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Marci Hamilton

So Who Is the Enemy, Exactly? A Portland Plot Should Remind Us of Crucial Questions We Need to Ask and Answer


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mohamed Osman Mohamud, by all accounts, was a good student and a nice kid -- that is, until he concocted a grandiose plot to set off a bomb at a crowded tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. The good news here is that the FBI was alerted regarding his plan soon enough to create a sting operation, and to avoid the mayhem that the execution of Mohamud's plan would have entailed.

The morning after Mohamud's arrest, someone appears to have intentionally set a fire at the mosque he attended. Both criminal acts are felonies, and both the terrorist and the vigilante deserve to go to jail. Together, if possible.

In this column, I'll address the question of what we can learn from these events.

Some Lessons from the Portland Plot

First, we must realize that the enemy is not easily identified when he or she is on our own turf. Mohamud was Somali-born, but he had been here since he was only five years old, so his neighbors and school friends considered him a quiet but typical American teenager. Before him, there was American-born, blonde-haired Jihad Jane. And since 9/11, it has been common knowledge in the prison-administration community that radical Islamicists have been seeking to convert fellow prisoners whose western appearance will assist them in carrying out terrorist plots.

Second, we must face the fact that there is a dearth of knowledge among most Americans regarding what is being taught and discussed in American mosques. The vigilante who set the fire at the Portland mosque apparently assumed that Mohamud was encouraged to pursue his jihadist inclinations at that particular mosque. Is that justified? More reporting will be necessary before we can know for sure about this specific house of worship.

More generally, the Wall Street Journal and other publications have reported that many of the post-9/11 American mosques have been financed by Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi faction of Islam, which is the most extreme of Islamic sects. Meanwhile, others have made a persistent case for the proposition that there is no such thing as "moderate" Islam. On that theory, all Islamicists are fundamentalists, and therefore potentially a threat to American society.

Can that be correct? True, we are seeing more American women wearing headscarves, hijabs, and even burqas. But one must stop to consider those like Muneer Awad, who has challenged the Oklahoma constitutional amendment that would ban the use of Shari'a law (and international law) in the state's courts. Awad's decision to avail himself of the court system provides support for the powerful argument that American Muslims can indeed be moderates, even when they say they follow their religion's doctrine. (I discussed Awad's challenge in a recent column here on FindLaw.) A devout person such as Awad can want to be buried, upon his death, with his head pointing toward Mecca, yet still be a highly patriotic American.

But the crucial question that is created by the co-existence of the Wall Street Journal's reporting on these issues and Awad's lawsuit is this: Which element of the Islamic world has more adherents? It would be nice to know.

More Information Is Needed on Jihadism Within America's Borders

Thus, these latest events make one pause. In the United States, we have this dreamlike appreciation for religion. For so many, religion is always good; it inherently must be good. Or, at least, we yearn for it to be good. That is an attitude that could end our civilization, though, if we apply it to the jihadists.

The Constitution tells the government not to target any religion or sect. Its principles have fostered an extraordinary variety of religious believers, and a high level of tolerance. Unlike in so many countries, religious wars have not been the hallmarks of American history. In fact, it is taboo, here in America, to treat a religion as the enemy. But that assumes no religion would ever be our enemy. It turns out that view is false.

In accord with these principles, I wrote this column, years ago, saying that President Bush should ignore the religious character of the 9/11 terrorists, and focus on their conduct. That is the correct constitutional analysis, but, as a matter of stark reality, it is impossible to avoid the religious character of this particular enemy. Pretending the terrorists are not religiously-motivated would be like fighting Hitler while holding Nazism at arm's length. No brilliant war strategist would or should tie his or her hands in this way. We must understand and dissect their religious beliefs to fight them. There is no other way.

One of those beliefs is that the state and religion must be a unity. That belief cannot be respected, or we lose all.

This war is being fomented by certain extremist Muslim clergy who preach radical, anti-western beliefs and doctrines, and circulate extremist texts. They are fervent proselytizers. If the government does not focus on them, in particular, then we will be the lesser society for it. This focus ought not to encompass peaceable Muslims like Awad, but we need a highly-developed vision to see those religious believers who are joining together to destroy us. It seems like the intelligence agencies, the military, and the FBI may well be honing that capacity. They did stop Mohamud, Jihad Jane, and the bomb on the Fed Ex airplane that was headed toward synagogues in Chicago.

Ultimately, however, it is not going to be enough for these insiders to understand the threat. American citizens need better and fuller education regarding jihadist beliefs, and the actual threat within our borders. We have been told to report anything suspicious to the authorities. One heroic person did just that in Mohamud's case, and that is how the FBI was able to stop the planned attack. But I still feel that we have not been adequately educated to understand the actual prevalence and nature of jihadist beliefs and teachings within United States borders. Have you ever spoken with someone who has actual information about these issues? I have, and they had fear in their eyes. Far more fear than we, as ordinary Americans, yet comprehend.

To state it bluntly, to date, the Bush and Obama Administrations have failed to give us the information we need to get behind what has been their war so far. We desperately need an FDR or a Churchill.

Finally, we have learned one crucial lesson at just the right time. As the holiday season continues, the jihadists want to exploit our holiday celebrations and gatherings to their own ends. They hate Americans, Christians, and Jews. The holidays are an insult and an annoying impediment to their perfect universe.

Many, if not most, Americans use the holidays as a refuge from the harsher elements of life--and the ongoing recession makes refuge even more tempting. The holidays are traditionally a time to sink into decorations, shopping, and baking, and to push to the side our more difficult challenges. But that is the mindset the jihadists want and need. Thus, this Portland teen, and his thankfully failed attack, have reminded us of the current reality, and the need even now -- especially now -- to be vigilant.

Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Her email is .

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