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The American Muslim Dilemma

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
September 22, 2006

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Richard A. Falkenrath, New York City’s deputy police commissioner for counterterrorism, recently warned Congress,  “The possibility of a ‘homegrown’ terrorist attack against New York City or any other American city is real and is worsening with time” (PDF). He is just one of many experts in recent months to warn about the danger of homegrown terrorism in the United States. In a discussion at a recent CFR symposium, counterterrorism expert R.P. Eddy said America’s next attackers will likely be “a lot closer to the Columbine killers,” than traditional jihadis.

Though it has produced relatively few terrorists to date, much discussion over the homegrown threat focuses on the American Muslim community. As a new Backgrounder explains, this group of Americans is one of the country’s greatest assets for foiling homegrown Islamist terrorists. The diversity of this group, a fact not widely understood outside Muslim-American circles, also plays a role. Arab-Americans, for instance, may hail from Morocco or Iraq, Egypt or the West Bank. Muslims could come from further afield - India to Indonesia, Tanzania to Trinidad. These factors help prevent the segregation of Muslim communities in America typical of European cities, and thus the homegrown attacks that hit Madrid in 2003 and London in 2004. Peter Skerry, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, credits American society’s more thorough assimilation of Muslims as essential to making them less prone to radicalism than their European counterparts.

But CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon warns this could soon change. He recently told Congress that an increasing sense of alienation among American Muslims “could produce a ‘rejectionist generation.’” Media stereotyping of Arabs as "terrorists" regularly brings complaints from watchdog groups, whether in Disney's animated movie Alladin or the popular television series 24. A new report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations notes that incidents of anti-Muslim discrimination in the United States rose 30 percent from 2004 to 2005 (PDF). In a tirade against “Islam-haters,” New York Post columnist Ralph Peters writes, “Bigotry is bigotry—even when disguised as patriotism.”

While American Muslims generally exhibit a willingness to come forward and report suspicious behavior, experts familiar with the community say that willingness could diminish if the suspects they single out receive unfair treatment. The Justice Department has already taken criticism for its handling of some domestic terror cases, including that of Hamid Hayat, a U.S.-born Pakistani who currently awaits sentencing after conviction on what the Los Angeles Times portrays as trumped up charges. In the “Detroit sleeper cell” case, the conviction on terror charges of a group of Detroit Muslims was quickly overturned after the revelation that prosecutors withheld evidence and gave misleading testimony (WashPost). Even Iyman Faris, the Ohio truck driver who confessed to plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, attempted to rescind his plea on the grounds that he was the target of warrantless wiretaps (CNN).

Studies suggest U.S. prisons may be a particularly fertile breeding ground for Islamic radicalism. A special report from the George Washington University and the University of Virginia found a shortage of Muslim religious leaders to serve the demands of U.S. inmates, which allows extremist Muslims to more effectively recruit among the vulnerable prison population (PDF). One of the authors of the report, Frank J. Cilluffo, told a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security that prisons worldwide often lead to the radicalization of future terrorists (PDF), including such well-known figures as shoe-bomber Richard Reid and the late al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

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