By: Ronald E. Williams II
Immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the priorities, energies and resources of the FBI concentrated on the proactive objective of preventing future terrorist incidents. In pursuit of this new strategy, the FBI understood that the success of this highly complex mission depended on cooperation from the Muslim-American community – specifically the need to understand its culture, history, religion and language. These early cooperation efforts were successful in part because many Muslims had sought to define themselves as Americans. And like most Americans, they, too, play an important role in ensuring domestic security, if by no other means than providing pertinent information to include identifying questionable behavior and activities. Taken at face value, these early partnerships developed into successful examples of intelligence-led policing. But if one is to seriously bisect this relationship, one would reasonably conclude that as potential terrorist suspects and targets become numerous and branches, and as deception operations become more sophisticated, domestic security and counterterrorism efforts will expand, reaching deep into the Muslim-American community, oftentimes crossing sensitivity lines, as was evidenced by the New York City Police Department’s surveillance of the region’s Muslim community. As a result of this cultural infiltration, the Muslim-American community has become, by and large, suspicious of government counter terrorism programs. The Muslim-American community has justified its suspicions on what it perceives to be American predispositions of both Islam in general, and Muslims in particular. As the American mainstream consciousness overtly claim that not all Muslims are violent, anti-American or prone to engage in terrorism while subconsciously believing the opposite and privately expressing such, the latter mindset will inevitably influence domestic counterintelligence/counterterrorism prerogatives. In the most subtle forms, these prerogatives will include identifying specific racial and ethnic groups/individuals as the sources, financiers and sympathizers of Islamic-oriented terrorism – a de facto policy that will never be officially sanctioned for it contradicts our own understanding of race neutrality. Hence, the radicalization of our own racial, ethnic and religious population will undoubtedly be the most complex challenge for our domestic security. Note that theories abound attempting to explain radicalization. Most popular among academics is the notion that a disaffected group perceives that the current government structure is the cause of some kind of injustice against them, and continues to nurture an environment of inequality (i.e. political, social, economical). With no legitimate means through which to seek redress, the group thus turns to more radical ways to demand justice and equality, oftentimes turning to violent behavior or other forms of criminal and subversive activity. While this formula may explain radicalization at the theoretical level and in homogenous environments, it does not adequately address the core elements of radicalization currently underway in the United States. If one is to fully understand American radicalization, one must critically recall the realities of American history. To be sure, any candid discussion of counter-radicalization efforts involving homegrown Islamic radicalism must first be predicated on the proposition that racialization is an indivisible element of the American consciousness. Racialization is to be defined as the process by which a racial or ethnic group is understood through the prism of racial generalizations. It is distinct from racism, which constitutes specific attitudes directed at a racial or ethnic group based on hatred of one race on the premise of inferiority. From racialization, the concept of “Us versus Them” matures, and the cultural subordination of a subordinate group by the dominate group is an accepted practice throughout the mainstream. “Us versus them” Racial and ethnic categorization is a default mindset of the American psyche. It is deeply and skillfully woven into our national fabric, as is the ardent defense of the principles of the First Amendment. To deny this strain of our cultural DNA is to remain disadvantaged when pursuing any real efforts to understand the undercurrents of Muslim-American radicalization. Important to note is that the American public consciousness has become hyper-sensitive to the discussion of race and aloof to experiences from history. With each generation, American perceptions on race and the racial order are refined, resulting from the inherent push-pull relationship between the racial majority (“Us”) and the racial minority (“Them”). As these perceptions further root themselves into the American mainstream consciousness, the management thereof is, in truth, dominated by the racial majority. Since perceptions management is controlled by the racial majority, it stands to reason that the terms affecting the political and cultural narrative are too controlled by this majority. But in the face of bold demographic shifts, greater racial and ethnic diversity (especially without any desire to fully assimilate), and the real possibility of the racial majority becoming the