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Protest Greets Police Plan to Map Muslim Angelenos
A plan by the counterterrorism bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department to create a map detailing the Muslim communities in that city, an effort described as a step toward thwarting radicalization, has angered civil rights groups, which say it is no better than racial profiling.
At least three major Muslim groups and the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter yesterday to top city officials raising concerns about the plan.
"When the starting point for a police investigation is 'let's look at all Muslims,' we are going down a dangerous road," Peter Bibring, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. of Southern California, said in an interview. "Police can and should be engaged with the communities they are policing, but that engagement can't be a mask for intelligence gathering."
The objections started after Michael P. Downing, a deputy Los Angeles police chief who heads the counterterrorism bureau, testified before a United States Senate committee on Oct. 30 that the Police Department was combining forces with an unidentified academic institution and looking for a Muslim partner to carry out the mapping project. He emphasized that he wanted the process to be transparent.
In his testimony, to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mr. Downing said the project would determine the geographic distribution of Muslims in the sprawling Los Angeles area and take "a look at their history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socioeconomic status and social interactions."
The idea, Mr. Downing said in an interview yesterday, would be to determine which communities might be having problems integrating into the larger society and thus might have members susceptible to carrying out attacks, much like domestic cells in England and elsewhere in Europe.
"There are people out there who believe in extreme violent ideology who present a threat to the American people, and that is what we are trying to prevent," he said. "This could be called another prevention strategy."
The civil rights groups argue that contrary to what has been found in Europe, the scattered cases exposed in the United States have involved individuals with no clear ties to international terrorism groups.
The estimated 500,000 Muslims living in the greater Los Angeles area, including Orange and Riverside Counties, make its concentration of Muslims the second largest in the United States, after New York City's.
Not all Muslim groups in the area object to Mr. Downing's idea.
"There has been a lot of discussion on the issue of ghettoization and counterghettoization," said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which is considering being the Police Department's partner in the project. Mr. Marayati said his group supported anything that would help integration as long as it safeguarded civil liberties.
Among those interviewed, whatever their position on the project, Mr. Downing rated high marks for his community policing efforts, and the letter to city officials suggested that the groups opposed to his idea meet with him to discuss it. Those signing the letter included Muslim Advocates, a national association of Muslim lawyers, and the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization for mosques.
The groups were particularly angered that in his Senate testimony, Mr. Downing, discussing the possibility of Muslims' radicalization, seemed to suggest looking at factors like exposure to the puritanical teachings of the Wahhabi sect, instability in countries of origin and where they get their news. He also suggested that the study would result in helping amplify the voice of Muslim moderates who could counter fanatics.
"Who is going to decide who are the moderates?" said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for the Los Angeles area, who also signed the letter. "Are Muslims who criticize the war in Iraq moderate?"
The groups' letter coincided with the release yesterday by Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa and other city and law enforcement officials of an F.B.I. report that Al Qaeda might be planning to strike at shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago during the Christmas season. But the F.B.I. report itself characterized the information as uncertain.
The groups involved in protesting the mapping plan said any threat from Al Qaeda, even a tenuous one, underscored their point that limited police resources should be directed at investigating real crimes rather than at what they characterized as treating the entire Muslim community with suspicion.
"Al Qaeda has always operated outside the United States," Mr. Ayloush said, "and has miserably failed to gain any support or sympathy among the American Muslim population."
Michael Parrish contributed reporting from Los Angeles.
© 2007 The New York Times