Muslim cops put faith, lives on the line

March 10, 2011

(RNS) When Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca asked Sgt. Muawiya
"Mike" Abdeen to set up a liaison unit to local Muslims in 2008, the
idea was to build bridges to a community that is often fearful of, or
unknown to, law enforcement.

It was tough going at first, said Abdeen, a 23-year veteran of the
Sheriff's Department.

"When we used to drive up to a mosque or a Muslim school, people
would get scared, they walked away, they closed the doors," said Abdeen,

But the officers kept returning, helping with parking during Friday
prayers, giving talks to Muslim youths about safe driving, and meeting
with local and national Muslim groups.

Now, Abdeen said, deputies are welcomed with hugs and tea.

"I always tell other officers, `If you expect the community to talk
to you, you have to talk to them, too," said Abdeen, who was born in
Jerusalem and came to the U.S. at age 20. "Terrorism is just a small
part of it. The community wants to see that the local police department
is genuinely interested in helping them solve the daily quality-of-life

As hearings on Capitol Hill raise the specter of "extremist" Muslims
who don't cooperate in terror investigations, the thin blue line of
Muslim cops and deputies offer a glimpse of American Muslims who put
their lives -- and sometimes their faith -- on the line in the interests
of security.

Baca said he has no doubts about Muslims' loyalty to America after
deputy traineee Mohamed Ahmed was shot and nearly killed by an alleged
gang member earlier this year.

"I've worked with Muslim deputies, and I know that Muslim deputies
are as courageous as any other deputies," said Baca, who had recruited
the Somali-born Ahmed as part of his effort to improve relations between
law enforcement and local Muslims.

It's not just Muslims who need to overcome fear and suspicion:
Muslim officers often have to brief their comrades on Islamic beliefs
and etiquette, which is why Abdeen recently worked with the Muslim
Public Affairs Council to develop a 15-minute training video.

In February, Capt. Paul Fields of the Tulsa, Okla., Police
Department was disciplined for refusing to attend a "Law Enforcement
Appreciation Day" at a local mosque. He quickly filed suit, alleging a
violation of his religious rights because he said visiting a mosque to
make nice with Muslims is not a police duty.

The greater challenge, however, is forging positive relationships
with local Muslims who are wary of undercover FBI agents inside their
mosques, or dragnet prosecutions in the wake of 9/11.

House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., who will
convene the hearings on homegrown extremism, has charged that "the
leadership of the (Muslim) community is not geared to cooperation."

Baca, who is scheduled to testify at King's hearings, disputes those
charges, saying Muslims have several times led officials to extremist
individuals. When there is a lack of cooperation, it doesn't necessarily
imply terrorist sympathies.

"It's not that they don't want to cooperate, but because they either
don't know that we are there for them, or often because they're scared
to reach out to us," said Imam Khalid Latif, a chaplain for the New York
City Police Department, which has a few hundred Muslim officers and

Many Muslims are immigrants who come from countries where police are
corrupt and brutal, and whose fears are amplified by what some perceive
to be an anti-Muslim atmosphere in the United States.

Not that long ago, the idea of a Muslim seeking a career in law
enforcement was "something you did not do," said Mubarek Abdul-Jabbar,
vice president of the New York City Policeman's Benevolent Association

"They were seen as the enemy and doing that was bordering on

When Abdul-Jabbar joined the department 28 years ago, finding a
partner was hard. "A lot of guys didn't want to ride with me because
they said you can't trust a man who didn't drink and smoke," said
Abdul-Jabbar, 55, whose son is also a member of the NYPD.

Often times, in their quest for acceptance, some Muslim officers
will engage in what Abdul-Jabbar calls non-Islamic behavior, like
drinking alcohol or swearing.

"You spend a quarter of your life with these guys, so you want to
fit in," he said. "These are the guys that are going to back you up. You
have to have their support, you don't want anyone thinking, `Oh he's not
a good guy.'"