"Betrayed" by Bush

Rattled by government raids on their homes and American support for Israel in the Middle East's escalating violence, American Muslims rethink their 2000 endorsement of the president.

Published April 3, 2002 12:42AM (EST)

During the 2000 election, Muslim-American organizations urged constituents for the first time to vote as a bloc. Muslim leaders were attracted to George W. Bush's televised pledge during the second campaign debate to do away with secret evidence often used against Muslim immigrants by prosecutors. They hoped he could bring a fresh perspective to the troubles in the Middle East. They found him more willing to meet with Muslims during the campaign than Vice President Al Gore.

And so the Muslim community's umbrella groups, aiming to win some clout, urged America's estimated 6 million Muslims (the exact number is in dispute) to vote for Bush. And according to the groups' internal polls, they did, in overwhelming numbers -- and played a crucial role, for instance, in Bush's victory in Florida.

Today, some are wondering what their votes accomplished. Many Muslims have been watching the unfolding war on terrorism at home with growing concern since Sept. 11. They were worried when the government refused to release the identities of more than 1,000 foreigners, mostly Arab or Muslim, detained by law enforcement; disturbed when deportation trials were held in secret; upset when federal agents fanned out across the country to interview thousands of young Muslim foreigners; and troubled when U.S.-based Islamic charities were raided during Ramadan by government agents seeking evidence of terrorist ties.

But much of the Muslim criticism of Bush and his administration was muted in the period after Sept. 11. Leaders were reluctant to appear unpatriotic. At the same time, they were genuinely grateful for law enforcement's aggressive response to post-Sept. 11 hate crimes and for the explicit comments the president made about how the United States' war was targeting terrorists, not Muslims. "When the president talked about American Muslims as being part of the solution, there was a feeling that we'd be part of the healing process," says Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Hate crimes were down, media sensitivity went up, and there was solidarity throughout the country. It took leadership to make that happen."

That's all changed now, thanks to two recent, defining events. The first is "the total assault on civil liberties, targeted at Arabs and Muslims," says Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab-American Action Network.

He's referring to a series of March 20 government raids in Northern Virginia, in which 150 federal agents seized property from 14 homes, businesses and schools run by Muslim Americans. Designed to identify organizations that may have contributed to international groups that sponsor terrorist activities, the actions were part of the Treasury Department's counter-terrorism task force, Operation Green Quest. No arrests were made.

Muslims say the raids, which targeted moderate American citizens and organizations, sent shock waves through their community. "March 20th was the turning point. This is being considered Black Wednesday," says Marayati. "These are now domestic groups being targeted, American citizens, average folks who have been harassed, whose civil liberties have been violated."

The other galvanizing episode has been the Bush administration's response to the runaway violence in the Middle East, and what Muslims see as the White House's complete capitulation to the Israeli position.

"What did Bush say over the weekend? That Israel is defending itself," says Abunimah. "Bush is unwilling to deal with the basic facts of the conflict, which is Israel is not defending itself inside its borders but that tens of thousands of troops are occupying land outside Israel." For Muslims, says Abunimah, it appears "The United States has openly decided to fight with Israel in a colonial war against an occupied people."

While politically active American Muslims are used to operating at a disadvantage when trying to shape U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, some thought Bush might be more open to their concerns. As a Republican with an energy-industry background, Bush, they reasoned, might be closer to the oil lobby than the Israel lobby when weighing the region's interests.

Plus, it was Bush's father who as president in 1991 was seen as standing up to Israel when he threatened to suspend United States loan guarantees to the country. The move, following the Gulf War, was an effort by Bush to stop Israel from building additional Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories.

"That was a sense the Bush people played up: 'I'm my father's son,' and people liked that," notes James Zogby, who is head of the Arab American Institute and served as a Gore advisor during the campaign. "There was an assumption [among some Muslims] Bush would be different, but it was without understanding the demographics of the Republican Party or that it would be more hard-line. And now we're seeing that play out."

The frustration unleashed by the domestic raids and overseas violence has led some Muslims to rethink their 2000 support of Bush.

"The feeling is the endorsement went to the wrong candidate," says Marayati, who was involved in the process to support Bush. "People feel betrayed by the Bush administration."

Yvonne Haddad, professor at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, says, "People feel used. Sort of seduced and abandoned."

Adds Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations: "The Muslim community feels let down by the administration. Most Muslims stood by it after the election. We stood by the president during the crisis and we've got little in return but a broken promise."

Grover Norquist, a conservative political activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, helped shepherd the Muslims' endorsement of Bush, and he remains an active liaison between the Muslim community and the White House. Assessing the state of that political relationship, Norquist says, "I don't think it's broke for the Bush people and the Republicans, but they need to refocus and speak to the community."

Fifteen federal agents surrounded Laura Jaghlit's home on the morning of March 20. Nearly five hours later, she says, after they ransacked her home, the agents left with bags filled with her family's possessions: credit cards, ATM cards, birth certificates, bank statements, cassette music tapes, assorted books.

