The California-based Muslim Public Affairs Council has taken on a prominent liaison role with the Justice Department after the FBI cut off contact with another advocacy group that had been implicated in a major terrorism case.
The government’s outreach to American Muslims is a highly sensitive matter in law enforcement circles. MPAC, as the public affairs council is known, is one of two Muslim-American organizations now attending regular meetings led by the Civil Rights Division and including government officials the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.
Previously, the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a seat at the table with FBI and DHS. But evidence in a major 2008 terrorism-support trial of leaders of a now-defunct Muslim charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, showed that CAIR was founded as part of a U.S.-based support network for the Palestinian group Hamas.
It has been illegal since 1995 for Americans to lend financial or political support to Hamas, which has been held responsible for a campaign of suicide bombings against Israel in the 1990s and caused the U.S. to designate it a foreign terrorist organization.
MPAC, formed in 1988, has seen its star rise somewhat as CAIR’s has fallen. Last month MPAC hosted Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez at the group’s ninth annual convention in Los Angeles. In a keynote speech, the Civil Rights Division chief struck MPAC’s policy themes, saying that racial profiling is “not just bad as a matter of civil rights, it is ineffective police work.”
The Justice Department walks a tightrope balancing the protection of Muslim-American civil rights and aggressively pursuing law enforcement strategies to prevent terrorist attacks. At times, those imperatives seem to conflict, when, for example, law enforcement agencies use informants to infiltrate mosques or identify high-risk airplane passengers through profiling techniques.
The challenges were underscored by the arrest on Christmas Day of an alleged al-Qaeda associate from Nigeria aboard a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam and by the November shooting spree at the Ft. Hood Army base in Texas, in which an apparently radicalized Muslim military psychiatrist is accused.
Last summer, Attorney General Eric Holder said he was increasingly concerned about the threat posed by American citizens becoming radicalized – calling his daily threat briefings the most sobering part of his day.
Government and Muslim-American leaders say working together to prevent discrimination and hate crimes against Muslims can help deter terrorism incidents.
“We have a lot of contact with Arab-American and Muslim-American organizations, and I think one of the keys to the successful relationships that we have is that when events occur, we have very good lines of communication,” Perez said in response to a question from a Main Justice reporter during his speech at the National Press Club last month.
“We have issues that involve security and we also have issues that involved post-9/11 backlash. I’ve participated in my office in three or four large group meetings with various organizations, and what we’ve done is we’ve brought all the components together so that they’re not simply meeting with Tom Perez, they’re meeting with the FBI, they’re meeting with DHS,” said Perez.
Those meetings, which take place every other month in the Civil Rights Division’s offices, focus on addressing religious and ethnic discrimination and hate crimes and include representatives from various civil rights organizations, including MPAC and another California-based group, Muslim Advocates.
“Are there challenges that come up from time to time? Sure, there are undeniably challenges, but the key to resolving these challenges is making sure we communicate as best we can and we’re going to continue to do that,” Perez said.
Justice Department spokesperson Alejandro Miyar said the Civil Rights Division is committed to working with community and advocacy organizations representing a wide variety of constituencies, though he declined to name other groups with which the division regularly meets.
At his speech last month, Perez said that the Civil Rights Division is playing a role in the Justice Department’s internal review of its guidance on the use of race by federal law enforcement agencies. The Civil Rights Division has been keeping in close contact with the Muslim community following the Fort Hood shooting to “insure that we act swiftly against any incidents of backlash.”
He told the conference that Muslim Americans are “not only grieving, but are also fearful of irrational and unjustifiable acts of misplaced vengeance.”
No Foreign Funding
While CAIR accepted large donations from Saudi Arabia in the past, MPAC does not accept overseas money. MPAC Executive Director Salam al-Marayati said he believes his group’s funding policy is one reason the DOJ is comfortable dealing with it. He said he preferred to speak about MPAC rather than speculate about the government’s concerns about other Muslim organizations.
