By HUSSAM AYLOUSH and AMEENA MIRZA QAZI
Ayloush is executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Area office of CAIR, the Council on America-Islamic Relations. Qazi is the deputy executive director and staff attorney for CAIR-LA.
As Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., launches congressional hearings this week on Muslims and radicalization, we wonder at the expenditure of time to examine an issue whose conclusion has long been self-evident: that American Muslims have worked tirelessly alongside fellow Americans to uphold and strengthen the time-honored values of religious freedom and equality and to protect our nation against all threats.
To that end, we have joined the Armed Forces, become police officers and served as first responders. Muslims also forged stronger ties with law enforcement agencies and the FBI – partnerships rooted in trust and cooperation. For example, Southern California Muslims formed a joint partnership with the FBI, the Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee, and similarly partnered with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Orange County Sheriff’s departments and other local law enforcement agencies.
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Protesters gather at the “Today, I Am A Muslim, Too” rally to protest against a planned congressional hearing on the role of Muslims in homegrown terrorism, Sunday, March 6, 2011 in New York. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., says affiliates of al-Qaida are radicalizing some American Muslims and that he plans to hold hearings on the threat they pose to the U.S. Associated Press photo
For us, the reasons for improving relations with law enforcement, particularly the FBI, were clear – to reduce mistrust and suspicion of Muslims, and help Muslims understand how law enforcement works. This, in turn, led to increased cooperation and helped thwart terror plots, along with fewer hate crimes and less religious discrimination of Muslims, all of which stem from unfamiliarity with the Muslim faith.
Despite this history, little congressional attention is given to the fact that the Muslim community’s good-faith gestures toward cooperation and trust-building have been met with sweeping FBI fishing expeditions and covert surveillance of Muslim communities.
Relations between Muslims and the FBI grew shaky as more and more Muslim Americans reported being interrogated, and news stories simultaneously highlighted the FBI’s surveillance of Muslims’ lawful First Amendment activities. Even so, the then-FBI’s assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles field office, Steve Tidwell, assured Irvine mosque-goers in 2006 that the FBI was not monitoring the community.
Then in 2007, a self-proclaimed Muslim convert started making rounds at Southland mosques, advocating terrorist sympathies. Muslim congregants immediately reported the man, Craig Monteilh, to law enforcement when his rhetoric turned violent. One mosque even filed for and received a restraining order against Monteilh. In 2009, an FBI agent’s court testimony confirmed that the FBI had, indeed, recruited Monteilh as a confidential informant.
Monteilh is but a small piece of a frightening trend of broad FBI surveillance of American Muslims that is unconstitutional, illegal and counterproductive.
A confidential informant was sent to spy on law-abiding Muslim worshipers, without any suspicion of criminal activity. The only basis for the FBI’s suspicion was the congregants’ religion: Islam. At the behest of the FBI, Monteilh made friends with Muslims, particularly those more observant in their religious practices, as well as young Muslim men. Electronic surveillance equipment was installed at several mosques to complement the informant’s surveillance efforts.
The informant, who recorded hundreds of hours of audio and video of individuals for the FBI, says his FBI handlers told him Islam itself was a threat to America.
Monteilh was further instructed to look for vulnerabilities that could be used against Muslims to blackmail them into becoming informants.
The illegal surveillance of Muslims and their houses of worship by a confidential informant, combined with national news reports of surveillance of Muslims and FBI guidelines that allow religion to be considered as a factor in investigations, all indicate some FBI agents’ apparent fixation on criminalizing Islam and its followers. If so, such practice flies in the face of the U. S. Constitution.
Sadly, some of our members have reported shying away from congregational worship, attending mosque programs or engaging in normal recreational activities like camping and hiking, out of fear that such activities may attract unnecessary law enforcement scrutiny. The community fabric is threatened as members have become suspicious of new congregants and converts, thinking they might be the next FBI informant.
Left with no other recourse to rectify the FBI’s wrongful monitoring of a besieged American community, CAIR has partnered with the ACLU of Southern California and the law firm Hadsell Stormer Keeny Richardson & Renick to knock on the doors of the highest authority in justice. We filed a class-action lawsuit two weeks ago, hoping the courts will help put an end to the FBI’s unconstitutional and discriminatory tactics against American Muslims.
As the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee did away with the FBI’s COINTELPRO program from the 1960s and 1970s, we hope that the courts will put a stop to the FBI’s unlawful surveillance of the American Muslim communities. Profiling undermines the constitutional values meant to guard against religious discrimination, impedes legitimate intelligence-gathering and wastes taxpayer dollars that our government should use to ensure our families’ safety from any foreign or domestic threats.
Perhaps Rep. King’s efforts would be better served by examining how the FBI’s unlawful tactics undermine our nation’s security and our constitutional freedoms.
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Published: March 9, 2011
Updated: 12:57 p.m.