A schoolteacher, Jaghlit was born in Minnesota and converted to Islam 13 years ago. Her husband, Mohammad Jaghlit, also an American citizen, has been active among several local Islamic schools and organizations. She says during the sweep one agent said he hoped he didn't find Osama bin Laden inside the house.

"It was just a joke, but if my husband had said that, it wouldn't have been a joke, it would be a serious issue."

Asked about the bin Laden comment, Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs, which oversaw the raid, says he cannot "confirm that that's accurate."

He did confirm that people at two of the targeted homes were handcuffed by agents, "to ensure safety at the premises." He says one woman indicated an intent to flee, while another person was trying to destroy computer CDs.

"No one involved in this is against investigations, if there is a reason. But not this way," says Jaghlit. "There was no reason for this except to strike fear into people."

"Everybody in the community feels that if respected organizations can be targeted, none of us are safe," says Louay Safi, director of research for the International Institute of Islamic Thought in nearby Herndon, Va., which was also raided. "To us it looks like a fishing expedition."

For instance, the warrant issued on March 20 sought information regarding "Khalil Shikaki ... and any other individual or entity designated as a terrorist by the President of the United States." Shikaki's name appeared on the warrant alongside Osama bin Laden's. Yet Khalil Shikaki is a pro-peace Palestinian with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and among the region's most respected pollsters and commentators. A contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine, where he has sharply criticized the Palestinian Authority, he's also director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, and has worked closely with Jewish organizations.

"It's absolutely astonishing his name was dragged into this situation involving the raids in Virginia," says Lewis Roth, executive director of Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish organization. "The irony is the warrant was issued just as he was flying to London to participate in second-track diplomacy in an effort to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians."

"Khalil Shikaki is a brave and honest spokesman for values, politically and otherwise, that America claims to support," adds Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs. "He's a rare voice of sanity and objectivity in a very difficult environment."

Perhaps the confusion stemmed from the fact that Shikaki's estranged brother Fathi Shikaki was secretary-general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But he's been dead for seven years.

Asked about Shikaki's inclusion on the warrant, Boyd at U.S. Customs would only say that a federal magistrate judge reviewed the evidence submitted for the raid request and found probable cause for action.

Simultaneous raids on two highly respected religious institutions that day also stunned American Muslims. The first was Leesburg, Va.'s Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, the only school the U.S. military uses to train and endorse chaplains to guide the armed forces' growing Muslim population.

"The thanks they get was to be raided," notes Jaghlit.

Also targeted that day was the Fiqh Council of North America, also in Leesburg, "the highest religious body for Muslims in North America," says Safi at IIIT.

The Fiqh Council issues religious rulings "to help Muslims be good Americans while living Islamic-ly," says Safi. He notes the council made news last fall when it ruled it was the duty of all Muslims in the United States military to join the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

"Why target organizations like these?" asks Safi, who says the reaction among Muslims to the council's being raided would be the same as that among Catholics, for instance, if the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were ever targeted by agents. "It's not a shadowy organization you raid with guns."

While the evidence presented to the magistrate judge remains under seal, federal officials speaking anonymously to the New York Times and the Washington Post recently suggested the goal of the raid was to uncover possible money-laundering activity by the Muslim organizations. Specifically, agents were looking into the finances of Sulaiman Abdul Aziz al-Rajhi, one of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest and most prominent families, which financed several of the schools and charities targeted on March 20, and whether those groups then sent financial support to terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and Hamas.

Agents were also looking for ties between the Virginia sites and the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, or WISE, a University of South Florida-based think tank founded by USF professor Sami Al-Arian. One of the organizations searched, International Institute for Islamic Thought, helped finance WISE.

Although he's never been charged with any crime, federal authorities have claimed Al-Arian and his think tank enjoyed direct ties with Palestinian terrorist groups and even helped fund them. The president of USF recently announced she intended to fire the controversial professor for going on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" without making it clear that his views did not represent those of the university.

In a rare public confirmation of an ongoing inquiry, the U.S. attorney in Tampa, Mac Cauley, issued a statement last month confirming that Al-Arian remains the focus of an "active and ongoing" investigation.

Muslims involved in the Virginia raids expressed surprise at the Al-Arian connection, especially if the government's goal was to stop the flow of money from American organizations to terrorist groups; Al-Arian's think tank has been defunct for seven years.

"There's a great deal of disappointment that raids happened the way they did," says Norquist. "And I don't think the Muslim community is overreacting."

As for the Bush endorsement that some Muslims now wish they could recant, leaders suggest it was an important learning experience. "It was not a mistake to start the process," says Marayati. "Speaking to various members of the community, people still want to have a voting bloc so we need to continue to make endorsements."

Conceding some regrets, Awad at CAIR stresses the positive from the 2000 election: "We mobilized Muslims nationwide to vote in one direction and succeeded. That was a strategic achievement." And rather than turn people off, he says, the experience will lead to further participation. "There will be more Muslims voting in the next election than ever before. We have learned a lesson: To gain respect you need to be more organized. We can't afford to waste votes."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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