Partnering with American Muslim Communities to Fight Crime

The United States is becoming an increasingly diverse nation. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are currently 38 million foreign-born residents in our nation. Some experts estimate we will become a minority-majority nation by 2050.

Regardless of where the United States’ current demographics end up, part of our nation’s growing diversity is its plurality of faiths, one of which is Islam. A 2007 Pew Poll estimated that there are around 2.5 million Muslims living in the United States.

photo: men praying in mosqueAmerican Muslim communities are reflective of the larger diversity in America. It is a common misconception that all Muslims are Arabs or Pakistani South Asians. According to a 2009 Gallup study on Muslim Americans, 35 percent of African Americans are Muslims, 28 percent are “White” (mostly Middle Easterners), and 18 percent are “Asian” (mostly Pakistanis and Indians).

When thinking about American Muslim communities, particularly in a law enforcement context, one should remember the three D’s:

  1. Diverse. There are multiple ethnic, racial, and even political groups within a single community. Muslims are monotheistic; not monolithic.
  2. Divergent. Most often, internal community groups do not share the same viewpoints about political, social, and religious issues.
  3. Decentralized. Muslims do not have a Pope-like figure. There is no single person or organization that can fully represent their entire community.

For this article, we interviewed American Muslim community leaders and activists in six metropolitan areas (Chicago, New York City, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Iowa City) across the country.1 The hope is to give community-oriented policing practitioners an effective resource for working alongside American Muslim communities by providing a combination of important community perspectives together with expert analysis. Having basic facts about American Muslims and clearing up misconceptions can go a long way in helping an officer fulfill his/her mission to “serve and protect” all communities—including those that are faith-based.

Lack of Trust: What to be Aware of

As is the case with any effective partnership, trust is the most necessary ingredient to ensure the relationship functions properly. Without it, relationships will be frayed and fragile at best. In order to avoid missteps and misunderstanding, it is necessary to know what issues to be aware of.

First is the abundance of faulty information on American Muslims. Unfortunately, several instances of law enforcement training on Islam and terrorism have caused tension in the relationship between many American Muslim communities and law enforcement. For the community activists and leaders we interviewed, this was as an issue of significant concern. Unfortunately, there appears to be a subset of self-styled private industry counterterrorism training “experts” that have sought to distort the reality of American Muslims. This kind of false information training creates bias and hostility toward communities before there is even a chance for interpersonal engagement.2 Law enforcement officials, particularly executives and managers, need to be aware of such pitfalls.

Second are the cultural and historical backgrounds of some community members. All of the people interviewed emphasized that some Muslim community members—immigrant and indigenous African American—may have skewed perceptions of law enforcement because of prior negative experiences. For some, such as African-American community members, it is based on legacies of racism and discrimination in America, while for others, typically among immigrant-origin communities, the police as an institution were often regarded as instruments of oppression in their homeland.

This also means that some immigrant-origin community members may have a skewed view of law enforcement agencies, seeing them as monolithic. Many may not understand the difference, for instance, between Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and a local cop patrolling his/her beat. Things become more complex in light of recent federal policies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) and Secure Communities initiatives, allowing or mandating that local police forces become involved in federal immigration enforcement issues.

Third are current political issues. For several years, certain organizations have in practice been placed on a political blacklist. The reasons behind this dynamic are too complex to describe at length in this article. What is important to know, particularly for local police departments, is that national politics may have an impact on how local law enforcement interactions may be perceived. It may also explain why certain federal law enforcement partners may choose to engage with some organizations and individuals and not with others.

How to Build Trust: Hearing Community Voices

Despite these issues faced by communities and law enforcement, there has been significant effort to increase engagement because the moral and material benefits appear to outweigh the costs. The previous section discussed what issues to be aware of. This section looks at what law enforcement can do by listening to community voices. Based on interviews with community leaders and activists, five themes stood out.

The first theme was a commitment on both sides “to stay the course” and remain engaged. This required dealing with internal and external pressures that tended to divide both sides, and effectively respond to arguments against partnership. As noted earlier, relations between various communities and law enforcement have fluctuated often.

Underlying this commitment to remain engaged was the next theme—the need for consistency and sustainability. Discussions were not a one-time event; meetings were regularly scheduled and conducted. In several metropolitan areas, such as Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Buffalo, the initial conversations, particularly in townhall and community roundtable forums, were rocky. However, through patience, persistence, and professionalism, relations were gradually transformed—in the words of the Chicago leader—“from mutual suspicion to partnership.”

Maintaining this consistency is also key. As the Washington, D.C., interviewee half-jokingly remarked about his engagement with the local FBI office, “Over the last 8 years because of agents constantly coming and going, I have accumulated enough business cards that I filled an entire shoebox.”

