Citizen Alioune: How Not to Deal with Muslims in America

Alioune Niass, the Sengalese Muslim vendor who first
spotted the now infamous smoking SUV in Times Square and alerted
police, is no hero.

If it were not for the Times of
London, we would not even know of his pivotal role in the story. No
mainstream American newspaper bothered to mention or profile Niass, who
peddles framed photographs of celebs and the Manhattan skyline. None of
the big television stations interviewed him.

As far as the readers of the New York Times are concerned -- not to mention the New York Post and the Daily News
-- Niass doesn't exist. Nor does he exist for President Obama, who
telephoned Lance Orton and Duane Jackson, two fellow vendors, to thank
them for their alertness in reporting the SUV. The New York Mets even feted Jackson and Orton as heroes at a game with the San Francisco Giants.

And Niass? Well, no presidential phone calls, no encomiums, no articles (though his name did finally surface briefly at a New York Times blog several days after the incident), no free Mets tickets. Yet as the London Times reported, it was Niass who first saw the clouds of smoke seeping from the SUV on that Saturday night.

He hadn't seen the car drive up, because he was attending to
customers -- and, for a vendor in Times Square, Saturday nights are not
to be taken lightly. Niass was alarmed, however, when he saw that
smoke. "I thought I should call 911," he told the Times, "but
my English is not very good and I had no credit left on my phone, so I
walked over to Lance, who has the T-shirt stall next to mine, and told
him. He said we shouldn't call 911. Immediately he alerted a police
officer nearby." Then the cop called 911.

So Lance got the press, and he and Jackson, who also reported the SUV, have been celebrated as "heroes." As the Times interview with Niass has made the internet rounds, there have been calls for the recognition of his "heroism," too.

These three men all acted admirably. The two other vendors did what
any citizen ought to do on spotting a smoldering car illegally parked
on a busy street. But heroes? In the case of Niass, characterizing him
as a hero may in a sense diminish the significance of his act.

A vendor in New York since 9/11, he saw something amiss and reported
it, leading him into contact with the police. That a Muslim immigrant
would not think twice about this simple civic act speaks volumes about
the power of American society and the actual day-to-day lives and
conduct of Muslims in this nation, particularly immigrant Muslims.

This was a reasonably routine act for Orton and Jackson, but for
Niass it required special courage, and the fact that he acted anyway
only underscores what should be an obvious fact about Muslims in
post-9/11 America: they represent a socially responsible and engaged
community like any other.

Assault on American Muslims

Why do I say that his act required courage?

Like many Muslim immigrants in New York City and around the country,
Niass senses that he is viewed with suspicion by fellow citizens -- and
particularly by law enforcement authorities -- simply because of his
religion. In an interview with Democracy Now,
that essential independent radio and television news program, Niass
said that, in terrorism cases, law enforcement authorities view every
Muslim as a potential threat. Ordinary citizens become objects of
suspicion for their very ordinariness. "If one person is bad, they are
going to say everybody for this religion. That is, I think, wrong."

As far as Niass is concerned, terrorists are, at best, apostates,
irreligious deviants. "That not religion," he told his interviewer,
"because Islam religion is not terrorist. Because if I know this guy is
Muslim, if I know that, I'm going to catch him before he run away."

The New York Police Department Intelligence Division, the FBI, and
Immigration and Customs Enforcement all routinely run armies of
informers through the city's Middle Eastern and South Asian
communities. In the immediate wake of 9/11, sections of New York
experienced sweeps by local and federal agents. The same in
Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, and communities on the West
Coast -- everywhere, in fact, that Muslims cluster together.

I've been reporting on this for years (and have made it the subject of my book Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland).
Despite the demurrals of law enforcement officials, these sweeps and
on-going, ever-widening investigations have focused exclusively on
Muslim enclaves. I have seen the destructive impact on family and
community such covert police activity can have: broken homes, deported
parents, bereft children, suicides, killings, neighbors filled with
mutual suspicions, daily shunning as a fact of life. "Since when is
being Muslim a crime?" one woman whose husband had been swept up off a
street in Philadelphia asked me.

Muslim residents have been detained, jailed, and deported by the
thousands since 9/11. We all know this and law enforcement and federal
officials have repeatedly argued that these measures are necessary in
the new era ushered in by al-Qaeda. A prosecutor once candidly told me
that it made no sense to spend time investigating or watching
non-Muslims. Go to the source, he said.

Radicalization Is a Problem of Limited Proportions

There are many problems with this facile view, and two recent
studies -- one from a think-tank funded in large part by the federal
government, the other from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke
University and the University of North Carolina's departments of
religion and sociology (using a U.S. Department of Justice grant) --
highlight some of the most glaring contradictions.

The Rand Corporation studied the incidence of terrorist acts since
September 11, 2001, and found that the problem, while serious, was
wildly overblown. There have been, Rand researchers determined, all of
46 incidents of Americans or long-time U.S. residents being radicalized
and attempting to commit acts of terror (most failing woefully) since
9/11. Those incidents involved a total of 125 people. Think about that
number for a moment: it averages out to about six cases of purported
radicalization and terrorism a year. Faisal Shahzad's utterly inept
effort in Times Square would make incident 47. In the 1970s, the report
points out, the country endured, on average, around 70 terrorist
incidents a year. From January 1969 to April 1970 alone, the U.S.
somehow managed to survive 4,330 bombings, 43 deaths, and $22 million of property damage.

