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ST. LOUIS (RNS) Adil Imdad, 41, moved to the United States as a teenager from his native Pakistan in 1981. Five years later, he became an American citizen, and in 1995, he moved to this city to pursue a master’s degree in environmental engineering at Washington University.
Imdad’s story embodies the reason the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri is launching the Muslim Rights Project. The program, which ACLU officials say may be its first nationwide, will provide volunteer attorneys for Muslims questioned by law enforcement officers.
Imdad is a devout Muslim. He wears a long beard, in honor of Islam’s prophets. His forehead is occasionally bruised from bowing to the floor in frequent prayer. He travels to Pakistan to see his family there, and to Saudi Arabia for the Muslim pilgrimage known as hajj. He’s a leader at the Bilal mosque on St. Louis University’s campus.
In 2002, Imdad says, agents from the FBI interviewed him for the first time at his job at TSi Engineering in St. Louis. Since then, he has submitted to more than 20 FBI interviews, he said, some by phone and some in person.
When Imdad was first approached by agents eight years ago, his motivation in talking to them was simple cooperation.
“I know the FBI is not my enemy,” Imdad said. “I have two daughters who I want to keep safe. The FBI is trying to do that, so I wanted to help. I wanted to help my country.”
But, Imdad said, over time, FBI agents became more aggressive in their questioning. During various interviews with FBI agents, he was locked in a room, repeatedly yelled at, asked what he was hiding and accused of lying, Imdad said.
Assistant Special Agent in Charge Maxwell Marker, of the FBI’s St.
Louis division, said he could not talk about its relationship with specific Muslims in the area. But, he said, “the Muslim community, for us, is the same as any other community in the St. Louis area.”
“For us to know what’s going on, what issues are affecting them, what crime problems might exist, we have to talk to people,” Marker continued. “That’s how we get information so we can have a positive impact in the community.”
Since Sept. 12, 2001, Muslim Americans have been under the watchful eye of U.S. law enforcement — most notably, the FBI, whose focus shifted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks from tracking domestic criminals to preventing terrorist attacks.
About two-thirds of the estimated 2.5 million Muslim Americans were born abroad, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center, and they travel frequently to their native countries. Such comings and goings have given FBI agents plenty of fodder for inquiry.
In that same survey, 53 percent said it was more difficult to be a Muslim since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Most also believed the U.S. government “singles out” Muslims for increased surveillance and monitoring.
“Talking to people in the Muslim community, you get the sense that this is a group under siege,” said Brenda Jones, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
Critics of the FBI say its approach with Muslims in the United States has been manipulative. They say agents take advantage of immigrants who don’t know they are not obliged to speak with the FBI, or that they should have a lawyer present if they do agree to an interview.
On a recent Friday afternoon at Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq mosque in St.
Louis, about 50 men, mostly of Afghan origin, gathered for prayer. After the men prayed, about half stayed to hear two ACLU members discuss the Muslim Rights Project.
Through an interpreter speaking Farsi, Jim Hacking, a St. Louis attorney and convert to Islam, told the men that the ACLU “is concerned that Muslims — both citizens and noncitizens — have had their rights violated by law enforcement officials.”
“We, as Muslims, have an obligation to report any wrongdoing we’re aware of,” Hacking continued. “But what we’re concerned about is when people like you go into an interview with the FBI or police without knowing your rights.”
Marker said there’s a reason for every interview the FBI asks for.
“We don’t have the resources to interview people just for the purpose of harassing them,” he said. “If we’re repeating interviews, there’s a purpose behind it.”
All but two members of the ACLU’s Muslim Rights Task Force are Muslim. They are professors, imams, doctors, attorneys and engineers. A recent event raised $20,000 toward hiring a part-time ACLU staffer to work solely on the Muslim Rights Project. Jones said the organization will also expedite calls to its office coming from Muslims in the area as part of the project.
In April, the ACLU will train eight to 10 volunteer attorneys who will be on call for the program.
After the ACLU presentation at Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq, several men said that while they’ve never been approached by the FBI, they were reassured to know about the ACLU program.
“I’m grateful to know lawyers are there in case,” said Rahmatullah Hassan, 31, of St. Louis.
(Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.)
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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