Iyad Hindi of Raleigh has lived in the United States for 17 years, since emigrating from Kuwait after the first Gulf War. Trained as an engineer, he works in Research Triangle Park for one of the big technology companies. He's active in the Raleigh chapter of the Muslim American Society (MAS), where he's head of "outreach"—which runs the gamut from interfaith talks to kids' camps.
But Hindi has a problem. Almost five years after he passed the test to become a U. S. citizen, he's still waiting to be "cleared" by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"Both my parents are citizens. My two brothers, my sister, two aunts—all of them live in Raleigh—they're all citizens. My wife and our three children are citizens. I'm the only one left dangling," Hindi says in frustration.
Hindi's case isn't unique, however. In fact, it's apparently common for Islamic émigrés from the Middle East and South Asia to be viewed with suspicion by Homeland Security. Many experience unexplained delays on applications for citizenship or permanent residency status, especially if—like Hindi—they're involved in community activities. Or at least, that's the fear. "It's all over the Muslim community," Hindi says.
Mahdi Bray, executive director of MAS Freedom Foundation, the national organization's civil liberties arm, agrees. "We're treated as if we're disloyal," he says.
No question, Homeland Security must gather intelligence, Bray adds. "We're not naïve." But instead of "coming through the front door" to get it, DHS has a reputation for back-door methods and for using spies, Bray says.
At a meeting in Raleigh Monday, Bray turned to Homeland Security official George Selim, a policy advisor in the department's Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, and told him bluntly: "You have a serious image problem in the Muslim community."
Held at the small MAS center off Jones Franklin Road, the meeting put Selim together with a dozen or so representatives of area Muslim groups while a cohort of FBI, SBI, N.C. Highway Patrol and other law enforcement officials led by Brian Beaty, N.C. Secretary of Crime Control & Public Safety, listened intently.
The purpose was two-fold, says Khalilah Sabra, director of the Raleigh MAS-Freedom office. One was to open a channel to Homeland Security officials and make them aware of the community's grievances. The second was to get folks in the Muslim community to speak out, something many are too fearful to do. An estimated 18,000 Triangle residents are Muslims, Sabra says, but they are a very silent minority, afraid of a backlash if they're too vocal. "But if we don't use our voice, then we have lost the battle."
Sabra is a native American who converted to Islam 25 years ago while in high school. Born in Guam (her father was in the U.S. Navy), she grew up in Southern California with a feeling "for how special America is" that gets rekindled, she says, whenever she travels out of the country. It's special, she goes on, because diversity, free speech and freedom of religion are so central to us as a nation. It's natural for Americans to say what's on our minds.
But it's different for Middle Eastern émigrés, Sabra says. Many are professionals who hold green cards or work visas—they're legal residents, in other words, who intend to stay in the United States and raise families (while perhaps helping relatives back home too), but fear their status may be upset if they show up on the radar screens of U.S. authorities.
So, for example, they don't say what they think about the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza. A Houston-based foundation that did, and raised money for Palestinian causes, was shut down and its leaders prosecuted under anti-terrorism statutes by the Justice Department in a case that ended recently in a mistrial. MAS has raised $1 million for the defense in that case, Sabra says.
The absence of expressed concern for such causes as the plight of Palestinian refugees is a major reason why the Middle East is turning against us, Sabra warns, and why a criminal like Osama bin Laden has any following.
Meanwhile, Muslim Americans suffer daily indignities of "profiling" at airports, in stores and in every aspect of their lives, Sabra told Selim. When she flew to Israel from New York, the flight was held while she and the plane were searched. "I was treated like, even though I was on American soil, I literally had no rights." Another man said he was pulled aside and searched on every single one of the 20 business flights he made last year. "What are the chances of that happening?" he asked sarcastically. He declined to give his name.
"I hear you. I hear you," Selim said finally. "And this is not the first time I've heard this."
Homeland Security's problems are "systemic," Selim acknowledged, resulting in delays, wasted resources and anger in many communities. He encouraged people with grievances to contact his office.
On the flip side, Sabra says it would help if Muslims themselves stopped putting up with the abuses and the view that they are somehow to be feared. "We need to start putting our experience into a positive political frame," she says.