Islamophobia and Domestic Security


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


I want to begin with a simple statement: Islamophobia makes our country less secure.

Now let me say a few words about my insight on this matter. In 2007, I was put in charge of overseeing the detention camps in Iraq by General David Petraeus, specifically the Bucca and Cropper detention camps. The state of the Iraqi detention program was in shambles and people were scrambling to manage the nearly 27,000 detainees, the highest detainee population thus far. The discontent among the detainees was clear: detainee-on-detainee killings, setting fire to their living quarters, rioting (resulting in the death of 78 Marines), and making rogue weapons to be used against American soldiers.

Furthermore, detention policies prior to my arrival relied heavily on biases in terms of initial detention and treatment of detainees. Each of the 27,000 individuals were viewed and treated as “enemy combatants” by the American soldiers, regardless of their conviction or prior track record. U.S. and Iraqi forces were going into towns and essentially arresting all the eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-old males simply because they looked like they posed a security threat. The concept of detention “in advance of an attack” contributed to the skyrocketing detainee population and caused moderate individuals who did not pose an inherent threat to be housed with extremists who were known to be capable of violent attacks. Also, a lack of cultural information and respect on the part of American soldiers allowed for Sunni, Shi’a, and Salafis to be kept in dangerously close quarters, resulting in high levels of prisoner-on-prisoner violence.

The fact was that the U.S. detention programs were being used against us. There is no denying that Abu Ghraib was—and still is—being used against us as extremist propaganda. But our lack of cultural understanding and rule of law in the detention facilities allowed for extremists to hide in plain sight. By holding moderate detainees with known extremists, we unknowingly allowed for extremist recruitment and indoctrination to occur. It soon became known that extremists were even getting purposefully detained with the intention of recruiting the more moderate detainees to their cause.

It struck me that the war that we were fighting on the outside was actually occurring inside American detention facilities. But in addition to overcrowding and the spike in violence, there was a complete lack ofrule of law in terms of how detainees were arrested, processed, and charged. A main consequence of this was that detainees were not being sorted in terms of the threat level they posed. We set up detention facilities without understanding that we were creating camps for extremist indoctrination, or “jihadi universities,” as I have called them. The thing that was most obvious to me, however, was the clear impact the Iraqi detention program was having on the Muslim community. Upon assuming command of Iraq detention operations and Task Force 134, I threw away the book and began pursuing a culturally informed and respectful program to essentially win the hearts and minds of my detainees, their families, and the wider Muslim community. Previous detention facilities were led by military personnel who did not have the expertise or willingness to confront the detainees at the necessary religious and ideological levels. And so, my approach to overseeing Iraqi detention consisted of 1) knowing the enemy, or being able to separate the moderate detainees from the lifelong violent extremists, 2) focusing on counterinsurgency rather than corrections, 3) focusing on rehabilitation rather than continued detention, and 4) developing a coherent detention, rule of law, release, and reintegration procedure.

At the heart of this was building trust between the detainees, their families, and the Americans who were overseeing these facilities. I personally pursued this by developing an education in Islam and the Qur’an so I could try to relate to my detainees on a deeper level. In addition, I brought in 200 imams to provide genuine religious education for the detainees to discredit extremist ideology and prevent it from spreading to other detainees. Moreover, we created a culture of transparency in our detention facilities that allowed the Muslim community and the media to see that these facilities were not a repeat of Abu Ghraib. This also included allowing families to come and visit detainees, and even participate in some of the civic education programs.

Over the course of my duty overseeing the Iraqi detention facilities, we managed to completely reverse the culture of Abu Ghraib that had cast a black mark on U.S. efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. The lawless culture and unjust treatment of detainees were replaced by a culture of law, respect, and tolerance for “the other.” The most important point I am trying to make here is that, by building relations of trust and respect in the detention facilities, we were able to make America more secure. The information we received willingly from detainees and their families proved to be invaluable in our fight against extremism. Out of trust and respect, members of al-Qaeda provided us with the locations of American soldiers’ bodies so that they could be returned home to their families. We were also given the location of the greatest cache of ammunition found during the Iraq War because of this program. And because of this program, detainees and their families provided us with highly classified information that helped to secure our homeland and armed forces from future attacks.

When I look back on my experience with the detention program, I believe that part of the larger problem prior to 2007 could be attributed to an ignorance of Islam and prejudice against Muslims that manifested in the American forces viewing the Iraqi citizens through a “good versus evil” lens. Although this was not necessarily a conscious worldview, it existed nonetheless. To the Americans stationed in Iraq, every Iraqi citizen, the vast majority of whom were Muslim, was a terrorist. However, from the Iraqis’ point of view, we were the ones who were trespassing in their backyards. Would we have acted any differently if people showed up in our backyards one day and started shooting? It became clear to me that we had let the broader threat dictate how we viewed the entire community.

My tenure overseeing the Iraqi detention program taught me the valuable lesson that ignorance of Islam and Muslims can impair our ability to achieve peace and stability. In today’s political climate, I strongly believe that Islamophobia jeopardizes the security of our country. We learned in Iraq that you cannot group together an entire population and label them as the enemy. It was only when we stopped equating the acts of a few with an entire population that we were able to develop trusting relations that proved to be mutually beneficial to U.S. and Iraqi security.

When I took the time to educate myself on Islam and the Qur’an, I realized that Islam is not a monolithic religion. There is such a rich diversity within Islam and among Muslims that it is naïve to equate the acts of a few with the 1.6 billion other Muslims worldwide. And if it is not already apparent, Muslims are the ones being killed by terrorists. This means that responsible political, civil, and community leaders, as well as the law enforcement and security worlds, must reject a natural instinct to become more Islamophobic with each new attack. Islamophobic attitudes within the law enforcement world only help to legitimize Islamophobic attitudes among the general American public.

This is why I believe that it is of utmost importance for law enforcement agencies to build strong and trusting relations with local American Muslim religious and community leaders. I look back on the successful partnerships we created with the courageous Iraqi imams who put their lives at risk by cooperating with Americans and standing up for the truth. If we strive to create the same sort of partnerships within our own communities, I believe that, as a nation, we will be better equipped to detect potential threats and help the most vulnerable members of our communities.

But there is a fly in the ointment. The FBI has a long, and highly controversial, history of penetrating known dangerous groups: white supremacist, extreme antigovernment organizations, mafia families, and others. To be effective in their job of detecting andpreventing extremism, local police departments must abstain from the temptation of doing this. As wewitnessed with the NYPD mass-surveillance fiasco,such policies will only produce more harm than good, and will isolate the very community with whom they are wishing to partner. Law enforcement must realize that we cannot arrest our way to security, unless we wish to return to an era of mass internment similar to what occurred in this country during World War II. Detaining hundreds of innocent suspects, for any period of time, to apprehend one or two legitimate threats, will have the same effect as what I witnessed during my service in Iraq. It creates anger and embitterment in detainees’ families and can make the detainees vulnerable to extremist indoctrination.

There is no middle ground on the issue of Islamophobia and domestic security. It is of utmost importance to treat American Muslims with respect and appreciation for the commonalities that we share. As I learned during my time in Iraq, building strong and trusting relations with the American Muslim community will greatly enable law enforcement to learn of potential early-warning indicators. I believe that our law enforcement agencies must lead the way in showing that the American Muslim community is their best ally in this united fight against extremism.