Visions of a new national security paradigm

A blank map of the United States with the borders outlined

[Screenshot of map of U.S. from Open Street Maps]

by Melissa Hellmann, Center for Public Integrity
October 20, 2023

More than 20 years after 9/11, Muslim Americans continue to face discrimination at U.S. airports, at banks and in the security-clearance process, says the Muslim Public Affairs Council

These actions fuel anti-Muslim animus throughout the U.S. and abroad, warns the council’s president and co-founder, Salam Al-Marayati. Created in 1988, the nonprofit works to improve public policy that affects Muslim Americans.   

Case in point: More than 98% of the names on a leaked 2019 FBI domestic terrorism watchlist were Muslim, according to a 2023 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights organization. The list has been sent to agencies throughout the federal government, local police departments, airlines, private companies and foreign governments, the report says.

In Al-Marayati’s eyes, the watchlist serves as evidence of outdated national security priorities that don’t reflect the pressing and growing danger of white supremacists.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report in February showed that the FBI’s count of domestic terrorism cases grew by 357% between fiscal years 2013 and 2021. More than three-quarters of racially or ethnically motivated violent incidents, the most common type of domestic terrorism and the one representing the most deaths, were committed by people who identified as white supremacists, according to Department of Homeland Security data analyzed by GAO, the investigative arm of Congress. 

Asked about that, a State Department spokesperson said in an email that countering racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism “is a top priority for the United States” and that the agency coordinates across the federal government and with international partners to address the global threat.

“As stated by President Biden, white supremacy is the single most dangerous terrorist threat in our homeland,” the spokesperson added. 

Al-Marayati said he sees security double standards at play in U.S. foreign policy. In September, the federal government admitted Israel as a participating nation in the Visa Waiver Program, which will allow Israeli citizens to travel to the U.S. without a visa for tourism or business for 90 days or less beginning on Nov. 30. The decision came amid outcries from Arab and Muslim Americans that Israeli officials at the country’s borders discriminated against them. 

Qalandiya, an Israeli military checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem, in February 2020. (Melissa Hellmann / Center for Public Integrity)

U.S. citizens who are denied entry or experience discrimination when traveling to or in Israel may report the incident through the U.S. Embassy Jerusalem Incident Reporting Form, the State Department said. The agency said the U.S. and Israeli governments have worked “to successfully resolve specific complaints received via the online form and will continue to do so.” 

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to requests for comment. 

Salam Al-Marayati, president and co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. (Photo courtesy of the Muslim Public Affairs Council)

The Center for Public Integrity spoke with Al-Marayati about the council’s views on anti-Muslim animus in national security policy, the leadup to the U.S. presidential election and a new security model that prioritizes engaging with Muslims instead of targeting them.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What were some key findings in your research on double standards around national security priorities?

The main finding was this public website for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where the terrorist groups are primarily Muslim. There’s no neo-Nazi groups. 

And most national security officials will tell you that [white supremacy groups] are now the major concerns of agents. But the fact they only single out Muslims on this terrorist list gives you a different picture that the United States is only concerned about Muslim terrorism, and not concerned about any other form of terrorists. And the same thing for Hindu militants attacking Muslims in the [Indian] subcontinent and other groups. 

Number two, what we see is, every group that wants to win favor of the United States is using their counterterrorism playbook. They will say, “Well, we have to do what we do with the Muslims because they are terrorists.” This is exactly what China has stated against Uyghurs in China. This is what India has said about Muslims in that region and about Pakistan: They call it the terrorist state. And the same thing in Israel: They consider Palestinians to be part of a terrorist state and Arab countries do the same thing to their own dissident groups. 

So the counter-terrorism playbook that was authored by the United States and that they have had since 9/11 is being exploited by every country, and by the United States itself when it decides to go to war in Afghanistan. Twenty years there, and in the end, it only gave back rule to the Taliban. So the content of the playbook is unfortunately a big part of U.S. policy that foreign countries leverage to win favor of the United States and to justify their atrocities. 

A finding that I think is important is that there’s no way out of fighting terrorism through the military. And even the military has said that. They know that the only way to eradicate terrorism is by partnering with the people of the region. 

And so we are offering a new model that is not replacing our national security policy, but augmenting it to include human security, which is the security of the people, not just security of the state, which was defined by [Franklin D. Roosevelt] as the four freedoms: freedom of worship, freedom of expression, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These four freedoms are important to consider when moving away from the current national security paradigm where we’re singling out Muslims and actually partnering with Muslim people throughout the region to effectively mitigate – if not eliminate – the threat of terror from the Middle East. 

Q: Will you share more details about the new model?

It’s not a model, it’s a concept. This is where we need to be meeting with U.S. officials to get their attention on this, because at this point, it is fairly status quo. This is [what led to] what happened over the weekend with the violence with Hamas. The Palestinians are basically irrelevant. In other words, the United States will go to Saudi Arabia, they’ll go to Gulf countries to broker a deal with them and Israel at the expense of any Palestinian representation. 

