Stop being suspicious of Muslim women who avoid eye contact.
That's one bit of advice Islamic leaders offered FBI agents in a meeting Thursday that served as a cultural exchange as well as a meeting of the minds. With authorities still canvassing Arab-American communities for links to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, some Muslims have taken umbrage at the way agents have treated them during interviews.
But the 45-minute meeting in Newark produced promises by both sides to work together in the massive investigation that is partly focused on Paterson. "We will tell people that if they know something, they should come forward and tell the truth," said Mohamed Younes, a vice chairman of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, one of the largest mosques in North Jersey and the most visible face of Islam in Paterson. "All we are asking for is respect."
For example, he said, women who don't meet the gaze of men aren't being evasive. They're simply practicing modesty as dictated by Islamic tradition. FBI Special Agent Sandra Carroll said such information is helpful because agents are trained to be suspicious. "Most of my training would tell me that not making eye contact is a sign of evasiveness," Carroll said. "Learning today about cultural differences and certain beliefs was helpful and will go a long way to helping us work in a cooperative way with the Muslim community."
The men believed to have hijacked four airliners in the Sept. 11 attacks are of Middle Eastern descent, leading to the current probe in Muslim communities. FBI agents say Muslims have generally been cooperative, but have not provided a wealth of tips. "It's a little bit too early to say that we are getting a lot of information, because we are just working through the differences and the unease," said Special Agent Sherri Evanina. "The process has been a little delayed."
Paterson is one focal point of the investigation because at least two of the suspected hijackers rented an apartment on Union Avenue before the attack. FBI agents are knocking on the doors of homes and businesses in the city's Muslim community, showing pictures of the suspects and asking an array of questions.
And, it was disclosed this week that as many as four other suspected hijackers may have lived or spent time in the apartment. Jimi Nouri, a local businessman who owns the building, said Monday that he recognized two suspects as his tenants. He said Thursday he has identified four others from photographs shown to him by the FBI.
But authorities said it's too early to say who or how many lived in the apartment. Carroll said some may have simply used the address for identification purposes or stayed there for a short time. "We right now don't know concretely just what are the facts here," she said. "Possibly up to six could have lived there, or may have listed it as their address, but there is also the issue of false identification cards. We're still sorting through all this."
If hijackers did live there, they apparently kept to themselves. Younes and other regulars at the Islamic center said they never saw any of the men at the mosque. The Union Avenue apartment is not located in the city's Arab section, and the men didn't seem to mix with the community.
With the FBI an almost daily presence in Paterson, some Muslims say agents have been rude and asked leading questions having nothing to do with the investigation. The mosque responded to the complaints by providing fliers spelling out constitutional rights and cautioning people about talking to authorities, a warning that annoyed the FBI.
During Thursday's meeting, attended by about 100 law enforcement officials, Muslim leaders gave a brief primer on their customs and traditions. Most of it dwelt on how agents should handle interviews conducted in Muslim homes. Agents were told that Muslim women aren't likely to answer the door if their husbands aren't home. A woman also may take a long time to answer the door if her head isn't covered. Agents should remove their shoes before entering a home.
Sohail Mohammed, a Clifton lawyer who also attended the meeting, said he's concerned that agents were overbearing in their treatment of people who weren't considered suspects. "These people are innocent, and they're terrified," Mohammed said.
After the meeting, Younes said he would tell his community during Friday prayers that they should cooperate with authorities and report any problems to community leaders.
The FBI promised it would try to help Muslims resolve minor immigration infractions if they come forward with information on the case. "Some people who have a violation think that as soon as they call us, they are going to be picked up by INS the Immigration and Naturalization Service," Evanina said. "We are going to listen and try to solve their problems."