Her Majesty's Secret Service

Her Majesty's Secret Service

Mini Teaser: 7/7 tested how the British cope with Islamist terrorism. Were they found wanting?

by Author(s): Steven N. SimonJonathan Stevenson

Despite the quiescence of the U.S. Muslim community, the U.S. government should not be complacent. The United States could still wind up with a "fifth column" problem if the government fails to adopt the appropriate policies. While Muslim violence within the United States seems more likely to come from foreigners, in the short term there remains a dangerous possibility that foreign terrorists will gain operational support from radical pockets of the indigenous Muslim community. At least at the margin, Islamist radicalism is on the rise in the United States as well as Europe. The United States needs to focus more than it has on reversing this trend, lest the problem in America reach the near-critical mass that it has in Europe. Yet the evolving attitudes of non-Muslim Americans toward their Muslim neighbors are likely to spur rather than discourage radicalism. A poll released in December 2004 by Cornell University indicated that nearly half of all Americans believe that Muslim Americans "are a threat and their civil liberties should be curtailed." The Cornell study also revealed that 27 percent of 1,000 respondents supported requiring all Muslim Americans to register their home addresses with the federal government and 29 percent believed undercover agents should infiltrate Muslim civic organizations. Since September 11, Muslims have been the targets of increased vandalism, racism, employment discrimination and harassment. They have been singled out for searches at airports and other public places. High-profile federal prosecutions based on meager evidence, flawed procedure or misidentification have only intensified their fears.

Media coverage has dwelled on the violence associated with radical Islam and ignored the respectable lifestyles of the vast majority of American Muslims. For example, an estimated $1 million, year-long Chicago Tribune series titled "The Struggle for the Soul of Islam" in 2004 included at least a dozen stories focusing on radical Islamic trends around the world. The Muslim community--as well as prominent non-Muslim scholars of Islamic studies--condemned the series for its narrow view, historical misrepresentations and simplistic portrayal of Islam and Muslims. Such coverage, as well as rhetoric of the Christian Right casting the War on Terror as a clash of religions, contributes to the public's misunderstanding of Islam. Non-Muslim homeowners have fiercely opposed Muslim petitions for licenses to build mosques in their communities in fear, without substantiation, of homegrown terrorists. Anti-Muslim positions are becoming entrenched among American evangelical Christians, who in turn are becoming increasingly influential in the U.S. military and on U.S. foreign policy. This failure of many Americans to distinguish terrorists from law-abiding Muslims is driving them to adopt an unwholesome form of identity politics that has further eroded the melting-pot ideal of the postwar period.

American Muslims are not, at this stage, even talking about political violence. As in Europe and most other places, however, college-age U.S. Muslims remain the most susceptible to radical influences. Younger Muslims appear increasingly to be choosing not to assimilate into American society. Ominously mimicking a pattern prevalent in the UK, Muslim student associations on college campuses are growing rapidly as sanctuaries for Muslims who prefer not to interact socially with non-Muslims. Muslims are building Islamic schools as an alternative to uncomfortable public school systems. To thwart media bias, they are developing their own radio programs and publications. On Radio Islam in Chicago, Muslims are told each evening that it is time for them to speak for themselves to prevent their religion from being defined by misinformed outsiders. Granted, these initiatives resemble those taken by other religious and ethnic groups in the United States since the 19th century to promote acceptance and assimilation. But Muslims' present situation differs in that many perceive their nation's foreign and domestic policy agenda as a campaign against their faith. Defensive behavior could thus become a separatist impulse that finds the potential for political violence in radical ideology, readily available on the Internet and emphasizing the irreconcilability of Muslims and non-Muslims. The United States needs to nip this societal hazard in the bud.

7/7 and U.S. Homeland Security

THE BUSH Administration's post-9/11 approach to counter-terrorism has not stressed proactive domestic policy. Indeed, U.S. intervention in an Arab Muslim country has reinforced Bin Laden's mantra of America as anti-Muslim hegemon and encouraged Muslim radicalism on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe may soon become, as it was before 9/11, a platform from which to plan, man and stage terrorist attacks on the United States. There will, of course, always be some arguable confirmation of the jihadi narrative (it was once Somalia) and therefore a possible catalyst for Islamist terrorism. The challenge is to blunt the potential of whatever comes along by conditioning its Muslim audience to be skeptical. U.S. policymakers should view the increasingly radical tilt of Islam in Europe as fair warning that America may soon face the same dangers if it does not do more to make Muslim citizens feel more integral to American society. What lessons from the British experience might be applied to the U.S. situation?

