The controversy over reports of an FBI informant infiltrating southern California mosques and the FBI's overall conduct toward American Muslims were subjects of a Senate hearing last month, generating vague answers from FBI Director Robert Mueller and generating even more concern in a community already feeling fearful and unfairly targeted in a post-9/11 era. In the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held on Capitol Hill, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) was tough on Mueller.
"Can you determine and report to this committee whether mosques have been entered by FBI agents or informants without disclosing their identities under the authority of the attorney general guidelines and, if so, how many?" Feingold asked.
"I will say that we do not focus on institutions, we focus on individuals. And I will say generally if there is evidence or information as to individual or individuals undertaking illegal activities in religious institutions, with appropriate high-level approval, we would undertake investigative activities, regardless of the religion," Mueller responded in part.
Mueller, in regurgitating the domestic intelligence and investigative agency's standard line, in fact contradicted claims of Craig Monteilh, an Orange County man who has publicly revealed how he was trained to "infiltrate" area mosques – from West Covina to Mission Viejo – to spy on unsuspecting worshippers, for almost a year.
Monteilh's accounts prompted Muslim community leaders and groups to question the true intention behind the FBI's partnership with U.S. Muslims.
A highlight of the Senate testimony was a reference to the American Muslim Taskforce statement, released March 17. That statement was part of a nationally-coordinated campaign by Muslims to decisively respond to the FBI's aggressive tactics.
In the statement, the coalition of national Muslim organizations said they are considering severing outreach ties and public relations work with the FBI unless the agency revamps its "McCarthy-era tactics" that unfairly target the Muslim community, its mosques and institutions.
The AMT statement led Sen. Feingold to ask Mueller if he thought the new attorney general guidelines (implemented Dec. 1, 2008) are helping or hurting the FBI's relationship with the U.S. Muslim community and in light of the AMT statement, how he planned to improve that relationship.
To that, Mueller responded: "Expectation is that our relationships are as good now as before the guidelines…"
Last December, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, under the auspices of the Bush Administration, approved guidelines for the FBI that lower the threshold for conducting investigations, allow for informants to spy on people without probable cause, and further permit the FBI to take into account a person's religion and ethnic background as factors to open an investigation – essentially making lawful racial and religious profiling.
The extensive AMT statement describes the contributions of the American Muslim community and outlines how the FBI's sending in agent provocateurs to incite worshippers undermined relations between the agency and Muslims.
"Through civil rights advocacy, civic and political engagement, and the promotion of dialogue with interfaith leaders and law enforcement agencies, Muslim Americans continue to be a positive and stabilizing force in keeping our nation safe and secure from acts of violence and foreign threats … Yet recent incidents targeting American Muslims lead us to consider suspending ongoing outreach efforts with the FBI … Bias and faulty premises dominated post-9/11 law enforcement analysis of the Muslim community and the threat assessment to national security. The waning days of the previous administration witnessed a flourishing of anti-Muslim activity … These McCarthy-era tactics are detrimental to a free society."
Major Muslim organizations – the American Muslim Alliance, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim American Society - Freedom, Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim Student Association-National, MSA West, more than 30 other mosques and Muslim groups – have endorsed the AMT statement.
Additionally, more than 50 activists and well-respected academics – including John Esposito, Ali Mazrui, and Hatem Bazian – have signed on to the AMT statement.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, which did not sign on to AMT's statement, have nonetheless called for accountability of the FBI's actions while maintaining open lines of communication.
"Federal law enforcement cannot establish trust with American Muslim communities through meetings and townhall forums, while at the same time sending paid informants who instigate violent rhetoric in mosques. This mere act stigmatizes American mosques and casts a shadow of doubt and distrust between American Muslims and their neighbors," a Feb. 25 MPAC statement said.
MPAC Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati later stated about MPAC's continued outreach ties to the FBI: "We believe that we have to keep our place at the table in this discourse."
ISNA, in a news release, stated: "ISNA believes that communications with law enforcement agencies should remain open and it is not in favor of ending contacts with the FBI."
AMT Chairman Agha Saeed, however, said the AMT's effort is not a campaign of disengagement.
"It is instead designed to truly engage top Justice Department officials on these critical issues," Saeed said. "It is also designed to help restore respect and equal rights for American Muslims after eight years of being treated as suspects rather than partners."
The two distinct and, to an extent, conflicting approaches as to whether to continue outreach with the FBI have led some in the Muslim community to question whether a less than united stance will impact Muslims' ability to hold the agency responsible and therefore, force it to correct its wrongdoings against a community constantly viewed as suspect.
