FBI courts relations with Arabs, Muslims

But community leaders, bureau officials agree post-9/11 tensions remain

October 27, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A month ago, officials at the FBI announced that they would be awarding the bureau's prestigious exceptional service award to a prominent Detroit man who helped forge a relationship between the bureau and Michigan's numerous Arab communities.

But two days before Imad Hamad, director of the state's American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was to be flown to Washington to accept a plaque, bureau officials yanked the award without explanation and said Hamad would no longer be receiving it.

Michigan's Arab and Muslim communities were incensed.

"Yeah," one FBI official said, "we probably could have handled that better."

Hamad is not suspected of any wrongdoing, said FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell, and he is not under investigation. But sources in the bureau said agents became concerned with what they believed were "problematic" associates of Hamad who support terrorism.

The incident with Hamad and the award highlights the FBI's sometimes-stumbling efforts to reach out to Arab and Muslim communities throughout the country. Relations, by most accounts, are improving, but Muslim leaders and bureau officials agree that tension remains.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the bureau has courted Arab and Muslim groups for investigative help and as sources of new recruits and translators. Arab groups, meanwhile, have their own reasons to cooperate. They want help dealing with hate crimes as well as making contacts and even having some influence when the bureau investigates some of their own.

But the road to a trusting relationship has been fraught with missteps on both sides. The FBI has had to tiptoe through an often disorganized and disparate set of organizations, a few of which have had troubling associations that have proved embarrassing to the bureau.

Arab and Muslim leaders worry that they will look like patsies if they work with the FBI, only to feel used or irrelevant when the bureau pulls an award from a prominent leader such as Hamad without explanation.

"I feel there is some strain now in the relationship," Yahya Basha, a prominent Muslim leader in Michigan, said about the FBI's actions. "People feel hurt."

Reached at his Michigan office, Hamad said he was not aware of any questionable relationships and said the bureau could have "handled things in a more courteous, professional manner." But he said he isn't angry.

"I don't have any bitter feelings," Hamad said. "I understand the anger from my community because to a large extent they saw the award as recognition for all of our efforts.

"But this is not something that should pull us apart," he said. "Neither we as a community nor the government can afford to lose this connection we have built. It is even more reason for us all to stay at the table."

Relations between the bureau and Arab and Muslim groups got off to a rocky start after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Justice Department ordered FBI agents to help local law enforcement authorities question more than 8,000 Middle Eastern men across the country in what the department called voluntary interviews.

Many in the community saw them as anything but voluntary and suspected that the interviews were fishing expeditions that could result in the arrest or deportation of a friend or relative. At least 20 of the men questioned were detained or deported for immigration violations not related to terrorism.

Few leads were generated from those interviews, a report later found, and Arab leaders still bristle at the idea of members of their communities being subjected to them.

Although the interview program was mandated by the Justice Department, the face on the initiative was that of the interviewers sitting across the table: in most cases, FBI agents.

Damage control

To try to mitigate the damage, the bureau launched an outreach campaign shortly after, sending top FBI officials to conventions and community groups to show a less threatening visage. The efforts have made a big impact on the communities' perception of the bureau and its agents, leaders say. Still, there is unease.

FBI Direct Robert S. Mueller III "is a very decent man, and he has a duty to protect the American people," said Basha, the Muslim leader in Michigan. "At the same time here in the community there is fear -- are they going overboard?"

Faiz Rehman, president of the Washington-based National Council of Pakistani Americans, said that despite the progress, it seems for every two steps forward the bureau takes, it takes one step back.

"There are issues," Rehman said. "Some things just aren't helpful. Why offer [Hamad] the award if they are just going to take it away? They must have done their homework. It reflects badly on them."

The award dispute is especially disruptive to relations because it comes on the heels of another sticky situation involving the Washington-based American Muslim Council.

Despite a heated debate within the bureau, Mueller accepted an invitation to speak at the council's annual convention last year.

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