We’re not going to solve the Palestinian problem with this current national security paradigm, because Palestinians — in this case — and Muslims in general are irrelevant to the United States. The United States is more interested in geopolitical interests. In other words, how Israel and Saudi Arabia can be economic collaborators in the region, or how India can be leveraged for its economy. So we Muslim people are irrelevant at this point in the national security paradigm.

Q: You touched on this toward the end of your response — what do you think is at the heart of this outdated national security double standard?

We’re in a time warp from post-World War I politics, where the British and the French carved out the region and decided to dismantle a religious symbol of Muslim [faith] called the caliphate. We’re not calling for the return of the caliphate, but that dismantlement in and of itself created severe consequences that we’re living in to this day. And it created the image that the West is at war with Islam. 

So the United States inherited whatever was left by the British and the French after World War II and conducted coups like the one in Iran, where they ousted a democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was pro-America at the time. But they decided to go instead with a shah, which led to a dictatorship until the 1979 revolution. Anti-American sentiments spiked as a result of these politics, and that’s what we’re seeing today. The current national security policies are actually exacerbating anti-American sentiment in the region, which, in and of itself, is a contributing concern for any counterterrorism policy. 

The United States is fighting yesterday’s war, which is a major strategic blunder, and they need to be fighting the current war, which is fighting the extremists by not allowing them to dictate the terms on behalf of people in the region, but to deal with the people separately. Therefore, human security is important in order to engage the populations that are going to [help] counter any form of violent extremism in the region.

Q: What policies did the Muslim Public Affairs Council want to see from the Biden administration that may have fallen short?

You see a lack of representation of Muslims in the highest level of policymaking in the United States government. There are no Muslim high-level officials in the National Security Council or in the State Department who act in an executive level of policymaking. We have a number of important Muslim leaders in the State Department, but not at the higher policymaking level. 

Another issue is that the United States is protracting the war on terror, which has not worked. It only works when we partner with the people in the region. For example, ISIS was defeated by the United States and by Iraqis who sacrificed their lives. If you go to Iraq, you will see pictures of all the Iraqis who fought ISIS. The United States does not acknowledge or thank the Iraqi people for their partnership in fighting ISIS. The same thing happened to all of the Afghans who sacrificed their lives defeating the Soviet Union back in the ’80s. There aren’t any official expressions of gratitude to the people. 

The major flaw is that the people of the region are irrelevant to any decision-making process. We have to stop securitizing Muslims as either being a security asset or as a security liability. We have to start treating people in the Muslim world as partners in the United States and involving them in the decisions that affect their lives in that region first and foremost. It should not only be Washington that dictates the terms on how people live their lives there.  

Q: In the year leading up to the presidential election, what do you think is important for politicians to keep in mind? 

When the two parties prepare and produce their political party platforms, a big segment should be about our national security. It should not be a repetition of the status quo national security policy. 

I’d like to see both parties engage our community on how national security affects the Muslim world and how national security affects anti-Muslim animus in the United States. For example, when the United States government has a watch list comprising mainly of Muslims, when the United States’ policies [lead to] continued harassment of Muslims at airports and their delayed security clearances, banking discrimination against Muslims and denied civic participation to Muslims. 

There’s a story of a New Jersey Muslim mayor who was invited to the White House for the end of Ramadan celebration, and when he got to the White House he was denied entry because he was on a former watch list. That is the epitome of the kind of anti-Muslim animus that happens in our country. And then we wonder why the rest of the public thinks that the Muslims are a suspect community. That is exactly what happened to the Japanese Americans during the internment camps. 

All of these measures are done in the name of national security. And then when the government says they’re doing it for the sake of security, they expect the courts to back off because the courts do give license to the executive branch on national security matters. But these policies are not serving U.S. interests in any way. We would like to have a discussion about that with both political parties as we approach the next presidential election.

Muslim people want to partner with the United States and American Muslims want to pursue American international interests, but only those that align with American values of human rights, freedom and justice. 

Q: Would you please share your thoughts on the U.S.’s decision to admit Israel into the U.S. visa waiver program, particularly in light of the conflict that erupted?

Even before the conflict, there were so many cases of people from our community who had family in the West Bank and Gaza who were denied entry, harassed or even physically abused at the border. We brought those claims to the State Department, and the State Department ignored our views altogether, which reinforces this notion that our views are irrelevant to the U.S. decision-making process.

Ma’ale Adumim, the Jewish West Bank settlement, in February 2020. (Melissa Hellmann / Center for Public Integrity)

Geopolitics dictates that the United States sacrifices so much to have a one-sided policy of unwavering support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights. And therefore they completely ignored the concerns from our community about abuses we [experienced] when we traveled to the region. So we felt that this visa waiver program was done by a national security apparatus that only looks at geopolitics. Israel was able to get the visa waiver program [to come to the U.S.] without demonstrating any kind of equal access. 

But now, for Americans of Muslim or Arab background, there’s no guarantee of our security when we travel to the region. 

This article first appeared on Center for Public Integrity and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.