Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Praying as Suspicious Behavior in the Henderson 7 Case

Since 9/11, practicing Islam has been unfairly viewed as suspicious in some circles, including among many in law enforcement. On December 20, 2009, in Henderson, Nevada, a concerned caller notified police that seven Muslim men were praying in a gas-station parking lot. The men had been traveling through the area and had stopped to perform one of the five daily prayers required in their religion. Although the caller did not describe any illegal conduct, the Henderson police investigated the “incident,” detaining the seven Muslims for approximately forty minutes and searching their vehicle. No arrests were made that night, but the FBI recently questioned five of the men again. [1] Muslim advocacy groups have raised alarms about this unfair and prejudicial treatment, emphasizing that the men were doing nothing suspicious and should not have been placed under so much scrutiny for an innocuous, legal activity.

Although police claim that local policy required them to check out the scene since they received a terrorism-related tip, it is unclear why they needed so much time to investigate the men. Indeed, it is disquieting that the simple act of praying prompted suspicion, on the parts of both U.S. citizens and police. Would they respond the same way to yoga, tai chi, or other peaceful movements in a public space?

One of the seven men recorded part of the investigation on his camera phone. In the recording, a police officer says he doesn’t know what the Muslims could be praying about and ignorantly suggests that they could be chanting, “I want to kill a police officer today.” [2] Police later admitted that “they were not trained well enough to know how to appropriately respond to Muslim religious behavior.” [3]

This is not the first time practicing Islam has been deemed suspicious activity by authorities. The Henderson Seven case is similar to a May 2002 incident in Stoughton, Massachusetts, in which fire trucks, police officers, and the bomb squad converged on a BJ’s Wholesale Club after Muslim men were sighted there praying at sunset. [4] The police evacuated the entire establishment and questioned the men. Clearly, racial bias influences these kinds of 911 calls about “suspected terrorists.”

Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians are often subjected to slurs, and hate crimes on the streets and discrimination in housing, public accommodations, education, and employment. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) recommends training police about Muslim religious practices and civil rights, and disciplining officers who inappropriately target Muslims. Perhaps flagrant abuses from law authorities will serve as catalysts for ensuring better treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.

Continued unfair treatment, in contrast, is bound to result in the alienation and even disenfranchisement of Muslim American communities, just when the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and President Obama recommend that we develop relationships of mutual trust. John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, has publicly recognized that domestic counterterrorism efforts will fail if Muslims are not involved as partners. [5]
When police officers and FBI agents spend their time pursuing innocent people because of ethnic or religious bias, they waste time they could spend on developing real leads.

1. Ritter, Ken. “Muslim Group Says FBI Still On Nevada Prayer Case,” SFGate, June 21, 2010. (accessed 6 July 2010).
2. see
3. Blasky, Mike. Las Vesgas Review Journal. “Racial Profiling Alleged: Muslims Criticize Henderson Police Tactics” (accessed 6 July 2010). Mar. 06, 2010
4. “Evacuation Due to Muslim Prayers Sparks Debate,” by Ray Henry, The Boston Globe, May 16, 2002.
5. “John Brennan’s Counterterrorism Vision vs. American Muslim Reality,” by Spencer Ackerman, The Washington Independent, June 17, 2010.