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Fisher: American Muslims Confused by Mixed Signals

American Muslims Confused by Mixed Signals

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Report

Tuesday 13 March 2007

During his recent swearing-in of retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell as the second director of national intelligence, President Bush ordered the nation's national security agencies to mount a major push to increase the recruiting of people with the language skills and cultural background to collect information on al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

Both the president and McConnell highlighted on the consistent failure of American intelligence-gathering to hire operatives who speak languages such as Arabic or Farsi.

"The old policies have hampered some common-sense reforms, such as hiring first- and second-generation Americans who possess native language skills, cultural insights and a keen understanding of the threats we face," McConnell said.

Emblematic of the foreign language deficit is the fact that of the 1,000 employees of the massive new US embassy inside the Green Zone bubble in Baghdad, there are only six who are fluent in Arabic.

Indeed, the shortage of Arabic speakers was one of the red flags the State Department sent to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before the invasion of Iraq. Such advice appears to have been largely ignored, particularly as it came from the Pentagon's chief rival. And most diplomatic sources say that even if the new DOD chief, Robert Gates, is prepared to heed that kind of counsel, it may be too late for it to make any difference because producing home-grown Arabic speakers takes years.

President Bush appears to have understood the importance of the issue: In 2005, he ordered then-CIA Director Porter Goss to increase the number of Arabic speakers by 50 percent. The CIA - and the FBI, the DOD and the Department of Homeland Security - all failed to meet that goal. What they did achieve was an exponential increase in job applications from Arabic speakers.

That was largely the result of a recruiting binge by the national security agencies. For example, they offered generous sign-on bonuses of up to $25,000 for new hires fluent in Arabic and other crucial languages. They participated in college job fairs. The CIA placed ads in local newspapers in communities with heavy concentrations of Arab Americans. One featured a photo of the Statue of Liberty with the words: "For over 100 years, Arab Americans have served the nation. Today we need you more than ever."

The intelligence reorganization law signed by the president also authorized the Agency to study so-called "heritage communities" such as metropolitan Detroit's Arab populations with foreign language abilities. It also earmarked money for a pilot program to recruit foreign language speakers into a civilian linguist reserve corps.

But numerous intelligence and foreign policy scholars, as well as representatives of the American Muslim community, are expressing serious doubts that McConnell and the nation's 16 intelligence-gathering agencies can make serious progress in recruiting substantial numbers of recruits.

Many believe that the Bush administration has been sending mixed signals to American Muslims - the most likely source of new recruits into the intelligence community. On the one hand, they say, agencies like the FBI, the CIA, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security have been conducting a "recruiting blitz" for some time now, with disappointing results.

There appear to be a number of reasons. But Muslim American leaders assign much of the failure to the reality that the very agencies engaging in outreach programs are at the same time harassing the American Muslim community and exploiting public fears that stem from the 9/11 attacks.

They charge that the techniques being used include secret eavesdropping and surveillance, racial profiling at the nation's airports, holding widely publicized press conferences to announce "high profile" criminal charges that frequently fizzle out before they ever come to court, and shutting down charities supporting Muslim causes as fronts for the support of terrorist organizations.

The public at large is also fearful and suspicious of Arab and other Muslim Americans. Recent polls indicate that almost half of Americans have a negative perception of Islam, and that one in four of those surveyed have "extreme" anti-Muslim views. A survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that a quarter of Americans consistently believe stereotypes such as: "Muslims value life less than other people" and "The Muslim religion teaches violence and hatred."

In 2005, CAIR received 1,972 civil rights complaints, compared to 1,522 in 2004. This constitutes a 29.6 percent increase in the total number of complaints of anti-Muslim harassment, violence and discriminatory treatment from 2004. Today, the number continues to increase.

Prominent members of America's evangelical community have joined the Muslim-bashing. Religious leaders, such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, have publicly branded Islam, or Islam's prophet Muhammad, as inherently evil and violent.

Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham and head of the global missions agency Samaritan's Purse, said that Islam was "a very evil and wicked religion." Vines described Muhammad as "a demon-possessed pedophile." Falwell said in a "60 Minutes" interview that "Muhammad was a terrorist."

This rise of "Islamophobia" can be traced back to 9/11, when the US Department of Justice began rounding up Arabs and other Muslims and - mistakenly - anybody who looked "Middle Eastern," including Sikhs from South Asia. In the months after the attacks, some 5,000 men were held in detention without charges, most without access to lawyers or family members. As confirmed in an investigation by the DOJ inspector-general, many were held in solitary confinement and physically abused.

There were no prosecutions and no convictions of any of these people. Some who were in the US with expired visas or who had committed other immigration infractions were deported.