numerical minority, control of the narrative becomes a strategic objective. Here, the starting point of the narrative revolves around two ideas: 1) How is “American” defined; and 2) What groups constitute “Americans?” Understand that these are two distinctly separate and important concepts that form the undercurrents of Muslim-American radicalization. During the early years of the republic, the mainstream view was that America was to be a place where distinct groups could retain their individual identity while simultaneously assimilating and submitting to the idea that is America: Acknowledging that the protection of the Constitution and the principles enshrined therein is the only obligation of an American citizen. However, the unique irony is that the American mainstream has always maintained a working level of cultural ignorance of its ethnic minority groups, and whereby the racial majority categorized and separated “us” from “them.” Recognize that throughout most of American history, an “American” was categorized as only those people of English origin, or those who were Protestant, or white or hailed from northern Europe. But at this juncture in our history, we must recognize that the American mainstream is being pushed and pulled by a variety of factors such as immigrant populations (in this country legally or otherwise) who refuse to culturally assimilate and agitate ethno-nationalist sentiment. This psycho-cultural conflict has forced the American public consciousness into default mode. As mainstream America continues to become suspicious of Muslim-Americans and vice versa, the “Us versus Them” construct, based on existing racial paradigms, will be categorized in two ways: 1) White/African-Americans (“Us”) versus Muslim-Americans (“Them”); and 2) White Americans (“Us”) versus African-Americans (“Us”) versus “Muslim-Americans” (“Us”). What is absolute of the “Us versus Them” construct is that it results in alienation that breeds resentment which, in turn, manifests into political radicalization.
The American racial order is a complex structure, sustained by certain attitudes of varying degrees that all Americans harbor. Our private beliefs tend to find their way into the public domain, oftentimes claiming to be reflective of the American attitude writ-large, and subsequently influencing the cultural narrative. Historically, our cultural narrative has been defined by the relationship between a dominate group and a subordinate group. The very act by which the racial majority renders one racial or ethnic group to a culturally inferior status is an undercurrent of Muslim-American radicalization. Again referring back to our historical experience, white Americans have enjoyed the privilege of being the racial majority, and the luxury which comes from this includes claiming moral and cultural superiority; defining the process of assimilation; and influencing public opinion. The key to managing public perceptions and influencing opinions is to control the content and flow of information via media outlets (to include the cacophonous blogosphere and social networks). Observing the fact that African-Americans do not own major media outlets through which they can influence and manage public attitudes does not make it fair to conclude that the racialization of Muslim-Americans is a result solely derived from white Americans (especially since there are several prominent African-American journalists and quite a few in policymaking/policy implementing positions). However, the fair conclusion is that the American culture possesses certain (but not equal) racial elements belonging to white and African-Americans. In other words, our cultural evolution has been influenced by two equal-but-opposite dominate social groups whose positive and negative coexistence and experiences are indivisible with one another. Vis-à-vis other ethnic groups, African-Americans maintain a working level of cultural superiority. Now four generations removed from slavery and one generation removed from Jim Crow, African-Americans may sympathize with other disaffected and alienated ethnic groups, but to them they will never be culturally equal or regarded as genuinely American for they lack the scars of the ethno-cultural experience which makes one truly American. This so-called “in the trenches” attitude, a private sentiment, has now found itself into the public discourse and is slowly making its way into the formation and implementation of law enforcement and domestic security efforts, for many African-Americans are policymakers, law enforcement officials, legislators and lawyers. Both white and African-Americans are responsible for engaging in the racialization of Muslim-Americans; but only at the highest levels of government does racial categorizing become complex and amorphous. In the realm of the public consciousness, the racialization of Muslim-Americans involves white and African-Americans juxtaposing them with, and separating them from the dominate mainstream culture. At present, the racialization of Muslim-Americans captures the ways in which the dominant social culture has positioned itself vis-à-vis [the Muslim-American] sub-population. Memory of a free festival: Post-September 11th domestic security activities. Prior to September 11, 2001, the view held by most Americans