The Rand report, "Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist
Radicalization in the United States since September 11, 2001," argues
that ham-handed surveillance and aggressive police investigations can
be, and often are, counter-productive, sowing a deep-seated fear of law
enforcement and immigration authorities throughout Muslim communities
-- whose assistance is vital in coping with the threat of Islamic
terrorism, tiny as it is here.

Family members, friends, and neighbors are far more likely to know
when someone is headed down a dangerously radical path than the police,
no matter how many informers may be in a neighborhood. "On occasion,
relatives and friends have intervened," the Rand researchers write.
"But will they trust the authorities enough to notify them when
persuasion does not work?" And will the authorities actually use the
information provided by family members when they receive it? Don't
forget the perfunctory manner in which CIA officials treated the father of the underwear bomber when he tried to report his son as an imminent threat.

The second study, conducted by a research team from Duke University
and the University of North Carolina, found similarly small numbers of
domestic terror plots and incidents since 9/11. The report identifies
139 Muslim Americans who have been prosecuted for planning or executing
acts of terrorist violence since September 11, 2001, an average of 17 a
year. (Again, most of these attempted acts of terror, as in the Shahzad
case, were ineptly planned, if planned at all.) Like the Rand report,
the Duke-UNC study highlights the meager numbers: "This level of 17
individuals a year is small compared to other violent crime in America
but not insignificant. Homegrown terrorism is a serious but limited

The Duke-UNC researchers conducted 120 in-depth interviews with
Muslims in four American cities to gain insight into the problem of
homegrown Islamic terrorism and the response of Muslim Americans to it.
Why so few cases? Why so little radicalization? Not surprisingly, what
the researchers found was widespread hostility to extremist ideologies
and strong Muslim community efforts to quash them -- efforts partially
driven by a desire for self-protection, but more significantly by
moral, ethical, and theological hostility to violent fundamentalist

Both of these reports underscore the importance of what the
researchers call "self-policing" within Muslim communities. They
consider it a critical and underutilized factor in combating terrorism
in the U.S. Far from being secretive breeding grounds for radicalism,
the Duke-UNC report argues, mosques and other Muslim community
institutions build ties to the nation and larger world while working to
root out extremist political fundamentalism. It was not for nothing
that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed instructed his 9/11 hijackers to steer
clear of Muslim Americans, their mosques, and their institutions.

The UNC-Duke report urges federal and local officials to work
aggressively to integrate Muslim communities even more fully into the
American political process. Authorities, it suggests, should be
considering ways of supporting and strengthening those communities by
actively promoting repeated Muslim denunciations of violence. (Such
condemnations have been continuous since 9/11 but are rarely reported
in the press.) Public officials should also work to insure that social
service agencies are active in Muslim neighborhoods, should
aggressively pursue claimed infractions of civil rights laws, and
should focus on establishing working relationships with Muslim groups
when it comes to terrorism and law enforcement issues.

The Times Square incident -- and, yes, the small but vital role
played by Alioune Niass -- illustrate the importance of these
commonsensical recommendations. Yet the media has ignored Niass, and
law-enforcement agencies have once again mounted a highly public,
fear-inducing investigation justified in the media largely by anonymous leaks. This recreates the creepy feeling of what happened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: the appearance of a massive, chaotic, paranoid probe backed by media speculation disguised as reporting. A warehouse raided
in South Jersey. Why? No answers. A man led away in handcuffs from a
Boston-area home. Who is he? What is his role? Was he a money man?
Maybe. But maybe not. Suspicious packages. Oddly parked trucks. Tips.
Streets closed. Bomb squads cautiously approaching ordinary boxes or
vehicles. No answers -- even after the all-clear rings out and the
yellow caution tape comes down.

More importantly, the controlled flow of anonymous leaks to the
mainstream press has laid the groundwork for the Obama administration
to threaten Pakistan harshly
-- even as Iraq and Afghanistan sink further into deadly and
destructive fighting -- and to ponder extreme revisions of criminal
procedures involving the rights of suspects. The administration's
radical suggestion to suspend
Miranda rights and delay court hearings for terrorism suspects amounts
to a threat to every American citizen's right to an attorney and a
defense against state power. Is this the message the country wants to
send "the evil doers," as President Bush used to call them?

Or have we already taken the message of those evil doers to heart?
Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen taken into custody on American
soil, disappeared into the black hole of interrogation for more than
two weeks -- despite President Obama's assertion
to a CIA audience over a year ago that "what makes the United States
special... is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our
values and our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy,
even when we are afraid and under threat, not just when it's expedient
to do so."

When the going gets tough, as Attorney General Holder made clear
on "Meet the Press" on May 9th, the tough change the rules. "We're now
dealing with international terrorists," he said, "and I think that we
have to think about perhaps modifying the rules that interrogators have
and somehow coming up with something that is flexible and is more
consistent with the threat that we now face." None of this is good news
for Muslims in America -- or for the rest of us.

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