Mohamed Brahimi teaches at a Boston-area University. He has been in Boston since he came to the United States from Morocco more than two decades ago,
He says he has heard many stories about the kind of “suspicious activities” that are reported by the public. Once the neighbor of a cab driver called the FBI because the taxi had been parked outside for three days straight. The FBI agent who visited the cab driver told him that he had to follow up on calls whether or not they seemed important.
There is also the story of a Middle Eastern-looking man at an airport who was questioned by the FBI because someone reported having closely monitored him reading a book for about an hour without turning the page. Apparently, in the mind of the tipster who called the FBI, slow reading constituted suspicious activity.
He has also heard stories about the FBI sending informants into mosques. The secretary at the Cambridge mosque called the FBI and told them a man dressed in Muslim garb was espousing extremist views. The secretary was asked, “What does he look like?” When she described the man they said, “Oh we know about him, don’t worry about it,” making it clear he was one of their agents.
Mohamed Brahimi would hear the stories, but when he tried to get people to come forward and speak openly about how the Muslim community was being affected by the post 9/11 climate and policies, he kept encountering a wall of fear. “People are too scared to talk and give their names. They are not telling their personal stories because they are scared. They don’t understand that unless we go public, this problem will fester. This is a young community dealing with survival instincts.”
The fear has pervaded the entire community, including American converts and people of all educational backgrounds. “People are afraid to tell the FBI that they don’t want to talk to them and that they will have a lawyer call them back. They hastily answer questions thinking that even pausing is somehow incriminating. They would even entertain stupid questions like do you know where Osama bin Laden is?”
Those who come from countries where people experience state violence and forced disappearance, think the same can happen here. “In the words of the old Moroccan adage, 'When you are bitten by a snake, you get scared of a rope.' They feel they have no real advocates and there is nothing that can stop a person from being deported if the government were to target them. They fear if they speak out, they can end up like Tarek Mehanna.”
As for the FBI, he is convinced they are going about things in the wrong way. “They are not earnestly looking for Muslims to be their partners. They are looking for criminals. They assume we are a criminal community, and we are forever burdened with proving that we are not. As long as you think Muslims are the problem, this would be some lousy partnership. Muslims have to be considered part of the solution.”
Meanwhile, Muslims are turning inward. “It is almost like people are told to choose between their livelihood and speaking up. They pick the first. People don’t want to be involved anymore. The FBI is now questioning people about their donations to charities. They don’t want any Muslim to organize or collect money. If you solicit funds, you may be considered a terrorist or a person of interest at a minimum. This leads to more fear and apathy, and people are beginning to feel the way they did in their home countries. They think the government is looking over their shoulder.”
So how can the community move forward? Muslims who are here to stay have to come to grips with the fact that they are Americans, first and foremost.
“We have to feel that this is our country. We need to step up and own a stake in this society if we wish to be taken seriously. In a way, we have not been relegated to the fringes of society. We have deliberately marched to the fringes because we didn’t want to take on the stress that other minority groups have had to deal with. It is time for us to validate ourselves as Americans.”