Muslim American Leaders at Odds Over FBI Contact

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

A behind-the-scenes controversy has broken out among Muslim American leaders over a coalition of Muslim organizations' threat to cut off contact with the FBI because of what it calls the agency's "McCarthy-era" tactics.

The coalition of two dozen Muslim American groups said last week that the FBI's treatment of one of its member organizations and what it regards as inappropriate FBI infiltration of mosques have disrupted the growing trust between the agency and the Muslim community. The coalition blasted the FBI, saying in a statement that "these McCarthy-era tactics are detrimental to a free society."

"We are not being treated equally and fairly as citizens of this country," said Agha Saeed, chairman of American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections, an umbrella group leading the protest.

But leaders of some of the nation's largest Muslim American organizations that are not part of the coalition say they disagree with a policy of cutting off contact. They say that severing ties with the federal enforcement agency tasked with hunting down homegrown terrorists could make it more difficult to find them and increase public suspicion of the Muslim community.

"Disengagement does not enable mutual understanding. It does the exact opposite," said Aakif Ahmad, who is on the board of advisers for two Muslim American organizations. "Emotive terms like 'McCarthy-era tactics' undermine the hard work on the part of many people seeking to find common ground."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI has had extensive relationships with a number of Muslim American organizations and mosques. Muslim community groups meet monthly with federal agents and also get together more informally.

But now, the coalition says it may halt that. It is aiming its ire at the FBI over two issues: the decision last fall by the FBI to cut off contact with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the nation's largest Muslim American advocacy organizations; and allegations that the FBI is sending informants into mosques to entrap members into making violent statements against the United States.

CAIR Director Ibrahim Hooper said the group used to organize town hall meetings between the FBI and Muslims and offer diversity training workshops for agents.

Government sources say the FBI cut off contact with CAIR because it was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the terrorist funding trial of the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Muslim charity in the United States. The charity and some of its leaders were convicted in 2008 of illegally funneling money to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

Hooper said the designation was an attempt by the Bush administration to smear CAIR, along with 300 other groups and individuals who were also named as unindicted co-conspirators.

The coalition also is upset over what it alleges is the FBI's increasing practice of sending informants into mosques to seek out younger members and entice them into making incendiary comments about the United States, Saeed said.

FBI spokesman John Miller said that the FBI operates within appropriate guidelines. "The FBI does not investigate mosques, we investigate people, and we do that based on predicates that are defined by law and FBI guidelines," he said.

But whether to stop cooperating with the FBI has been the subject of hot dispute among Muslim leaders. Some are critical of the agency's treatment of CAIR and use of informants but say they don't agree with the threat to cut off contact with it.

The Islamic Society of North America, a large umbrella group of American mosques, said in a statement that it has met with the FBI and urged it to open an investigation into the infiltration of the mosques. However, it said, it does not condone ending contact with the FBI.

And Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said his organization would not suspend talks with the FBI.

"We think we need to intensify our dialogue on these very important issues that would advocate for the community's interests and, we believe, would help strengthen America's mechanisms for protecting our country," he said.

Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.

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