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Published: Saturday, 4/19/2008

Muslims examine national security, civil rights

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

One of the lasting repercussions of the 9/11 terror attacks is the continual tension between national security and civil liberties. Many American Muslims feel caught in the middle of these two objectives, and a local group is hoping to find a suitable balance by discussing the issue in a seminar next weekend at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo.

Three speakers will participate in the program, titled "American Muslims: Between Civil Liberty and National Security," on April 26 at the Perrysburg Township mosque.

Jeffrey Gamso, a Toledo attorney and legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, will focus on the way civil liberties are affected in times of terror.

"Right after 9/11, the government took this wish list of stuff they had wanted and slapped it all together in the form of the Patriot Act," Mr. Gamso said. "We're scared and the government pumped it up to do things it already wanted to do."

He said the Bush administration's position is: "You have to give us these powers, or acknowledge that we have them anyway, and we're going to use these extraordinary powers to protect you. But we can't give you the details because if we gave you the details we'd have to kill you."

He said the nation's ability to balance these concerns swings over time like a pendulum, from one extreme to the other.

"This is a particularly bad time but it's certainly not the worst," Mr. Gamso said. "In World War I, people who said, 'I think the war is a bad thing' went to prison for 10 years."

Arsalan Iftikhar, a contributing editor of Islamica magazine and former legal director for the Council for American-Islamic Relations, will discuss "Muslims in a Post 9/11 America."

"9/11, that's the day I became a man," Mr. Iftikhar, 30, said. "When you've had to go toe to toe with [TV host] Bill O'Reilly a dozen times before the age of 30, and try to defend Muslims and Islam, and your holy book is being likened to Mein Kampf, that's the reason I've got a few gray hairs already."

He was a second-year law student in St. Louis when Muslim extremists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mr. Iftikhar quickly became a sought-after speaker defending Islam on national news programs and talk shows.

He said that 9/11, the furor that erupted in 2006 over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, and the latest controversy over Dutchman Geert Wilders' anti-Islam movie Fitna have forced him to repeatedly come to the defense of his religion.

"It's an absurd existence when your life revolves around Danish cartoons and Dutch filmmakers," said Mr. Iftikhar, a native of Chicago who lives in Washington.

"We really do live in a global community, and as the world continues to shrink, things that happen in Bali and Madrid have a direct impact on our life, the way our ideals are cherished and protected.

"Now, nearly seven years after 9/11, we've been able to process things in society and see that our global community is sort of at a crossroads. We can walk toward mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence, or take the Sam Huntington route and prepare for a clash of civilizations."

The third speaker at the Islamic Center will be James Yee, a former U.S. Army chaplain who was arrested in 2003 and charged with espionage and sedition after serving as a chaplain at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The charges were ultimately dismissed, and Mr. Yee said the government targeted him because he was a Muslim who spoke up for the rights of detainees.

"What happened to me was that people feared Muslims in Guantanamo. Not only Muslim prisoners who were categorized as the worst of the worst, or hard-core terrorists, but American Muslims serving there patriotically," Mr. Yee said.

He said there were 660 Muslim detainees from 40 countries when he was at the base, and most of the American translators working for the government were Muslims.

"They feared us as a community, and when we got together for Friday prayer services or meetings, people thought of us as some sort of sleeper cell. They called us horrible names, like Hamas or Muslim extremists, because we chose to get together and have potluck dinners and enjoy a vast array of ethnic foods rather than go down to the clubs and bars," he said.

Mr. Yee was arrested after arriving in Jacksonville, Fla., when Customs officials said he was carrying classified information from Guantanamo.

"I never had any lists of interrogators, I never had any maps of the base. In my view, I never had anything that was classified," Mr. Yee said. "If I did, I would have been held accountable. That's the reason why the case was eventually dropped, after months of incarceration and investigation."

He spent 76 days in solitary confinement and said he was threatened with the death penalty. He also said his wife and daughter were harassed and traumatized by the ordeal.

The saddest thing about the way Muslims are treated by the government, according to Mr. Yee, is that American Muslims have much to offer for national security.

"One of my main goals is to show that the American Muslim community has, in my mind, the greatest potential to contribute to national security than any other group. If there is a problem with extremism due to radical Muslims, it's going to be our community that roots them out and identifies them first and foremost," he said. "If we as a community are not trusted by people in government and law enforcement, if we are seen more as suspects than as partners, you lose a major tool."

"American Muslims: Between Civil Liberty and National Security," will be from 5:30 to 9 p.m. on April 26 at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, 25877 Scheider Rd., Perrysburg Township, with a seminar and dinner. Admission is free but donations will be accepted. Those interested in attending are asked to call the mosque at 419-874-3500.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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