Operation Contest, for all its foresight, was insufficient to meet the terrorist threats that had materialized in the UK. Unlike a near-critical mass of European Muslims, however, American Muslims are fewer and better assimilated and are not collectively on the verge of insurgency. Moreover, perhaps the most daunting challenge for the British--the wholesale economic and political marginalization of the indigenous Muslim population--is absent in the United States, and American naturalization laws have long been considerably more assimilative in terms of language and cultural requirements. Thus, something closely akin to Operation Contest may well be just the right fit for the U.S. domestic security environment. But the U.S. government is not doing anything comparable to what the UK has done. Obviously the government cannot control thought or speech in a free society. Following the findings of the UK's study, though, the government can place greater weight in its foreign and domestic security policies on achieving a better accommodation with the Muslim community. Washington's rhetorical acknowledgment of the need to sharpen public diplomacy in the Muslim world and to re-engage resolutely in brokering a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--to cite two especially important policy goals--needs to be followed up with decisive substantive action.

At home, the government needs to raise again the firm hand that it raised against anti-Muslim bias immediately after 9/11. This means according clear and full procedural rights to detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, launching and supporting public information and awareness campaigns correcting popular misapprehensions about Muslims, and galvanizing legal authorities at all levels of government to enforce anti-bias and other relevant criminal statutes rigorously.

Furthermore, the U.S. administration ought to consult American Muslims directly and earnestly on foreign policy issues. So far, the U.S. government has not manifested trust in the nation's Muslims, having made no serious effort, for example, to recruit Muslims for confirmable policy positions. Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, who has primary responsibility for U.S. public diplomacy in the Muslim world, is reported to have only one Muslim on her staff. Small wonder that when Abu Ghraib and the alleged Koran desecration prompted Washington to ask U.S. Muslims to step up for their government, they declined. They would have been between a rock and a hard place--labeled obsequious by other Muslims if they defended the government, disregarded by the government if they opposed it. If Muslims were accorded more official authority, however, pro-government positions would gain credibility in both camps.

In the past, of course, administrations have frequently sought advice from politically important minority constituencies on external affairs--for example, American Jews with respect to Israel, Irish Americans on Northern Ireland, and Greek Americans as to Turkey and Cyprus. The difference here is that American Muslims are too disparate in terms of ethnic and national origin to coalesce quickly into a unitary political factor and are not in a position to punish the administration at the polls. But unless American Muslims are embraced soon by the U.S. political leadership, they (especially young Muslims) could become vulnerable to an ideology of confrontation that is being disseminated transnationally from myriad directions. This consideration overrides the traditional electoral priorities of domestic politics.

There is also a "hard security" piece of homeland security that merits urgent attention. The London bombings only confirm that governments need to understand the campaign against transnational Islamist terrorism as an internal security problem--as the UK, ironically, seems to have done--to a much greater extent than they have so far. While MI5 has statutory authority to collect intelligence and engage in covert activities internally that the FBI does not, the powers of the two agencies have converged since September 11 and the passage of the Patriot Act. The FBI, however, appears to have been unable to augment its culture of law enforcement with an energetic terrorism-prevention perspective. Law enforcement calls mainly for gathering evidence for criminal convictions, while effective counter-terrorism requires more comprehensive intelligence. Yet despite its expanded mandate, the FBI has developed few of its own domestic intelligence sources or analytic capacities with respect to Islamist terrorist threats. In 2004 only six among over 11,000 special agents were Muslims. The UK's Metropolitan Police, by contrast, includes 300 Muslim officers and is actively seeking more. The FBI has primarily used the resources of the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to develop leads and make arrests. The FBI's approach is simply to enforce a zero-tolerance immigration policy with respect to the Muslim community. The bureau's organizational attitude--essentially that "a crime is a crime" and that law enforcement therefore requires no special cultural knowledge--is an unsophisticated apprehension of religiously inspired political violence. The implied impartiality of that stance is also disingenuous, since the bureau itself subjects the Muslim community to more rigorous enforcement of the immigration laws than any other community. A Washington Post investigative report revealed that of 330 persons investigated for terrorism- and national security-related crimes from 9/11 to mid-2005, only 39 were actually convicted of such crimes. Such statistics can only increase Muslims' sense of persecution.

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