SAN FRANCISCO -- Bay Area Muslims caught between a national concern that they cooperate with the government to root out terrorists and their own concerns about privacy and loss of freedom will hear from the nation's top law enforcer Friday evening.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will talk at an annual dinner banquet hosted by Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco-based organization that has fought the Department of Justice on some issues and praised it for others.
The visit marks the first time any U.S. attorney general has addressed an event hosted by a national Muslim group, and it could not come at a more important time because of anti-Muslim sentiment, said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates.
It is also a time in which anti-terrorist FBI agents routinely show up uninvited at cultural events hosted by one Bay Area Arab-American organization. The agents listen to speakers, interview participants and ask to meet with members outside business hours, the group's leader told a legal advocacy group.
Another advocacy group fielded more than three dozen calls this year from Bay Area Muslims worried after the FBI visited their homes, workplaces or community gatherings.
The Obama administration believes building a network of informants is an effective way to protect the nation from harm. Muslim leaders counter that the surveillance intimidates their communities and impairs their rights to freedom of speech, religion and
"This has been a year, for American Muslims, of living dangerously," Khera said, citing acts of hate against mosques and Muslim people throughout the country.
Khera said she believes the Obama administration has done a good job combating bigotry against Muslims. The Department of Justice has increased its prosecution of violence motivated by anti-Muslim hate and this fall sided with a Tennessee Muslim group that wants to rebuild a mosque that had previously burned down. A local group had sued to stop the mosque's construction.
At the same time, Khera said, many Muslim groups want more assurances that the federal government is not unduly peering into their mosques, homes and Facebook pages.
"Our concern is that, in some of these cases, at least, the FBI has given a directive to its agents that they can basically go in and monitor Americans without any evidence of wrongdoing, just to kind of sniff around," Khera said. "That can have a real chilling effect."
Her organization sued this year for more information about domestic intelligence-gathering guidelines that were put in writing at the tail end of the Bush administration and are still used by FBI agents.
Holder has praised the federal government's methods to root out homegrown terrorism after two recent sting operations captured bombing suspects before they could do any harm. On Wednesday, after a months-long investigation, FBI agents arrested a Muslim convert in Baltimore who they say planned to bomb a military recruitment center. Comments the man had made on Facebook triggered his friend to contact law enforcement. An undercover agent met the man and pretended to help him arrange the crime. In Oregon, in another sting operation, a Muslim teen was arrested last month, accused of plotting with an undercover agent to detonate a bomb at a crowded holiday celebration.
In apparent retaliation, unknown assailants set fire to the Oregon suspect's mosque days later, leading the FBI to investigate.
Zahra Billoo is pleased with the way the Obama administration has responded to anti-mosque attacks.
"They've been great in terms of condemning Islamophobia and combating anti-Muslim bigotry," said Billoo, director of the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Unfortunately, that's where I think a lot of the good work ends."
Billoo, who plans to attend the Holder event Friday, said the FBI could have arrested the Baltimore and Oregon suspects much earlier, rather than enabling them to commit the crimes and thereby inflaming anti-Muslim sentiment after the high-profile arrests.
"When these individuals were put in touch with the FBI, they were aspirational terrorists. What the FBI came and did was enable them to become actual terrorists, and then came and saved the day," Billoo said. "The community is saying, we want to work with you. We're sending you these tips. But instead, what you're doing is creating these huge terror plots where they don't exist."
In the Bay Area, Muslim groups concede that many of the FBI visits are designed to be casual and friendly, but the efforts by law enforcement to build community bonds can sometimes end up sowing distrust.
"People always ask me, 'If I don't talk to them, will that make me look suspicious?' There's sort of an inherent coercion," Billoo said. "They're in a position of authority."
While Friday's talk at a Millbrae hotel will be the first before a national Muslim group, the Department of Justice says that Holder and his deputies are frequently in touch with Muslim and Arab-American groups and their leaders. Holder has previously addressed the national American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which includes many Arab Christians. He also met last year with a group of Muslim-American youths at their Los Angeles mosque.