The Defense Department's Muslim Counterterrorists

In the fight over the mosque near ground zero, people forget there are thousands of Muslim Americans who protect the U.S. from terrorism, writes Department of Defense analyst Salmah Y. Rizvi.

08.30.10 11:29 PM ET

In the neverending “ground zero mosque” debate, many people have been asking one question: Where are the moderate Muslims who denounce terrorism?

To that I answer: They are everywhere. I am one. Countless Muslim-American organizations from mosques to community centers also have denounced terrorism. Most noteworthy is the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which has published a video on YouTube highlighting American imams who reject terrorist ideology.

The Park51 project indirectly combats terrorism by debunking terrorist rhetoric that proclaims the U.S is incompatible with Islam and will show that Islam can flourish in its most beautiful forms, openly and freely in the U.S.

But I’d like to give you a better answer: Muslim Americans not only are denouncing terrorism—as denouncement often can be the simple manifestation of political rhetoric and empty words—but also are fighting terrorism.

The fight against terrorism is deeply personal for Muslim Americans who seek to quell extremist operations that unfairly kill innocent human beings and disproportionally promulgate a distorted picture of Islam.

As for the terrorists you despise—al Qaeda, the Taliban, etc.—who do you think understands their language and culture better in the U.S. than Muslim Americans? The Muslim diaspora in America is best equipped to aid and abet the U.S. government in its counterterrorism missions.

Muslim Americans are not monolithic, speaking many languages and representing many cultures. The linguists who exploit high-priority extremist communications and enable our nation to identify potential threats are often Muslim Americans.

But Muslim Americans don’t just translate for the United States, they die for it. Here are a few examples of true Muslim-American heroes who have given their lives to protect our nation and help curb the terrorist threat:

Capt. Humayun Khan was killed after a terrorist vehicle packed with explosives drove into the gate of his compound while he was inspecting soldiers on guard duty.

• After serving the military for more than 18 years, Major James “Jimmy” Ahearn died in July 2007 in a roadside bombing in Iraq, leaving behind his wife and young daughter.

• Another well-known American hero is the recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Kareem Khan, who was “ spurred by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center [and] wanted to show that not all Muslims were fanatics and that many, like him, were willing to lay their lives down for their country.”

Upset by the Islamophobic treatment of Muslims in America, former Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Kareem’s ultimate sacrifice and asked, “ Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country? No, that’s not America.”

On Aug. 17, the Pentagon held its 13th annual iftaar and honored the families of the aforementioned Muslim-American heroes. (An iftaar is a dinner ceremony held at sunset to commemorate the end of a Muslim’s day of fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan.) On Aug. 20, the National Security Agency also held its 2nd annual iftaar. During these iftaars, hundreds of Muslim Americans broke bread with non-Muslims and prayed together in two of the United States’ most secure locations. Their prayers are no different from the prayers that will be held at the Park51 Community Center, commonly referred to as the ground zero mosque.     

Both of these iftaar ceremonies highlighted themes of unity and tolerance. The NSA’s iftaar was called “Serving Proudly, Our Diversity Is Our Strength.” If the U.S. government, using tax-funded resources, can host, honor, and respect Muslim Americans for their service to our country, I think it is time for the American public to appreciate the motivations of the Cordoba Initiative’s Park51 Community Center, as well.

Why? Because the Park51 project indirectly combats terrorism by debunking terrorist rhetoric that proclaims the U.S is incompatible with Islam. The Park51 project will show that Islam can flourish in its most beautiful forms, openly and freely in the U.S. 

As a result, in different ways, Muslim Americans from all parts of the United States are fighting terrorism. Thousands of Muslim-American intelligence analysts, linguists, Navy, Army, Marine, and Air Force officials are handling classified information and conducting critical operations for our country. They have dedicated their lives to fighting terrorism.

Without the language, cultural, and analytical skill sets of such Muslim Americans, U.S. counterterrorism operations would not be nearly as robust as they are today. Muslim Americans are valuable, if largely unrecognized, assets to a variegated American fabric. During the  mosque debate, I hope they can be appreciated, not demonized, for their outstanding efforts to make the United States a safer place for all. 

Salmah Y. Rizvi is an alumna of Georgetown’s Graduate School of Foreign Service and an analyst for the Department of Defense.

The preceding comments are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or its Components.

(This opinion editorial has been declassified for public dissemination and approved for release by the National Security Agency’s Declassification Services and the National Security Agency’s Office of the General Counsel.)