Programs that nurture further communication and understanding—the third theme—are necessary to maintaining the consistency and sustainability of engagements. Chicago and Buffalo interviewees cited the FBI Citizens’ Academy program as an important mechanism for developing understanding and awareness of federal operations. At the local level, the Los Angeles interviewee also mentioned the importance of the local LA County Sheriff’s Muslim American Homeland Security Congress and the LA Police Department’s Muslim Forums. Both programs are held on a regular basis at rotating locations, including Islamic centers.

The fourth theme deals with who is present at the discussions and what is discussed, both of which are equally important. Interviewees noted the broad array of engagement events focused on types of community safety, crime prevention, and community activists. Issues discussed ranged from protection against Internet pedophiles to finding better ways of reporting hate crimes. It was also stressed that engagement with government officials cannot be limited to federal law enforcement officials examining how to counter violent extremism; if so, many community members may interpret this as a sign that they are seen as a suspect community.

Instead, interviewees emphasized the importance of talking to representatives from multiple local, state, and federal departments. They also noted the positive and visible presence of local and state law enforcement, as well as the regional U.S. Attorney, at these meetings.

One thing that we wish to add is that the importance of who participates in these discussions is equally applicable for non-law enforcement participants claiming to represent some part of their local community. Again, given the divergent and decentralized nature of Muslim communities, it is best that law enforcement officials reach out to as broad an array of community leaders and organizations as possible.

Finally, the last theme involves providing specific mechanisms for input and redress on issues of particular concern, which is vitally important. Ultimately, in addition to contributing to the nation’s safety, communities also seek to ensure that their civil liberties and civil rights are protected. Los Angeles, Chicago, and Buffalo interviewees noted that engagement with law enforcement increased cultural competency outreach to local and federal agencies, making job performance more effective without hurting religious sensitivities.

Another example, outside of the interviewees’ responses, was engagement with the LAPD on a major homeland security program it was starting. Both authors of this article directly participated in the opportunity to provide community feedback on the LAPD’s local suspicious activity reporting (SAR), and its planned “iWatch” initiative, a neighborhood watch program for terrorism. LAPD officials met with community leaders to discuss enhancing civil liberties protections for both programs. The community leaders gave eight extensive recommendations and the LAPD eventually implemented the six largest ones to ensure the iWatch and the regional SAR would protect civil liberties while enhancing operational effectiveness.

American Muslims are a part of our nation’s growing pluralism. With this growing diversity comes new opportunities and new challenges, including how to best protect and serve these communities. Given the historical and cultural experiences of American Muslims, a conscious and careful effort to build trust is needed.

Yet these challenges are not impossible to overcome. As seen from the perspectives of community members from various metropolitan areas across the country, patience, persistence, and mutual goodwill can go a long way in forging strong relationships.

 

-Alejandro J. Beutel is the Government and Policy Analyst at the Washington, D.C. office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a faith-based policy advocacy organization. He is a specialist in international and domestic security issues. He is also the author of the report “Building Bridges to Strengthen America: Forging an Effective Counterterrorism Enterprise between Law Enforcement and Muslim Communities.”

-Saadia Khan is the Civic Coordinator for the Los Angeles office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. She works with local communities on strengthening civic empowerment and building law enforcement relations.

 

1 These metropolitan areas were Los Angeles, CA, New York, NY, Washington, D.C., Chicago, IL, Buffalo, NY, and Iowa City, IA. The areas were chosen based on four criteria; 1) Varying city sizes - New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago all have more than 1 million people, but all the cities studied (except Iowa City) have metropolitan areas with over 1 million people; 2) Geographic location – three metropolitan areas are located on the East Coast, two in the Midwest and one on the West Coast; 3) Likely clusters of large Muslim populations. Although timely and reliable data on Muslim American population sizes and geographic locations are difficult to come by, one of the authors (Beutel) contacted leaders and activists from these specific metropolitan areas because of their likelihood to contain large Muslim populations. Estimates for Muslim American geographic population distributions were based on year 2000 data from the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), and 2009 data by InfoGroup, a private marketing and data collection and analysis consulting company. See: “Muslim Estimate—Number of Congregations (2000).” Association of Religion Data Archives, (2000). Available at: http://bit.ly/phGWf3.; “Religion 2009 (InfoGroup).” Social Explorer, (2011). Available at: http://bit.ly/nPz6VO. (Downloaded “Excel 2003 (.xls)” file).

2 “Senators Seek Accurate, Effective Counterterrorism Training.” U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, (March 29, 2011). Available at: http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?ContentRecord_id=022400b1-5056-8059-7631-782f7c4c592e&FuseAction=Press.MajorityNews. Also see: Ali, Wajahat, Eli Clifton, Matthew Duss, Lee Fang, Scott Keyes, and Faiz Shakir. 2011. Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America. Center for American Progress: Washington, D.C. Available online at: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/08/islamophobia.html,

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