WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 (UPI) — America continues to search for new ways to better protect the U.S. homeland from the threat of terrorist attacks.
One effective way would be to get the help of more Americans with the language skills, cultural and religious knowledge, and contacts to identify and stop would-be terrorists before they strike.
The people who could provide this help to combat terrorism are America's Muslims. Six million Muslims now live in the United States, and growing numbers are becoming citizens. Some are already working in American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as the military.
Today's Muslim Americans are often thought of as part of the problem of terrorism rather than solution — a fifth column working against America. Certainly, a few Muslim Americans sympathize with Osama bin Laden's call for liberating Muslim lands and small numbers have provided financial support and joined the jihadist ranks. But the vast majority of Muslim Americans have no sympathy for or involvement with terrorists, any more than the majority of Italian Americans are in the Mafia, or the majority of Japanese Americans were agents of the Japanese Empire in World War II.
In fact, Muslim Americans are climbing the ladder of professional success, with higher rates of college education and higher average incomes than other Americans. Most are proud to be Americans and want to serve their country.
In addition, many Muslim Americans closely identify with the American spirit and the American ideals of liberty and equality. They vote. They are involved in their communities. They contribute to local charities. Some are serving in elected office and more are running. They embrace a moderate Islam that can flourish in the United States and stand as an alternative to religious extremism that paints America as the Great Satan. And they believe they do not have to abandon their religious faith to become good citizens in a nation where the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion.
Rather than thinking of America's 1,500 mosques as incubators of terrorism, American law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to think of mosques as important sources of new recruits to help fight the war on terrorism. The imams who lead these mosques and their congregations can serve as the eyes and ears of America to spot the small number of people among their ranks who in fact might be involved with terrorism and report them to authorities. And imams can work to smooth friction and improve relations between their congregations and the rest of America, so that violent jihad becomes less appealing to Muslim Americans.
Good intelligence can't be based solely on electronic devices and satellites. Intelligence is about understanding one's adversary — and who better to help do that than Muslim Americans? Many are native speakers of Arabic, Farsi or Urdu — or learned these languages growing up in America from their immigrant parents.
American police departments learned decades ago that hiring African American officers would help them do a better job patrolling black neighborhoods, reducing racial tensions between police and the community, and making them aware of problems over the horizon. Bringing more Muslim Americans onto police forces could do the same today with their community. They can encourage members of the Muslim community to cooperate with local police and be better informed of suspected criminals or terrorists.
In addition to serving intelligence and law enforcement agencies, Muslim Americans also can be valuable to the military and other parts of the U.S. government in fighting terrorism and protecting America. They can work to help improve U.S. relations with police, military and intelligence agencies from Muslim nations that are crucial allies in the war on terrorism. They can enable U.S. military forces in Muslim nations to better understand foreign cultures, traditions, and peoples. By understanding other cultures, U.S. military forces are in a much better position to influence operations and engender long-term partnerships.
Today, the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II is recognized as a terrible mistake. In addition to being a grave injustice that deprived Japanese Americans of their liberty and their other constitutional rights, the action deprived America of the services of a group uniquely qualified to help win the war against Japan. The United States can avoid repeating that mistake by utilizing the services of patriotic Muslim Americans to help win the global war of the 21st century.
© 2006 United Press International
Farhana Ali is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on October 10, 2006.