Supporting Muslims in America


Hassan Shibly

We all know this recent Muslim travel ban was just a shot over the bow.  Trump promised much worse during the campaign, and apparently he intends to deliver.  There has even been talk that we might soon have something resembling a Muslim registry. Some say, if it comes to that, they will register as Muslims.  Though I am sympathetic with this impulse, I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  I am not Muslim.  So, where can I sign now, to let my government know where I stand on religious freedom?

To find out, I visited the local mosque to attend a CAIR (Counsil on American-Islamic Relations) sponsored event: “Unapologetically Muslim and American”.   It featured Hassan Shibly,  Chief Executive Director of CAIR Florida, along with Karen Dabdoub, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Chapter.

The message of the presentation was clear.  Islamophobia is rampant throughout the country.  Incidents range from bullying in school through discrimination in the workplace or in housing all the way to hate crimes.   The presenters advised Muslims to stand up for their rights, to refuse to hide or simply hope that the situation would resolve itself, and to involve CAIR as soon as possible before things escalate.  CAIR is there to help.

They also noted the support Muslims have received from the majority community in America. They described incidents of Muslims praying in airports, for example, protected by Jews and Christians standing silently by to prevent any disruption of their prayers.  They mentioned Madeline Albright, who says she is ready to sign up if that Muslim registry comes to exist.  They also reminded us of the history of immigrant groups coming to America, groups which faced bigotry but eventually gained acceptance, at least from most Americans.

Shibly focused on relations with the government, especially US Customs and the FBI (“definitely not the Friendly Brotherhood of Islam”).

They spent quite a bit of time talking about what to expect on returning to this country from abroad.  Everyone is asked where they went and why they traveled.  Some will be pulled aside for secondary screening. Whereas this occurs for a typical American citizen about 1% percent of the time, Muslims were being pulled aside for this extra scrutiny about half the time, according to Shibly. Shibly’s advice was simple: as soon as they ask anything about your personal political or religious views, assert your rights.  As an American citizen, you have the right to ask for a lawyer to present during the questioning.  If you are a non-citizen,  with a green card for example, the prerogatives of the officials are less constrained, but you still have the right to call a lawyer.  Despite what the officials might say, you are likely to be detained just as long whether you call a lawyer or not, and without the protection of someone familiar with the intricacies of the law and normal procedures, you will be vulnerable.  Karen Dabdoub urged people to text the CAIR office when arriving, before getting off the plane, so that if CAIR does not hear from you within an hour or so, they can know to intervene with Customs to find out what has happened to you.  Thus, a Muslim entering the country can expect to be inconvenienced, but, with proper precautions and the help of CAIR, these inconveniences need not grow into anything more severe.  Nonetheless, foreign students are strongly encouraged to stay inside the country until their education is finished.

Shibly then went on to discuss the FBI, which he described as a government agency that is targeting Muslims, through entrapment and through intimidating people into becoming informants.


Karen Dabdoub

Karen Dabdoub followed up with a hypothetical example of an person who thinks they have nothing to hide talking with the FBI.  The agent might ask a question, and then much later in conversation, ask the same question differently.  If there were inconsistencies in your answers, then they could charge you with lying to the FBI, a crime that can be punished with up to five years of jail time.  (Of course, it is perfectly legal for them to lie to you.) Now, they have something to hold over you, to intimidate you into becoming an informant.

Their advice was the same: ask for a lawyer to be present during questioning.  Whatever the motives of the people in power, the American government is constrained by the Constitution.  Muslims, like all Americans, need to assert their rights under this Constitution in order to maintain them.  If the government tries to intrude into your personal life in any way, don’t try to handle it yourself; call CAIR.  CAIR has a lawyer who will contact the FBI on your behalf.  Shibly recalled one incident where he felt the FBI had a legitimate reason to question his client, but in the others, he told the agent that he would advise his client to not answer any of his questions.  Usually, the FBI would then leave the person alone after that.

