IN its weekly intelligence bulletin, the FBI has issued a warning to all law enforcement officers that hate crimes against Muslims and other minority groups may increase if the United States invades Iraq or if there is another terrorist attack here.
Since the Sept 11 (2001) attacks, there has been an increase in hate crimes against Arab and Muslim-Americans and Americans of Indian, Sikhs and other ethnic descent.
The FBI has so far investigated 414 potential hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans and charged 17 people. In all, 129 people have been charged with state and local crimes.
On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other federal law enforcement officials warned that suicide bombings were inevitable in the US and would be difficult to pre-empt.
In his interview on Fox News, he said the department’s top priority was to prevent any kind of terrorist attack but it would be difficult to protect against individual suicide bombers.
Ridge said the US would never be immune to these kinds of attacks.
This was the first time a top administration official had spoken in such clear terms of the possibility of attacks by suicide bombers.
However, the warnings are short on specifics. Ridge said these warnings were not based on any recent intelligence suggesting that suicide bomb attacks were imminent.
If anything, the warnings and alerts from the Department of Homeland Security have caused more fear and anxiety among the people.
In its war on terrorism, the US will need the support and assistance of all, particularly the Muslim community.
But since the Sept 11 tragedy, Muslims have faced the brunt of US law enforcement agencies, principally the INS, the FBI and the police. They found themselves treated with suspicion and, in some cases, detained without any legal recourse and later deported.
New laws like the one requiring citizens of blacklisted countries, mostly Muslim nations, to register with the INS and be questioned, fingerprinted and photographed have angered visiting Muslims.
Reports that the FBI would be carrying out a survey on the number of mosques as well as visiting clerics have caused apprehension and resentment.
There is a great divide and mistrust for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies that have been criticised for violating the rights of Arab-Americans since Sept 11 and bridging that gap will be a long, hard process.
New York FBI director Kevin Donovan took the first step recently when he got an imam of a mosque and a Muslim FBI officer to speak on Islam to 1,200 field officers.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of Masjid al-Farah of Tribeca in Manhattan – who studied in Klang and Victoria Institution before settling down in the US – and Foria Younis, an FBI agent of Pakistani origin, working for the Joint Terrorism Task Force, presented the field officers with a view of Islam that avoided stereotypes.
“I spoke on the basic tenants of Islam and other general aspects of the religion before opening the floor to questions,” said Feisal.
The officers asked about Islamic extremism, jihad and fatwa, terms that had been over-simplified by law enforcement agencies and the media.
Feisal told the officers that Islam’s image had been distorted by radical fundamentalists who insisted on strict adherence to their interpretation of the Quran and imposed a fascist order in their countries, something that could happen under any religion.
He also spoke of the historical kinship of Islam and Judaism and Christianity, a relationship that not many Americans and Muslims were aware of.
He said the main aim of the whole exercise by the FBI was to try and regain the confidence and cooperation of the Muslim community.
“At the same time, the FBI wanted the community to report any hate crimes,” he said.
The FBI stressed that they were different from the INS and were not concerned about immigration violations. Its role is to gather information on potential terrorist activities or anything that affected security, a point that many Muslims find hard to accept.
Feisal said that when people received calls from the FBI, they tend to be apprehensive. “Most of these people come from countries with authoritarian regimes and when they get a call from their police, it is always bad news.”
To overcome this, the FBI has proposed that if someone was afraid to contact the agency directly, he could approach the imam or community leader, who would get in touch with a liaison officer.
Feisal said he recommended that the FBI recruited more Muslim agents because it needed people from different cultural backgrounds to understand their norms and practices.
“People think that an organisation is monolithic. It isn’t. The top people of the FBI are highly educated and widely travelled. Then you have agents who are new and not widely exposed to different cultures.
“When we think of the FBI we think of only one organisation, but when you see them as individuals you see the variety of people and backgrounds who have their own fears.
“People always talk about institutional relationships but at the end of the day, it is the individual relationships that matter. The FBI is an institution but it is the people relationships in these organisations that are important.
“We need to develop individual relationships so that we can have the basis for dialogue and problem solving,” Feisal said.
“When the FBI develops relationships at an individual level with community leaders, there will be two-way communication and understanding,” he added.
Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: email@example.com )