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A NATION CHALLENGED: AMERICAN MUSLIMS; Raids, Detentions and Lists Lead Muslims to Cry Persecution

Reprinted from The New York Times
By Joseph Kahn
March 27, 2002

As the Bush administration investigates what it says may be domestic ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, some Muslim leaders say the government is persecuting them as it once did suspected supporters of Japan or the Soviet Union more than 50 years ago.

An ad hoc group of Muslim civic and religious groups have accused the administration of racial and religious harassment, citing the Justice Department’s request that 3,000 Muslims living in the United States submit to voluntary interviews, as well as a series of federal raids last week on homes, businesses and charities in Northern Virginia.

Several hundred Muslims held an open meeting on Monday night in Sterling, Va., near Washington, to listen to complaints of people whose homes or businesses were among those raided. Many said they intended to press for Congressional hearings into police tactics and to organize rallies to call attention to abuses against Muslims since Sept. 11.

Though officials have made no announcement about the raids, a copy of a sealed search warrant states that the government is seeking wide-ranging information about financial links between people in businesses in the Virginia area and numerous terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and Hamas. There were no arrests.

”As Muslims we condemned the terrorist acts of Sept. 11,” said Akmal M. Muhammad, an imam who spoke at the meeting. ”But we must also insist that the Bush administration stop practicing terrorism in reverse against us.”

Though the number of Muslims in the United States has been estimated by some to be as high as six million, Muslims tend to be more loosely organized than adherents of some other major religions and do not often speak with a unified national voice. But groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council say they are trying to change that to protest what they describe as a pattern of discrimination against Muslims since the terrorist attacks.

They have objected not only to the raids but to secretive detentions of Muslims around the country. They also criticized a Justice Department request last week that some 3,000 young men who came to the United States recently from predominantly Muslim countries agree to talk with law enforcement authorities.

The efforts to single out foreigners is reminiscent of the way the government treated Japanese-Americans during World War II, when they were put in internment camps because of fears they might sabotage American facilities or spy for Tokyo, said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, a liberal legal group that has joined a coalition of groups protesting treatment of Muslims. The government apologized decades later for the way it had treated Japanese-Americans.

”It’s not O.K. to deny people their civil rights and then later apologize and let them go,” Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard said.

An overflow crowd of Muslim-Americans gathered at the public library in Sterling, a prosperous suburb in the high-tech corridor of Northern Virginia, to discuss the raids. Some women wore hijabs and a few men had the skullcaps and black robes of Muslim religious leaders. Others looked like high school students in their T-shirts and jeans. Many said they had been born in the area or had lived there for years, but felt alienated and uncertain of their rights after people they know and respect came under suspicion.

Speakers repeatedly condemned the tactics of Customs Service agents who conducted the raids, saying that agents forced their way into homes and businesses, sometimes with guns drawn, and rifled belongings. They said people were handcuffed during the searches.

Laura Jaghlit, an English teacher whose husband works at an Islamic study center that was a target of the investigation, said she returned to her home in Sterling on Wednesday to find agents interrogating her husband and parts of her house ”in complete disarray.”

”I can’t tell you how sad I am for my country and my people,” Ms. Jaghlit said. ”As a proud American, I find it hard to take that such violations are being committed.”

A customs spokesman said today that the accusations were unfounded.

”The raids were not conducted based on religion or ethnicity,” said Dean Boyd, the spokesman. ”They were based on evidence presented to a federal magistrate who found that there was probable cause to believe that criminal activity had occurred.”

While most people cooperated with the searches, agents met resistance in two cases, Mr. Boyd said. Officers used handcuffs to prevent one person from fleeing and another from destroying evidence — both in accordance with legal procedures, he said.

Louay M. Safi, director of research at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Va., which was searched, did not complain about tactics. But he said his study center had no ties to terrorists and that he believed it was a target only because it supports Islam.

”This has undermined the effect of Bush saying that Muslims are peaceful,” Mr. Safi said. ”This is really a campaign against Islam.”