Civil Liberties and the War on Terrorism
Arab and Muslim Americans Fear Discrimination

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Civil Liberties

A November 2001 survey by NPR News, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government showed that the vast majority of Americans are willing to forgo some civil liberties to fight terrorism and that they trust the government to do the right thing in carrying out the fight.
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Nasser Beydoun
Nasser Baydoun, executive director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce
Photo: American Arab Chamber of Commerce

"You know your e-mail can be read. You know that your phone can be tapped. You know that people are placed in organizations and institutions to go ahead and get information on you, or about your organization. You know that in wartime, you're fair game."

Najah Bazzy,
Activist and senior adviser for the Islamic Center of America's Young Muslim Association

Aug. 28, 2002 -- When the planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, the government moved quickly to round up suspects and thwart another terrorist attack. The developments revived a centuries-old debate about how government can protect the security of the nation, while still protecting the rights of the individual. NPR's Barbara Bradley traveled to Michigan and Florida to find out. Her reports are part of a one-hour NPR documentary, hosted by Susan Stamberg, that examines the war on terrorism's impact in three key areas: U.S. foreign policy, FBI tactics within U.S. borders, and the use of surveillance technology.

Dearborn, Mich. With more than 300,000 people of Arab descent, Dearborn, Mich., is home to one of the largest Arab communities outside the Middle East. FBI Special Agent Michael Thomas makes the drive from his office in Detroit to Dearborn at least three times a week. Part of his job on the counterterrorism task force is to gather evidence of terrorist cells using through surveillance, searches and wiretaps. But he says all the technical intelligence in the world won't win the war on terrorism if it can't be deciphered.

For that he needs help from people like Egyptian-born Mohammed El-Kuld, 73, one of five Arab Americans who work in the "Arab specialist room" at the federal prosecutor's office. They translate documents, interviews and wiretap recordings.

It's a room where the war on terrorism could be won or lost, Bradley says. It's also a place where critical issues of civil liberties play out. Preserving civil liberties is essential because the FBI can't afford to alienate the Muslim or Arab community, which may be able to identify potential plotters, Bradley says.

Knowing that, the Detroit FBI has tried to meet with Arab community leaders, to set up a relationship of mutual need -- of trust, not terror. Case in point -- the voluntary interviews. Nationwide, the Justice Department identified 5,000 Middle Eastern men that it wanted to talk to.

In Detroit, the FBI decided to send letters, offering to meet the person. The letters specifically said the FBI did not need to know the person's immigration status. The program worked. Of the 500 men approached, only a dozen refused to talk.

But Nasser Beydoun, who heads the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, says it's a wary sort of cooperation. "As great as our relationship might be with the FBI, they still have to adhere to the directives of the attorney general," Beydoun says. "And we have seen that (U.S. Attorney General) John Ashcroft is not a friend of civil liberties."

For that reason, Omar Mahmood was ambivalent when two FBI agents interviewed him last fall. A doctoral student and American citizen, Mahmood had spent time studying in Yemen. Initially scared, Mahmood said that after having gone through it, "I felt maybe that it wasn't that bad."

Then one agent asked him to report back suspicious activity or people. Mahmood didn't trust the agents enough for that.

"It's easy to say you have nothing to hide, you should welcome these type of investigations, when your house has never been raided, when your computer has never been confiscated, when your personal writings and personal recordings have not been erased and taken away."

And many believe this kind of thing will happen more and more. Why? Because it can, says Najah Bazzy of the Islamic Center of America's Young Muslim Association. The USA Patriot Act gave law enforcement broad new powers to investigate people.

Bazzy says as an activist, she assumes she's being watched. She's not particularly bothered by it, but then again, she's an American citizen, and she lives in a place where the FBI is treading carefully.

Mohammad Shafayat
Mohammad Shafayat stands in front of the Darul Uloom Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Photo: Altaf Ali

Khurrum Wahid
Miami public defender Khurrum Wahid at a conference in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Altaf Ali

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

On Fridays at the Darul Uloom Institute, as many as 700 Muslims gather in the mosque to pray and to receive spiritual insight from their imam. Near the door, a uniformed policeman stands near the door.

It's a reminder of the dichotomy, Bradley says. On the one hand, this mosque has been a target of an FBI investigation. It's where Jose Padilla, the man U.S. authorities arrested for allegedly plotting to explode a radioactive "dirty bomb" in Washington, D.C., studied the Koran. On the other hand, the imam, Shafayat Mohammed, invites the FBI and police to come to Friday service each week.

Mohammed says he's not particularly bothered by the investigations. "If you're not guilty, why be afraid? If you have not committed a crime, why worry?"

Khurrum Wahid, a public defender in Miami, says there are plenty of reasons to worry. Since Sept. 11, he's overseen some five dozen cases of Muslims who have been detained. He says when the attacks occurred, people asked him what was going to happen to Muslims.

"And I said, I wouldn't worry about it, because my experience has been the government and law enforcement have always been a group that has worked smart, has worked with surgical precision as opposed to the broad brush," Wahid says. "I was wrong. It turns out they were as reactionary and as emotional as everyone across the country."

As in the rest of the country, the war on terrorism in Florida began with round-ups of hundreds of people, generally men of Arab descent.

While in Detroit, the FBI sent out letters inviting the men to set up a time to be interviewed, in Florida, agents surprised people with a knock on the door. FBI agents in Detroit did not ask about a subject's immigration status. In Florida, the FBI brought along INS officers, who took the men into custody after the interview.

In Mohammad Mubeen's case, the agents showed up at his home at 8:30 on the night of Sept. 17. His cousin heard the knock, and found four FBI and INS agents on his doorstep.

The FBI had seen Mubeen's name on a roster that also included Mohammed Atta, the alleged leader of the 19 hijackers. They talked with the 20-year-old Pakistani for about 30 minutes, and then asked him to take a polygraph test. That's was the last time his cousin saw him.

Hector M. Pesquera, the head of the FBI's office in Miami, says he's familiar with complaints that this is unfair.

"But what people must understand and realize, the fact of life is that people are in this country illegally," he says. "And therefore, although it is a violation of an administrative type, not a criminal violation, they are subject to be picked up at any point in time."

Again, whether these methods infringe on personal liberties is a matter for the courts. But one thing is clear, Bradley says -- the tactics have terrified the Muslim community in South Florida. The fear can be traced to new guidelines that encourage FBI agents to visit public places to discover terrorist plots. The FBI says it has to go where agents and analysts think plots are being hatched. Even some civil libertarians agree with that in theory.

But at one north Miami mosque, the windows are papered over, the front door is locked. After Sept. 11, people started coming in through the back door. The mosque that normally saw as many as 50 people coming for evening prayers today is virtually empty.

Previous NPR Coverage

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more iconRead more about Arab Americans in Dearborn, Mich.

Other Resources

Young Muslim Association

Islamic Center of America

• U.S. State Department's Muslim Life in America series.

Arab American Institute

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

American Arab Chamber of Commerce

Department of Justice

Federal Bureau of Investigation

American Civil Liberties Union