towards Muslims was extremely limited and one-dimensional. This view was derived directly from the Iranian hostage crisis, when on November 4, 1979, Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Constant media coverage of the crisis, in which the students held over fifty American diplomats for 444 days absorbed itself into the American consciousness. As a result of this saturation, the default American mindset had ethnically and culturally categorized Iran and Islam as monolithically violent, fanatical and irrational. The commentariat (or media class) dictated the narrative by limiting the quality of reporting, and by doing so allowed unsubstantiated generalizations and stereotypes to become, in essence, the conscious truth. Contrary to more liberal views, extensive coverage is not equal to quality coverage. In short, the public view of the Iranian crisis (fully operating within the existing racial and ethnic paradigms unique to the United States) evolved in such a way that the American mainstream now has a tendency to group Shi’a and Sunni as one group; believe that Muslim hatred of the United States comes from a disdain of our democratic system; and categorize Muslims, in general, as deceitful, violent and fanatical in their devotion. Soon this popular leitmotif was given credence by American academics, whose own perceptions, like the media elite, operate within the subtle ethnic categorization paradigm. Without a doubt, Bernard Lewis (The Roots of Muslim Rage) and Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations?), more than any other academics, are responsible for influencing the public consciousness towards Muslims. The violent images of Islam’s history and how the Islamic ideology conflicts with the established world order as depicted and explained in these two articles, were the dominate academic voices whereby Americans claimed to understand both Islam and Muslims. With no countervailing points of view, the commentariat (who culturally subordinated Muslims) and academia (who sought to comprehend Muslim actions through the “Us versus Them” construct) influenced almost two generations of Americans. This influence was made clear when, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the American general attitude (acting in accordance with the default consciousness) generalized all Muslims as having the potential of being anti-American extremists. The federal government, in part responding to public demands for greater scrutiny and observation of Muslim-Americans, enacted, implemented and justified several major policies and initiatives designed to counter Islamic domestic terrorism. These initiatives include the USA Patriot Act, as amended; “voluntary interviews” of young men from Middle Eastern countries in the United States on temporary visas; the Absconders Apprehension Initiative (Office of the Deputy Attorney General); the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System enacted in 2002 and fully terminated in 2011; expanded immigration enforcement powers granted to the FBI; the CLEAR Act; and the Homeland Security Enhancement Act. These federal initiatives were derived from, and simultaneously contributed to, the American mainstream consciousness. Though a considerable number of civil liberties advocacy groups argued in opposition to many of these programs, claiming that parts or all were either unconstitutional or extra-judicial, what these policies demonstrate is a clear example of the action-reaction relationship of the American socio-political-cultural order. Because the 9/11 terrorist attacks were perpetuated by Islamic radicalists, the American collective consciousness absorbed cultural, political and law enforcement measures targeting Muslim-Americans. This was a legitimate American reaction, justified by our cultural DNA. Keep in mind, however, that we cannot change our cultural DNA, despite what liberal academics, politicians and media elites may claim. In truth, the American social order, at present, has automatically produced two types of Americans that will not, under any circumstances, be able to coexist. The first type includes those who express “Us versus Them” absolutely within the ethno-cultural paradigm. The second type includes at least two generations of native-born Muslims who are becoming radicalized as a result of domestic security efforts predicated on the “Us versus Them” construct. As the FBI repositioned its operational and investigative practices by integrating traditional law enforcement methods with intelligence gathering techniques, we must be critically aware of the backlash whereby Muslim-American attitude (sustained by a high level of suspicion) suggests that domestic security measures disproportionately targets them. Moreover, anxiety about their proper place within the American society will increase, as does their concerns about the perceived lack of protection of their civil liberties. Specifically, there are two law enforcement/counterterrorism practices worth mentioning with regard to potential radicalization. Without a doubt, surveillance (to include physical and electronic) is among the most fundamental and successful law enforcement and intelligence gathering technique; and with respect to Islamic-oriented terrorism, properly executed surveillance will provide