What is the impact on Muslims and other Americans of Arab descent? One, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "It sometimes feels suffocating being in the US now. We cannot turn on our TV in the evening to watch CNN or MSNBC or the other 'news stations' because of people like Glenn Beck and others who consistently spew hate, nonsense and misinformation about Islam and Arabs on primetime. And if we try to watch mindless drama on TV, we are bombarded with shows about Middle East/Arab and Islamic terrorism - shows like '24,' 'Sleeper Cell,' 'The Agency,' etc. It is very difficult being an Arab/Muslim American these days."

But there are also less dramatic and more prosaic reasons as well. For example, American education has long neglected foreign language study, and American students have for years shown little appetite for learning them; Arabic is a particularly difficult language to learn. While the number of college-level Arabic language students has increased substantially since the attacks of 9/11, many drop out, and even those who complete their courses will not come anywhere near qualifying as fluent.

Another reason is the Byzantine bureaucracy associated with receiving security clearances. The FBI says that since 9/11, the agency has processed 30,000 applicants for jobs as linguists in Arabic, Farsi, and other tongues. But it points out that "out of 20 applicants, we'd be lucky to get one or two."

So what has happened to these applicants? Many have been rejected after - or before - their first interview. Many more have been waiting years for their security clearances. Among these job-seekers, by the time those clearances arrive, applicants have already found other jobs.

But the key constraint appears to be that Arab and Muslim Americans are frequently rejected for security clearances on the preposterous basis that they have contacts in the Middle East - like friends and families. Recruiters are particularly hesitant to approve people in this group of applicants; none wants to be the guy who approves the next "sleeping Osama."

The shortage is no less acute at the State Department. A bipartisan State Department advisory panel on public diplomacy, headed by Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria, found that only 54 of 279 Arabic speakers employed by State were fluent. Of those, only six were fluent enough to appear on Arabic television programs.

Many other forms of more and less subtle discrimination are also taking place. For example, seven Muslims who have been waiting years to become US citizens were finally notified that their applications had been approved, but only after they joined a lawsuit accusing immigration officials of illegally delaying background checks and allowing applications to linger indefinitely. In Texas, three Muslim Americans wrongly accused of planning a terrorist attack on a Michigan bridge, and having their bank accounts closed and their neighbors accuse them of being terrorists, demanded that authorities issue a public apology for targeting them because of their race. And an internal investigation by the Justice Department concluded there was "reasonable cause" to believe that senior FBI officials retaliated against the bureau's highest-ranking Arabic speaker for complaining that he was cut out of terrorism cases despite his expertise.

Such developments obviously have an influence on Muslim American attitudes, and indirectly, on the ability of intelligence agencies to recruit these individuals.

According to the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, their failure to do so has resulted in analysts at the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency finding themselves "awash in untranslated gleanings of intelligence" in Arabic.

Some US government spokespersons acknowledge the complaints of American Arabs and Muslims. For example, the head of the civil rights division of the Department of Homeland Security says that fighting terrorism while respecting civil rights involves "difficult challenges." He adds that the government needs the help of these groups to fight terrorism at home: "Homeland security isn't gonna be won by people sitting in a building inside the Beltway," he says.

But many Muslim and Arab Americans believe that official bridge-building is thinly-disguised propaganda.

In Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest Muslim American concentration in the US, community activist Kenwah Dabaja told the Los Angeles Times that government "outreach" was a misnomer. "It's not about reaching out to us and including us. It's not really outreach. To some, it's recruiting and propaganda spreading," she said, adding that there was a need for genuinely closer ties.

Some community members also feared that they were under surveillance, especially after the disclosure of domestic wiretapping as part of counterterrorism efforts.

A Dearborn Imam praised the regular meetings senior administration and law enforcement officials have held with him and other community leaders, but said it wasn't enough.

"Outreach means that you treat me equally and respect me like any other US citizen. You don't look at me with a suspicious eye unless you have overwhelming evidence," he said.

Samer Shehata, professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, probably speaks for the feelings of most in the US Muslim community: "Quite simply," he told me, Islamophobia "produces an environment that is fundamentally at odds with what the US is supposed to be about; our values for treating everyone fairly and not discriminating on the basis of skin color, race, religion, gender, etc."

Prof. Shehata adds, "This is damaging certainly for all Americans, and it is also damaging for the reputation of the US overseas. One of the questions I hear the most whenever I am in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East is: How is it like now in the US for Arabs? Have you been the victim of discrimination, bigotry, abuse?"

How intelligence czar McConnell will fare in carrying out the Bush mandate remains to be seen. But given the attitudes of Muslim Americans, and the cautious bureaucracy of our intelligence agencies, it's likely to be a steep uphill climb.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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