By Nick Braune
Four Rio Grande Valley FBI agents attended a “community night” at the al-Ridwan mosque in Edinburg, Texas on Saturday. It was advertised as, and was, a friendly get-together to begin a process of dialogue. A beautiful meal was served after the event, with the FBI agents getting a special welcoming.
The main speaker from the mosque was Amin Ibraham from the mosque’s board who stressed in his speech that the Islamic community in the Valley is a grouping of primarily professional people including members who are doctors, professors — Ibraham himself is a professor — and business men and women. Because they have a stake in making the world and America safe, they are not sympathetic to terrorists. Their faith condemns injustice and mistreatment of others, and Islamic youth are taught to value education and to respect people of other faiths.
The mosque is new — there are three other mosques in the Valley too — and is gorgeous with some beautiful Arabesque designs on the wall and beautiful rugs. I think is fair to say that it is a fairly prosperous group, not wealthy perhaps but successful on the whole.
There are in the Muslim community here in the Valley people from 30 different nations, including from SE Asia, Africa and Latin America. The story run in The Monitor advertising the event said that “the Islamic leaders will make it clear to the FBI that their community is an educated, law-abiding people. Showing that the community has nothing to hide will strengthen trust on both sides.”
There was grand friendliness at the event, the FBI being at its PR best, insisting that they are humans as much as anyone in the room and that they “do the same things in the morning getting ready to go to work that anyone in this room does.” (After Agent Johnson said that, he jokingly rethought it and said that maybe the agents do not pray as much in the morning as the Muslims.)
Because there was so much formality and praise being offered, differences were left unexplored for the most part. From a progressive activist eye (mine), the meeting was somewhat disappointing, even reactionary, when the FBI and the Islamic leaders seemed to agree that Muslims should be more “proactive in reporting suspicious activity” to the agency.
Despite the friendliness, there were a few controversies (criticisms of the FBI) that broke through the surface.
In McAllen’s The Monitor article advertising the event, Ibraham said that it is not unusual “for a Valley Muslim to get a call from the FBI after crossing the border from Mexico back to Texas.” (Valley people know how shocking this is. Because travel back and forth over the border is so common for Valley residents, this complaint about the FBI phoning Muslims who have crossed the border clearly suggests improper profiling. I personally have been over the border twice this month to have dental work done, and the FBI never called me after I crossed or any of my close aquaintainces.)
One of the questions from the audience expressed annoyance at the harassment of Muslim charitable organizations giving relief money to needy people overseas. The FBI agent was so clueless in his response that he did not even mention that the government has been roundly criticized in court for mislabeling charitable groups as terrorist. Instead Agent Garza made a practical suggestion to the members of the masjid: when you want to send money to help people, be sure they check on the groups which are raising money. He seemed to think he was speaking to a young and inexperienced audience on this matter.
One issue was raised about FBI agents’ insensitivity to Moslem women during questioning. There was no more explanation of the issue given, and the Agent Johnson did not probe for any. He said that they try to speak to everyone with sensitivity; and he hopes that if an agent is acting improperly, that his new friends at the mosque would let him, Agent Johnson, know about it. To his credit, Johnson admitted that some of the agents are “slow learners” on cultural matters.
One question asked why there is such a torturously long wait for background checks from the FBI. Important paperwork can be held up by the “not yet cleared by the FBI” line. The agent said he was prepared for that question and realized that there is an “incredible backlog” and that routine “clearance” matters have become more complicated since 9/11.
The FBI expects things to go better, now that they are getting outside contractors to do so much of the clearances. They are also going though the process of scanning into computers all paper documentation, so agents will not have to be wasting time turning pages. But if there is anyone who has been held up in here for an excruciating time, maybe ten years or something, Johnson said, they should come up to him afterward and maybe he could get it pushed through quicker. (He was eager to make friends.)
Another interesting question was asked: How are wiretap targets selected? The agent explained that there were many restrictions on wiretapping and that they have to go before a judge to show grounds for any wiretapping. And we can’t just say that we want permission to wiretap someone because they are Muslim, he said. There has to be a good reason. One member of the audience argued and asked him about the Military Commissions Act sneaking around the backs of judges, but the question was not really noticed.
Among the few interesting facts presented by the FBI was that the 2006 crime numbers are now in, and figures show that hate crimes against Muslims were up 22% that year from the previous. Garza said that stopping hate crimes is the “number one priority of the FBI.” (That was good, although earlier he had said that fighting terrorism was the top priority.) Agent Johnson wants to protect the civil rights of everyone, but the FBI has to be watchful of certain groups, “like white supremacist groups on the right and anarchist groups on the left.”
Agent Garza explained to the group that if it ever seems to members of the mosque that they are being asked a lot of questions by agents, it should not be taken wrong. Sad but true: If someone doesn’t like you, they could call and report you as terrorist, he said. The FBI, in that case, has to follow up on the tip. Agents would usually go to you in that circumstance, he said, and ask some questions. The agents would probably find that there was nothing to that tip, that the tip just came from some angry, unhinged person. He told those in the audience to not assume that if the FBI asks someone a question that this makes someone a suspect.
“If we thought we had something on you, we would arrest you.” So don’t worry when we ask you a question, Agent Johnson said. We need to ask some of you questions because the people in this room are the people who know the community. And we don’t know it, he explained.
Once again it was a very friendly meeting and the food was great and everyone attending was greeted in a warm and welcoming way. But it could have been a perfect evening for me if the issues had been discussed better. The Monitor reporter apparently felt that way too. He had this little dig: “The mood in the room alternated between serious questions and mutual flattery between Johnson and the worshippers.”
I also hope that the community around the new mosque can share stories with the many Mexican-American immigrants who are also experiencing trouble from the government. There is more “safety in numbers” than safety with the FBI, I’m sure.