can prevent these people from going because I've traveled in the region and the roads in and out are limited. So it is possible to police.

MARTIN: And very briefly, before I let you go, how is this being reported in Pakistan? You're just back and I know you follow events there closely, how is this being reported there?

Mr. NAWAZ: Well, the immediate reports were very muted. In fact, on one of the leading English language newspapers, which also owns an Urdu newspaper, the report was somewhere eighth or ninth on the headlines. And it didn't mention that the guy was a Pakistani. It said the suspect had been arrested. So, clearly they are waiting for more information to make up their minds about how this is going to play out.

MARTIN: Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlanta Council here in D.C. He's the author of many books about Pakistan and U.S.-Pakistani relations. Also with us, Arsalan Iftikhar, he's a civil rights attorney, the founder of themuslimguy.com and a frequent contributor to TELL ME MORE. And they're both here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. NAWAZ: Thank you.

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