Thursday, December 17, 2009

Profiling Arabs and Muslims would backfire

The September 11, 2001, events shocked Arab and Muslim Americans, and the recent tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas, in which Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 30, heightened their identification with the United States. There are signs that Hasan’s acts of terror caused Americans of Middle Eastern and Muslim origin to want to participate more actively in search of ways to combat politically motivated violence in their country.

Today, Arab and Muslim Americans are nervous; they do not wish to see racial profiling become the law of the land. For the state to curb the freedoms of Arab and Muslim Americans, especially the most vulnerable among them, would likely backfire both domestically and abroad.
In the aftermath of the Fort Hood killings, several Arab American publicists underlined the community’s rejection of violence. In The Arab-American News of November 20, Khalil al-Saghir offered this message: “[T]he line must be drawn … between opposing US foreign policies and adhering to ideologies that consider America as a satanic enemy.”

His implication was that explaining away terrorism through simplistic formulas was no longer acceptable. This is not to say that American foreign policy has become palatable to Americans of Middle Eastern or Muslim background. But what is emerging is a new attitude denouncing terror, regardless of political context. As Saghir noted: [T]he question … is what is being done by American Muslims to help identify and ferret out those who are among us who may be the next Nidal Hasan?”

This only echoed what another prominent Arab American, Dr. Philip Salem, had declared earlier in a different setting: “Silence is no more a choice. Muslim extremists are not only a source of danger to the Christian West but rather a serious danger to Islam itself.”
Arab Americans and those of Muslim background are irritated when their loyalty is questioned, and when their disagreement with Washington on the Middle East is confused with a lack of patriotism. Some 5,000 Muslims and Arab Americans fought on both sides of the American Civil War, while over 15,000 Arab Americans fought in World War II.

After Fort Hood, American Muslims’ denunciation of terror and their asking for a role in combating it was appreciated by most Americans. However, some still question the feasibility of fully integrating Muslims into American life. Many argue that the “Islamist” side of Hasan’s behavior could not be overlooked. These skeptics point out that Hasan saw himself as a Muslim first and as an American second.

This line of argument is unfair. I have difficulty imagining that Hasan identified with an Islamic community, or umma, and abandoned America. More likely, he had suffered a mental breakdown, the result of personal maladjustment, professional failure, and political alienation. His anger against US politics distorted his judgment. The war in Iraq, the failure of the peace process, the intensification of military activity in Afghanistan, his exposure to war casualties, a negative self-image, poor job performance, and the fear of his impending deployment to a war zone may have all explained his tragic, cruel and bizarre vengeance.


Fort Hood brought questionable ideas of policy into the mainstream. When Muslims listen to radio talk show host Glenn Beck, they see profiling creeping into mainstream thinking. When they hear Sarah Palin rationalizing profiling, their stomach turns. When they witness Reverend Pat Robertson denying that Islam is a religion, they come to the conclusion that America tolerates anti-Muslim sentiment.
Americans who believe that Muslim minorities in the US should be monitored, screened, and profiled are making their case more loudly today. During times of societal stress, the heightening of vigilance sounds like the remedy of choice in terror control. But exposing “suspect” communities to humiliating attention is morally questionable and counterproductive. The act of profiling interferes with the naturalization and socialization process of minorities. Applying different security standards to different communities is a violation of human rights.

How do we decide which groups are too risky? There are several minority groups in America with extreme elements who place the interests of their small community ahead of those of America. However, the differences within communities are often larger than those between communities. A moderate Palestinian-American has more in common with a liberal Israeli-American than with an American who admires Hamas. A Christian-Zionist has more in common with an Arab American who is an extremist Islamist than with a Presbyterian who supports Peace Now.

Even if society is morally comfortable with targeting a specific community for profiling, the act of singling out people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is likely to alienate them and transform moderates into radicals.

Society is not helpless in adopting policies to detect those who are likely to commit acts of terror. But, there are limits to the prevention of violence. There will always be openings for a few people to sabotage the security of a society and cause immense damage and cruelty.

Arab and Muslim Americans do not lack patriotism, and have shown this on countless occasions in the past. As serious as the Fort Hood massacre was, and it was very serious, it was more the exception than the rule in illustrating the be­havior of Americans from Middle Eastern or Muslim backgrounds. To ensure that it remains an exception, Arab and Muslim Americans must to be in on the solution, not viewed merely as the problem.

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