Over the last month, multiple scandals have leaked that show the extent to which the NYPD has violated the civil liberties of thousands of New York Muslims under the banner of counterterrorism efforts. Protecting the homeland must remain central in all of our policing and intelligence-gathering efforts, but it should not, and does not have to result in the alienation of hundreds of thousands of New York Muslims. Equally important, counterterrorism efforts must operate on sound and factual analysis of the threat posed by the Muslim community, and collaboration with Muslim community leaders and citizens should be a top priority.
The damage that these scandals have caused in severing the lines of trust between law enforcement and the Muslim community may be irreparable in the short term, but it is not too late for the NYPD to begin assessing the policies that led us to where we are today.
In a recently exposed white paper published by the NYPD entitled, "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," we find the basis of an entire philosophy of counterterrorism that led to these scandals, and to the abuse of Muslim civil liberties.
Let's examine each of these myths in turn.
1. Extremist Muslims have permeated New York Muslim communities.
The white paper states:
"New York City has a diverse Muslim population of between 600,000 and 750,000 within a population of about 8 ½ million--about 40% of whom are foreign-born. Unfortunately, extremists who have and continue to sow the seeds of radicalization have permeated the City's Muslim communities."
To suggest that the Muslim community of New York is being overrun with violent extremism is wildly inaccurate. The New York Muslim community makes up an estimated 1 million people throughout the entire state. The community has incredible racial, socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, and is very well integrated into the larger society.
The threat this community poses is similar to the threat that American Muslims pose nationwide: very little to none. The New York Times recognized this a couple weeks ago when they ran an article by the title, "Radical U.S. Muslims Little Threat, Study Says."
Since 9/11, more than 40 percent of the cases where criminal charges were brought upon an American Muslim for suspicion in a terrorism related case, the Muslim community was responsible for turning that individual, or individuals, over to the authorities. Muslims see counterterrorism as their duty according to recent public opinion polls, and they are more concerned about preventing terrorism then are the rest of the non-Muslim American public is per capita. Don't we want to increase this trend of Muslims serving on the front line of counterterrorism efforts? Increasing it has the dual benefit of making Muslims an integral part of the solution, and making them feel like a valued collaborator in the war on terrorism.
According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council's comprehensive terrorism database, of the 49 Muslim domestic and foreign based plots against the U.S. since 9/11 -- there were more than 105 terrorist plots from non-Muslim groups and individuals -- nearly 1 in 3 of these plots were turned over to the authorities by the American Muslim community.
2. A Muslim's level of religiosity is a sign of radicalization and support for terrorism.
The second myth that the document supports is the so called "conveyor belt theory" of terrorism, which argues that terrorism is based on a continuum of religiosity, where the more religious a Muslim gets, the greater likeliness they may adopt violent extremism. This is a major misnomer that has unfortunately been taught to hundreds of thousands of police and intelligence agents nationwide as exposed in a recent investigative report by Political Research Associates entitled Manufacturing the Muslim Menace.
The white paper describes the ideology that supports terrorism as "jihadi-Salafi Islam" but never defines these terms, especially what they mean for Muslims. Instead, they exaggerate what a "Salafi Muslim" is, and neglect to point out that the majority of Salafi Muslims in western Europe and in America are not in favor of using violence and are generally peaceful.
The white paper also refuses to look at competing studies of radicalization. For example, Quintan Wiktorowicz, National Security Agency Director learned in an extensive research project he headed on radicalization of Muslim youth that there is no correlation between religiosity and a willingness to become radicalized. In other words, the more religious Muslims became, the less likely they would be to join radical movements.
Wiktorowicz's insight supports what Policy Analyst Alejandro Beutel of the Muslim Public Affairs Council has recently discovered in his careful analysis of Osama bin Laden's recruitment rhetoric. By analyzing the content of each lecture that bin-Laden gave, Beutel discovered that al Qaeda's recruiting "pitch" was overwhelmingly political/policy-oriented, not religious. It was religion that caused the al Qaeda recruit to stick after they had been lured in by political grievances.
Let's be realistic. The threat from al Qaeda is concerning. Despite the controversial nature of his assassination, Anwar Awlaki's death and disappearance from the scene is a welcoming sign in the ongoing recruitment that al Qaeda is attempting, mainly online,of American Muslims. The fact that we no longer have a charismatic, English speaking figurehead of al Qaeda to brainwash American Muslims to commit acts of violence is a great thing. Awlaki's model turned about two-dozen American Muslims toward a commitment to violent radicalization against the west and American in particular. Importantly, this was happening in anonymous chat rooms online, not in mosques, or mainstream religious institutions in America, further proof that the threat does not come from mosques, community centers, etc.
3. Profiling Muslims is possible and necessary.
The third myth that the white paper supports is that Muslims must be profiled; suggesting not only is it necessary, but that it is possible. Here is an excerpt from the paper:
"Radicalization makes little noise. It borders on areas protected by the First and Fourth Amendments. It takes place over a long period of time. It therefore does not lend itself to a traditional criminal investigations approach."
When we analyze the homegrown cases of Muslim terrorists since 9/11, we find vastly different ethnic origin, age, ideological affiliation and motivations. This makes the very notion of profiling the Muslim community nearly impossible. The idea of profiling based on religiosity or the outward expression of religiosity is just plain wrong and nonsensical as it goes against what we know of terrorism recruits more generally. Like we saw from Wiktorowicz's research, religious Muslims should be seen as allies, as there is no empirical relationship between religiosity and support for terrorism.
4. Muslim community leaders and citizens do not need to be consulted in counterterrorism efforts.
Nowhere in the 90 plus page report do we find details or best practices for policymakers and intelligence officers in building partnerships with New York Muslims.
In an ironic way, the controversies coming out of the NYPD, while they hurt the relationship between Muslims and law enforcement, they do help engage Muslims in the political process and in speaking up for their rights. The New York Muslim community is fed up, and many point to the rising trend of Islamophobia as the cause for this wanton disregard for Muslim civil liberties.
One of the key recommendations that Charles Kurzman, a leading expert on Muslim radicalization of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security proposes is that Muslim Americans be given the means to express themselves politically in the larger American society. The fight against Islamophobia is a healthy way for Muslim Americans to stand up for their rights and in the process demand equal respect. Like the civil rights movement for Black Americans, many politically engaged Muslims feel that the fight against bigotry and misunderstanding of their faith will result in a greater level of integration into the American experience in the long term.
From 2005 to 2011 we have witnessed an increase in the so-called "lone wolf" phenomenon of extremism -- an isolated individual becomes indoctrinated by a charismatic pseudo religious leader and seeks to act out violence against the American populace. Thankfully, this threat is relatively minor and, unfortunately, often caused by FBI entrapment.
What we have not yet seen is the climate of growing Islamophobia serving as the cause for a lone wolf attack on America, or a coordinated attack. Since it is always best to be ahead of the storm, we must encourage large-scale movements against Islamophobia because they help to further a healthy civic alternative to American Muslims, and they can help to de-bunk the legitimacy of pseudo sheikhs and religious clerics online who argue that social change for Muslims living in America is not possible, or out of grasp.
Fighting Islamophobia and standing up for civil rights is one positive way that Muslims can vent their anger and develop a new language that ties the values of Islam to a unique American and democratic narrative. This sort of civic and political activism has already begun, and when scandals like these emerge, Muslim Americans should be vocal and demand justice.