All this sounded pretty paranoid to me.  After, the event, I did a little research to find out whether the paranoia was justified.  Interestingly, I found a 2005 article where a freshman at the University of Buffalo named Hassan Shibly was detained at the border, apparently for no reason other than he was Muslim.  I suspect that experience had a role in shaping his career.

In a more comprehensive view, Human Rights Watch clearly supports their complaints:

In a lengthy examination of U.S. terrorism prosecutions, Human Rights Watch, working with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, said the FBI and the Justice Department have created a climate of fear in some Muslim communities through the use of surveillance and informants.

fbi-newburgh-four-james-c-007I found several accounts of the “Newburgh Four”, a group caught up in an FBI sting operation that Shibly had mentioned.  It appears sordid.  Yes, these guys, all black, all Muslim, all poor, did get caught up in a terrorist plot, but the plot was entirely concocted by the paid FBI informant.  Even the judge who sentenced the defendants was upset by the FBI’s conduct.

 Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope… I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.

Unfortunately, one of the men caught up in the scheme was mentally ill, possibly schizophrenic.   Shibly reported visiting him in jail, apparently out of his mind, on suicide watch in solitary confinement, cold, sad and hopeless.

It is hard to see how we are made any safer by such operations.

It doesn’t have to be like this. For example, in Dearborn, Michigan, which has a sizable Muslim population, the local chief of police runs an outreach and informant program that is considered a model by authorities on counterterrorism.  Informally, it appears to employ the same principles of “community policing” that have proven successful in Cincinnati.  You engage the community, treat people fairly, and they help you succeed because they want to live in safety.  It works.  The police chief in Dearborn can cite examples where Muslims have turned in fellow Muslims.

The FBI might pay lip service to building this kind of trust with the Muslim community, and in fact some within the bureau appear to be making a sincere attempt to do that.  However,  based on what I have learned, from Human Rights Watch, from CAIR, and from reliable news sources, that ship has sailed, and the Trump administration is unlikely to ask it to change course.

Following the presentation by Shibly and Dabdoub, there was a question and answer session.  I got to ask my question.  I referenced Madeline Albright’s willingness to sign up if there is ever a Muslim registry.  “But I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  So where can I sign up now to let my government know where I stand?”

My question got a round of spontaneous applause.  The answer was a little vague.  Go to the alerts on the CAIR website and write your Senators and Congressman about the issues that concern us all.

It looks like we will have lots of opportunities to do that.

Trump has expressed surprise that there was so much furor over his executive order.   After all, “We had 109 people out of hundreds of thousands of travelers and all we did was vet those people very, very carefully.”  Of course, he seems to enjoy the drama of it all.

We should not expect Trump’s assault on the Constitution to begin with a massive charge, but with a limited action such as this one.  Regardless of the number affected, we need to guard against anything that “target[s] individuals for discriminatory treatment based on their country of origin and/or religion, without lawful justification.” (item 64, page 13)  .   If we want to preserve our freedoms, we must preserve them for everybody.



Praying with Muslims

Worshippers finishing the ṣalāt al-maġrib at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati. Charleston Wang, photographer. Used with permission.

Worshippers finishing the ṣalāt al-maġrib at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati. Credit: Charleston Wang,

What do you do when a mass of gun toting citizens, self-anointed guardians of some misbegotten fantasy about the way things should be, gathers outside your place of worship with the explicit intent of being as obnoxious and offensive as our constitution allows?  Invite them in.

When this happened at a mosque in Phoenix recently, the president of the congregation, Usama Shami, did just that, inviting people to join them in prayer.  Two, both wearing t-shirts bearing profane insults to Islam, accepted the offer.  They found the experience of observing devout Muslims in prayer transforming.  Removed from the vitriol of the demonstration outside, they were almost surprised to realize that Muslims were people.  One reported, “It was something I’ve never seen before,” the other left saying “I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt.  I won’t wear it again.”