Faisal Qazi, a neurologist and longtime activist in southern California, wrote an open letter to Muslim leaders.
"If a Muslim leader of any of our national groups supporting full maintenance of engagement is to be detained today, these groups would inevitably no longer stay on the table for continued so-called engagement," wrote Qazi. "Therefore, the question is where do you draw the line? The line for grassroots movements is drawn when an average individual such as (Ahmad) Niazi is affected or in solidarity for all those families who have been harassed by recent intrusions but for others, the threshold may be much higher."
On the subject of engagement with the FBI, the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California – an umbrella organization of more than 70 mosques and Islamic centers – polled Muslims in March.
In the poll, 78 percent of respondents said American Muslims should have "no relationship at all [with the FBI] until they stop unfairly targeting" Muslims or "end outreach relationship and limit communication to 'as needed.'" The remaining 22 percent said Muslims should maintain an ongoing relationship with the FBI, "no matter what." In February, the ISCSC and many other southern California Muslim groups suspended their outreach work with FBI's Los Angeles office.
For the past two months, the issue of FBI informants at mosques has captured national and international media spotlight, prompted by the FBI's Feb. 20 arrest of Niazi, a 34-year-old U.S. citizen, on charges of immigration fraud.
Niazi, in 2007, was one of the first worshippers at the Islamic Center of Irvine to report Monteilh, who had made violent statements against America and intimated to worshippers that he had access to explosives.
Monteilh was promptly reported to the Irvine Police Department and the Los Angeles FBI office at that time. In 2008, Niazi further reported to CAIR-Los Angeles Area that he was asked by an FBI agent to become an informant, otherwise his life would be made "a living hell." It was later confirmed that Monteilh was a convicted felon who was recruited and paid by the FBI to infiltrate mosques and spy on worshippers.
The Orange County Register wrote a biting editorial on Monteilh's "fishing expeditions."
"Everyone understands the need for legitimate undercover activities in response to credible evidence. But we cannot fathom the justification for fishing expeditions and entrapment. Nationwide, some of the supposed terrorist 'plots' the FBI has claimed to have foiled have simply been cases of entrapment involving Muslims without the intent or wherewithal or to pull off any attacks. Infiltrating mosques without evidence of crime is an affront to the First Amendment."
Both Mueller and FBI spokesman John Miller say the agency values its partnership with Muslims.
"Limiting honest dialogue, especially when complex issues are on the table, is generally not an effective advocacy strategy," Miller said in a written release.
However, Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-LA and an AMT member, disagrees.
"The problem is that many in the Muslim community no longer feel confident that the FBI is pursuing an honest dialogue with the Muslim community," Ayloush said. "This was the result of confirmed reports that, while the Muslim community engaged in honest partnership building and dialogue with the FBI for eight years, the FBI was paying convicted felons to 'infiltrate' mosques to radicalize Muslim youths and instigate talks about terrorism action. Integrity and honesty are the foundation of any relationship."
Last year, the FBI privately ended formal relations with the offices of CAIR, the largest Muslim civil rights group in the country. FBI officials never informed CAIR representatives of the reasons behind their decision but recently said, in writing, that they want to limit "any formally constructed partnerships between CAIR and the FBI" based on concerns relating "to a number of distinct narrow issues specific to CAIR and its national leadership."
The AMT statement points to the "unindicted co-conspirator" designation given to 300 Muslim individuals and groups, including CAIR, in the trial of Holy Land Foundation charity as a possible reason. The move was illegal and seen as politically-oriented and criminalizing the Muslim community.
CAIR has called the FBI allegations a "campaign of smears and misinformation."
"It is not surprising that we would be targeted in a purely political move by those in the previous administration who sought to prevent us from defending the civil rights of American Muslims," said CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, in a statement.
CAIR officials also said the organization has regularly advocated engagement, based on mutual respect, with law enforcement and the FBI, sponsoring diversity trainings, joint workshops and town halls with FBI agents, and assisting with investigations.
American Muslims and the FBI now walk a rocky course while seeking a balance between national security and the protection of civil liberties. Muslims will continue to report any suspicious activity or threats to law enforcement, the AMT statement says.
Muslim leaders observe that the fate of American Muslims mirrors that of other minorities who they say were intimidated by government forces and stripped of their humanity yet continued to stand up and eventually gained respect and their true place in society.
Said the OC Register editorial: "The FBI's activities have led a consortium of Muslim groups to 'consider suspending ongoing outreach efforts with the FBI.' We can hardly blame them. Perhaps the Obama administration will rethink this counterproductive and un-American strategy."