IOWA – The Muslim community in Iowa is frustrated and angry over FBI’s sending informants into mosques to spy on worshippers, seething with a sense of betrayal that has undermined trust between American Muslims and security agencies.
“That was really surprising, very sad that somebody would come or the FBI or Homeland Security would send somebody here to pretend to be Muslim and try to find out what goes on here,” Dr. Hamed Baig, president of the Islamic Center of Des Moines, told CNN on Friday, February 3.
“I feel there is no need for that.”
In Des Moines, Iowa, a small yet diverse Muslim community is divided into four mosques from Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, among other nations.
Frustration among members of the Muslim community began after 42 year-old Arvinder Singh, who has been attending their mosques over the past seven years, was revealed to be an FBI informant.
Charged with “selling or transferring precursor substances for an unlawful purpose” in March of 2002, Singh said he was approached by FBI officers who told him, “‘You look Middle Eastern, and we need your help for the war against terror.'”
Singh, currently in Hardin County Jail in Iowa, where he’s been awaiting deportation, said the FBI came to him with a simple tradeoff: We’ll help you get your citizenship if you help us get some terrorists.
Having no information about Islam, Indian-born Singh was surprised to be approached by FBI agents.
“I was surprised. I said, ‘Me? I have no idea about this’ And they said ‘We’ll train you. You’ll get used to it. We’ll make you go and do some work for us.’”
Later on, he assumed a Muslim identity, Rafik Alvi, and went into the mosques pretending to be interested in converting.
He says sometimes the FBI gave him pictures of persons of interest and he would confirm that they were at the mosque. On a few occasions, Singh says he taped his conversations with congregants.
“They wanted me to go investigate some people in the area,” Singh told CNN in a jailhouse interview.
“See what they’re doing, who they’re meeting. Who’s their family member, who’s attending them, what they are talking about. That kind of work.”
The mosque infiltration has angered Iowa Muslim community, saying that the FBI just took a step backwards in building trust with the Muslims in his community.
“To know that somebody made an intrusive entry into the masjid for purpose other than prayer, or other than socializing or taking care of anybody who is in need makes me very much nervous and embarrassed, too, that I belong to a community where we have a member who has come for some other purpose,” Anis Rehman, executive board treasurer of the Islamic Center of Des Moines and a college professor, told CNN.
“But later when we saw that he was not actually a member but a pretender then it made me more angry,” Rehman said.
Rehman says the idea of a FBI informant in their tiny mosque is not only offensive but baffling.
“I find that to send an impostor into our community which is so small where not only we know each other but (where) the law enforcement agents can perhaps pick each one of us by name and by family, I don’t think that the incident [on] 9/11 could warrant such action in a small community like ours.”
Since 9/11, Muslims, estimated between six to seven million, have become sensitized to an erosion of their civil rights, with a prevailing belief that America was stigmatizing their faith.
FBI tactic of sending informants into mosques have deteriorated relations with the US Muslim community over the past few years.
In 2009, Muslim groups threatened to suspend all contacts with the FBI over sending informants into mosques.
US Muslims are particularly wary of the FBI’s history of targeting members of their community.
Basim Bakri, another Iowa Muslim, noted that if Singh’s claims are true, the FBI has just destroyed any chances of building trust with the Muslims in his community.
“I think the FBI owe[s] us an apology because they did violate our civil rights,” Bakri said.
“It wasn’t right at all, it wasn’t right from the beginning and they have no right to do that.”