“I can just tell you why I think they are engaging our organization, we are an organization that doesn’t take any money from overseas, we center everything on being an American institution with an American Muslim identity,” said al-Marayati. “Home is not where our grandparents are buried, but where our grandchildren are going to be raised.”
CAIR, said al-Marayati, has met with government officials who have expressed their concerns to the organization and made recommendations for them to follow if they want to reestablish their ties down the line. “I know there are problems, and they’ve had meetings with CAIR to tell them what those problems are about,” said al-Marayati.
A Justice Department spokesperson could not confirm such meetings.
Hamas’s campaign of suicide bombings against Israel in the 1990s caused President Clinton to name it a terrorist organization, and it has been illegal since 1995 for U.S. individuals or entities to provide support to Hamas.
The relationship MPAC has developed with the Justice Department has been “strong, healthy, and transparent” for years, according al-Marayati. In 2005, the DOJ’s western regional director of community relations, Ron Wakabayashi, spoke at an MPAC conference, causing some concern for Jewish organizations, reported The New York Sun. MPAC also regularly met with Justice Department officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft, during the Bush administration.
Eric Treene and Mazen Basrawi, two members of Perez’s senior leadership team, have advised him on relationships with Muslim and Arab-American organizations and religious liberty issues. Treene joined the Justice Department as a Bush administration hire in 2002 and is currently serving as special counsel to Perez in the division’s front office.
At the table, but not always in agreement
MPAC’s place at the Justice Department’s table does not mean it agrees with all the government’s counter-terrorism policies. The organization recently came out strongly against guidelines from the Transportation Security Administration, which instruct screeners to conduct full pat-down body checks and carry-on luggage checks for passengers traveling from 14 “terrorism-prone nations.” MPAC called those guidelines “another name for counterproductive racial and ethnic profiling.”
“The new TSA guidelines deliver a propaganda victory to Al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, since they rob targeted groups of people from their civil liberties based on their ethnicity and country of origin,” said MPAC government liaison Alejandro Beutel. “Call it whatever you want, but this is religious and ethnic profiling at its worst.”
In March, a national coalition of Muslim organizations including MPAC warned that it would cease cooperating with the F.B.I. unless the agency stopped using informants inside mosques and “agents provocateurs to trap unsuspecting Muslim youth.”
At the same MPAC has also spoken out strongly against terrorism. Al-Marayati said those statements are rooted in the teachings of Islam.
“The major driver for those statements is the Islamic obligation to stand up for justice. Terrorism is the worst form of injustice. If you want for change or the Muslim people worldwide than that’s important but not through harming civilians or non-combatants and creating a culture of death,” said al-Marayati.
In November, MPAC released a report that laid out a blueprint for how Muslim American communities could “be an asset in securing our nation and preserving the rights of all Americans.”
Recommendations centered upon a “hybrid framework” of the process of radicalization, and call for more community policing. While the report says that informants are “an extremely important tool and can be used to great effectiveness in various kinds of criminal investigations,” it said that the FBI has abused the use of informants. It proposes an intelligence gathering model that shifts away from the heavy use of informants and towards a community policing-based methodology.
Critics of the model say that MPAC’s plan undermines U.S. counterterrorism efforts, but al-Marayati said he believes his organization’s plan would be more effective because it would build trust between Muslim-American communities and counter-terrorism government officials.
“In my opinion, [informants] don’t serve any national security interest, they create a lot of busy work,” said al-Marayati. “I think it’s a sloppy process that doesn’t really get to the root of the problems, so we have our criticisms of it.” He said he recognized that it was the FBI’s right to use informants, but he believed the process of community policing would be more effective.
Al-Marayati cited the “Lackawanna Six” case as an example of how his organization’s relationship with the government can help prevent an attack. In that case, an al-Qaeda sleeper cell was broken up near Buffalo, N.Y., based on a tip from a source close to MPAC shortly after the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he said.
He also said the Nigerian father who approached the American embassy concerned about the extremist ties of his son, the would-be Christmas day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, epitomizes the concerns of every Muslim parent. “What we’re saying is that that can be used as a strength, we can leverage [the relationship] as an asset in our community.”