pertinent information on suspected terrorists, learn about their movements and identify possible co-conspirators and financiers. Moreover, uncompromised and uninterrupted surveillance will always enable law enforcement to incapacitate potential terrorist operations through arrest, detention or prosecution. At first glance, the surveillance of potential terrorists does not appear to be problematic, especially when all investigative thresholds and legal requirements have been satisfied. But when certain targets such as mosques, charitable organizations or cultural centers become the target of surveillance, or it has been revealed that they were targets at some point during an investigation, Muslim-Americans, overtime, will consciously interpret these types of surveillance programs as racially/ethnically charged. Be that as it may, from a domestic security vantage point, mosques, charity organizations, Islamic schools, cultural centers and think tanks are all legitimate targets for surveillance, especially when derived from multiple sources including validated informants and financial records. It is important to note that since September 11, 2001, Muslim-Americans (and some civil liberty groups) have claimed that the FBI is engaged in surveillance programs specifically targeting mosques and community centers, suggesting that these programs violate free speech and religious practices. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has asserted that the FBI’s “dragnet is detrimental to the lives of innocent Americans.” Now, if by “detrimental” it is meant as adversely affecting one’s right to life and liberty, I would be inclined to say that this is an incorrect assessment. By contrast, if by “detrimental” it is meant as the potential for radicalization and what it means for the individual once the transition to violence has taken place, then I will be more inclined to take a critical pause. Nevertheless, there are no publically released records that indicate the FBI has sanctioned any mosque surveillance programs; however, one can reasonably infer that such programs have been implemented on a case-by-case basis predicated on the FBI’s history, particularly its counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) from which certain techniques (i.e. surveillance, use of informants, infiltration, etc.) have been inculcated into the Bureau’s investigative culture. The FBI maintains that people from the Muslim-American community recruited for the purpose of providing information is crucial to counterterrorism operations. On one hand, we can acknowledge that the FBI has successfully built relationships with the Muslim-American community in an effort to recruit informants. Consistent with community-based policing, these cooperative efforts have proven beneficial, resulting in important prosecutions of suspected terrorists. One showcase example is the Lackawanna case of 2002, when six Yemeni-American men were apprehended by the FBI and identified as an Al Qaeda sleeper cell. The disruption of this cell was facilitated by the local Yemeni-American community in Lackawanna, New York who passed crucial information to the FBI about the men’s questionable activities that prompted investigation of these men. But on the other hand, Muslim-Americans have become considerably distrustful of law enforcement due in part to terrorist-related trials which have revealed that law enforcement has inserted informants into the Muslim-American community, without any regard to its ethnic, cultural or religious sensitivities. A notable example involves the 2006 terrorism trial of Shahawar Matin Siraj. Attempting to define themselves as Americans in the wake of September 11, 2001, many Muslim-Americans partnered with the FBI as well as the New York Police Department, to form an alliance against extremism in their local communities. In 2006, the trial of Siraj began. The FBI alleged he’d planned to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan. During the course of the trial, testimony revealed that the NYPD had made extensive use of two informants in the case. In the wake of this revelation, many Muslim-Americans felt betrayed and bitter that the NYPD had courted them as allies, and concluded that law enforcement did not trust the information they provided — for they subsequently placed informants in their community, even inside the mosques. Some argue that if law enforcement makes use of informants too often or too casually, it risks undermining the trust of the Muslim-American community. Furthermore, the use of covert informants within the Muslim-American community has the potential of being counterproductive, inasmuch that betrayed, bitter and distrusting Muslim-Americans may be less inclined to report terrorist-related activities, or provide information that is deceptive and/or false. Despite all this, the reality is this: Law enforcement will never (nor should it ever be an option) to allow sensitivity concerns to trump domestic security priorities or influence its operation and the racial/ethnic minority consciousness will never accept a government structure or its actions it perceives as targeting them disproportionately; thus, tensions will inevitably and slowly build uninterrupted, coming to characterize the new American domestic security order.
