Islam and the Department of Justice

Okay, I do want to post something about Libya, but I’m going to hold off until next week on the (perhaps ridiculous) hope that we might know a bit more about what’s going on on the ground by then.

And, as it happens, there has been some interesting news regarding the War of Terror (TM!) this week, which seems to have gotten a bit lost under the news of Ghaddafi’s death.  Firstly, the Eta, the Socialist Basque movement which has been instigating violence in Spain for much of the last century, has officially disarmed (although not disbanded), thus marking the end of recognized terrorism in Europe.  Admittedly, this doesn’t mean there is no violence in Europe, or even no violence based on ethnic or religious ideologies – there are loads of groups that just never made it onto any terrorism list anywhere – but it’s still pretty cool to see the Eta open up to negotiations.

Secondly, President Obama has confirmed his campaign promise to bring home all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.  Whatever your opinion of the war in Iraq, the fact that this will be the last year American service men and women who have been stationed there will spend away from their families is, at least in my opinion, pretty cool.

Finally, and the actual point of this post, at a Department of Justice conference on post-9/11 discrimination, Deputy Attorney General James Cole spoke to the Department’s renewed interest in maintaining positive relations with American Muslim and Sikh communities.  This probably comes at least partly as a response to leaked FBI training documents that were uncovered in the summer which suggest some fairly strong undercurrents of Islamophobia and good, old-fashioned racism in FBI terrorism training, a point addressed in an op-ed by Salam al-Marayati, the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

As far as I can tell, most of the coverage this speech has gotten has been on conservative blogs, which are painting Cole’s comments as a whitewashing of FBI and DofJ training documents, striking through the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ wherever they appear.  I’ve now read Cole’s speech several times, and I can see no such suggestion – the closest he comes is to say that he has “directed all components of the Department of Justice to re-evaluate their training efforts in a range of areas, from community outreach to national security, to make sure they reflect that sensitivity [and respect to all faiths].”  If that’s whitewashing, it’s a pretty vague whitewashing – he doesn’t even actually say they’re changing any of the documentation, just that all components of the DofJ should ‘re-evaluate’ their methods, presumably meaning if they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, they won’t change anything.

I think what I find the most alarming about the speech is the underlying implication of just how far-reaching Islamophobia still is in America – affecting not just American Muslims, but, at least according to Mr Cole, Arabs, South Asians and Sikhs as well.  Firstly, there’s a weird overlap between these categories anyway – Arab and South Asian are, predominately, racial designations (although there is certainly a case to be made that they can be cultural ones, as well), whereas Muslim and Sikh are religious ones.  Not all Muslims are Arab or South Asian, nor are all South Asian either Muslim or Sikh (aside from the tremendously large Hindi population, there are also several denominations of Buddhist and of Christian in South Asia).  Thus, that Mr Cole felt the need to specify these four overlapping groups – Muslim, Sikh, Arab and South Asian – I expect means that these four groups have experienced particularly severe discrimination in the last ten years.  That’s a pretty sad statement for a country that is far from free from the bonds of racism for any number of lasting historical reasons.

Furthermore, at least in my reading of his speech, Mr Cole has still only started to scratch the surface of the real problem faced by the DofJ, the one pointed out in al-Marayati’s op-ed, that there is still a horrible burden of misinformation when it comes to Islamic history and Muslim belief.  On the one hand, it’s not wholly inaccurate to say that Islam aims to “transform a country’s culture into 7th century Arabian ways,” but by the same right, you could also say that Christianity aims to transform a community into 1st century Palestinian ways or Judaism into 5th century BCE Palestinian ways – those are when their holy texts and laws date from, but, with the exception of some very small communities like the Amish and Mennonites, it’s very rare for believers to understand the transformation that those holy texts offer not to be primarily a spiritual and intellectual one.  Muslims may want to live like the early community of Muhammad (peace be upon him) when it comes to how they pray or even how they prepare food; most don’t want to live the exact same lifestyle as a 7th century believer.

What I do find the encouraging about Mr Cole’s speech, however, is that it demonstrates an awareness, if not necessarily a solid decision, by the DofJ that it may simply not be terribly useful to designate groups as Islamic terrorist, as opposed to any other kind of terrorist.  The amount of useful information that can be mined from the fact that these groups understand themselves as part of an Islamic tradition is incredibly limited, mostly because their doctrines are so, so far removed from anything that could be considered common practice in Islam.  We’re obviously still really far from losing the terrible grip that these groups have on the American mind when it comes to the nature of Islam, but as someone who works in this field, it’s comforting to hear someone in the DofJ talk as though doing so might be worthwhile.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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