Recently, I had a similar experience observing Muslims in prayer, though, since I entered with less prejudice, it was not as transforming.  I had been involved in an interfaith dialog entitled “Rooted in Abraham”, a set of weekly get togethers among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  It was hosted alternately at the (Catholic) Centennial Barn, the Valley Temple, and the Clifton Mosque.

The so-called protest in Phoenix (it might have been just a money making scheme on the part of the organizer) points to the value of having open paths of communication between the faith communities, so that a mutual, coordinated response can be easily organized if it is needed.  However, for now, this was just a group of interested people getting together, sharing their experiences, learning from each other.

Of course, this is a self selected group: we who attended were willing to share our experience without insisting that others agree with a particular theological tenet, and were, for the most part, willing to listen and perhaps learn from people with a different point of view.  Some were thoroughly grounded in one of the traditions; others were more loosely affiliated with a faith community or frankly seeking guidance for their own spiritual journey.  Those more concerned with orthodoxy, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, did not choose to participate.  For example, Christian evangelists might have thought it a waste of time, because there would not be much opportunity to turn anyone to Christ, and they typically do not think that other religions have much to teach them.

Interfaith LogoThe format of the dialogs is one that has been honed over the years.  A topic, such as “Extremism” or “The Role of Women”, was chosen for each session.  The evening began with a representative of each faith speaking for about 10 minutes.  Then there was a short intermission, with snacks, before we reconvened in groups of six to twelve people.  These small discussion groups worked well, except when one person was inspired to speak at length, showing little interest in what anyone else had to say.

The emphasis was on our shared humanity.  In such a setting, we tend to see our differences as superficial, less important than perhaps they actually are.  The tone was reasoned and cordial rather than passionate or fervent.

For me, the most memorable evening was the one held at the mosque.  The topic for the evening was “extremism”.  The small group session that I was in was particularly lively.  Some in our group were disappointed that it ended so soon, but it was time for evening prayer, the ṣalāt al-maġrib.

We visitors were allowed into the sanctuary behind the men who were gathering for the evening prayer.  The women prayed in the balcony upstairs.  The men stood in a row, shoulder to shoulder.  The prayers were led by an Imam with obvious skill and devotion.  At the appropriate times, all bowed together, putting their heads to the floor, in total submission to God.  I attempted to follow along in the back, but the movements were too unfamiliar and too distracting for me to achieve any sense of reverence while doing them.  However, I did come to an appreciation for the formal daily prayers of Islam.

When they pray in this formal way, they orient themselves to their place in the universe: where they are on the surface of the earth in relation the sun and to Mecca, their point of reference. The time of the prayer is determined not by the clock but by  the natural cycle of the day, different at each time of the year and each place on the globe.  They pray with their entire body, indeed, with their entire being.  Five times each day, they reestablish their connection with the universe and with the greatest good that they know.  It is easy to understand the continuing appeal of this tradition in our modern world that so often seems rootless, disorienting, and distracted from those things that we profess to be most important to our lives.

ovymehMy local meeting, Eastern Hills, has been hosting a monthly interfaith prayer service, jointly sponsored by Greater Anderson Promotes Peace.  Our suburban location, far from any mosque or synagog, led to limited participation from some faiths, but a couple of Muslims occasionally attended.

The format of these gatherings is based on the unprogrammed worship in the manner of Friends.  For one thing, this is what we know how to do, and for another, we imagined that this is free from dogmatic content.  Our idea is to bring people together and ask them to pray for peace, in whatever way they found most meaningful.

Having witnessed Muslims praying formally in their home sanctuary, I think we were right that praying together is a key to a deeper connection with others, but that we were naive in thinking our format was flexible enough to really accommodate people from such a different tradition. We are coordinated by the clock, not the position of the sun in the sky.  We are oriented to the center of the room, not to our place on the globe.  The arrangements of our chairs interfere with praying with our whole body. One Muslim woman adapted, and offered a prayer, but it was not the same experience that I later saw in the mosque.