Under pressure: How to counter radicalization
Since 9/11, the American mainstream has been inundated with buzzwords such as engagement, cooperation, bridging and communication all in the context of integrated law enforcement/counterterrorism methods. The general view as espoused by policymakers, legislators, law enforcement officials, academics and the commentariat is that the prevention of future attacks from Islamic terrorists rests upon a partnership between law enforcement and the Muslim-American community; and that law enforcement will “build bridges required for effective communication” with the Muslim-American community that will garner trust necessary for the purpose of ensuring domestic security. It has been highlighted that this reworking of community policing has had mixed results, and as Muslim-Americans remain removed from the American mainstream, there is a high probability that this measure will be of minimal value. In other words, community policing can only work if, and only if, the sought-out community recognizes that law enforcement regards it as truly American. To implement any strategy that seeks to contest the extremist narrative of radicalizers, empower and network mainstream voices countering extremism, promote diversity of ideas and means of expression and challenge extremist voices and ideas in the public domain, would mean working within the existing ethno-cultural order which we all, consciously or subconsciously, sustain the “Us versus Them” construct; it is by far the easiest way by which actions specific to Islamic radicalism are made comprehensible.
In essence, the dominate group will determine which voices represent the minority mainstream. This approach, at best, only satisfies short-term, practical problems. A RAND Corporation report asserted that for Constitutional reasons, it is difficult as much as it is inconceivable for government policies and initiatives to address the religious component of radicalization. The report goes on to contend that it is nearly impossible for governmental bodies or law enforcement to reach out to individuals at risk of radicalization if these individuals have not yet committed crimes. The apotheosis of these so-called outreach programs aimed to counter American Islamic radicalization are well-intentioned with domestic security interests in mind; but in actuality, these efforts are taken, in large part, to ease the collective consciousness which have become hyper-sensitive to the discussion of the ethno-cultural order. Contrary to mainstream opinions, town hall meetings, cultural forums, inter-faith conferences, etc., will not change the “accessible mysteriousness” of the American cultural DNA which has evolved for over 200 years into a sophisticated ethno-centrist mindset. If any effective counter-radicalization strategy were to be implemented, it must first depend on quality and unrestricted public awareness. Moreover, once the American mainstream engages in unguarded public discourse (or at least give the illusion of such), Muslim-Americans will be more inclined to interpret the way in which cases of Islamic terrorism are investigated and prosecuted; not perceiving it as disproportionately and ethnically targeting them, but as a necessary tactic for ensuring domestic security. But make no mistake, this process whereby the ethno-cultural order will shift in which Muslim-Americans are accepted into the American mainstream without overt prejudice, will not exist before another generation of Muslim-Americans has passed through. In other words, a counter-radicalization strategy is a long-term, conceptual problem that must run its course along the same curve as the slowly evolving American ethno-cultural order. In sum, combating American Islamic radicalization is an extremely challenging, long-lasting and culture-changing effort based around racial/ethnic relationships for which the human capacity for its denial is astounding. Indeed, national security policymakers will offer up, and the American public consciousness will accept as effective, one-dimensional counter-radicalization measures which will, ironically, exacerbate the radicalization of its own native born Muslim-American population. The current generation who will soon be charged with the complex task of countering American Islamic radicalization is a generation that has come of age in an environment that emphasizes solving short-term, practical problems. This generation (of whom I am a part) erroneously believes that information is knowledge. Henry Kissinger once articulated that this and future generations are not readers, but researchers. He went on to say that as this generation floats on the surface, this new style of thinking erases context and disaggregates everything making strategic thinking about world order nearly impossible to achieve. Because of this mainstream intellectual handicap, our ethno-centric default mindset and how we perceive the American ethno-cultural order, the United States is ripe for the radicalization of a new generation of native born Muslim-Americans. The Fort Hood, Texas shooting in 2009 and the Little Rock, Arkansas recruiting office shooting that same year, are the clearest representations of the maturing dangers associated with American Islamic radicalization. Furthermore, it illustrates the complex, conceptual challenges of the mistrusting relationship between the American mainstream consciousness, domestic security and native born Muslim-Americans.
Ronald E. Williams II has over ten years of experience with the US Department of Justice (DoJ). His current work at DoJ involves developing and administering technical assistance designed to enhance the capabilities of foreign justice sector institutions and their law enforcement personnel in order to effectively partner with the department to combat terrorism, human trafficking, organized crime, corruption and financial crimes.
Williams’ other work at DoJ includes investigating allegations of racial discrimination, particularly in the areas of voting rights, in which he analyzed voting patterns, racial polarization, voter fraud/intimidation, voter disenfranchisement based on race and histories of discrimination.