Portland Is the Most Livable City in America — Except if You’re Muslim
Muslims in Oregon’s largest city have faced suspicion, entrapment, and targeting. Now here comes Trump and Cruz.
PORTLAND, Oregon — Guilt by association. It’s the centerpiece of both Donald Trump’s and Ted Cruz’s policies toward Islam. And it’s something Muslims in this bastion of Pacific Northwest liberalism know a lot about. They have been struggling against innuendo, stereotyping, and mistrust since 9/11.
“We have people living in our country that want to do great harm to our country,” Trump told CBS News after the Brussels attacks. Asked whether Americans should profile their neighbors, he replied, “Everybody should watch out.”
Portland’s Muslims feel like that has been the U.S. government’s approach to them for the past 15 years.
Just ask Brandon Mayfield. A Portland lawyer and military veteran who converted to Islam when he married his Egyptian-American wife, Mayfield was accused of being involved in the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed at least 191 and injured as many as 2,000.
The evidence seemed pretty damning: A fingerprint on an unexploded bomb in Spain that was a “100 percent match” to Mayfield, according to the FBI. Except that it wasn’t. The Spanish, who never thought the fingerprint belonged to Mayfield, eventually arrested an Algerian national who was a match.
“Being Muslim was the circumstantial evidence of my guilt,” Mayfield, who was eventually freed and paid $2 million in compensation, told me when we met at a coffee shop in a strip mall outside Portland. He’s not alone. The city has been a hot spot for the prosecution of Muslims by federal law enforcement.
There is nothing about Portland that would seem to single it out for such attention. There are plenty of larger Muslim communities in America. It’s not poverty-ridden or crime-plagued. It hasn’t seen a flood of new arrivals from abroad.
But talk to Portland’s Muslims, or the lawyers who have defended them, about why they seem to have been targeted, and the most common answer is the FBI. The city of Portland pulled its police force out of the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) after the Mayfield imbroglio. When a divided city council in 2015 voted to resume cooperation with the JTTF, Portland’s mayor, who cast the deciding vote, said it was one of the toughest decisions he ever made.
In the array of prosecutions and investigations in Portland since 9/11, even when the accused were found guilty, the cases have been surrounded by complaints of alleged entrapment, use of undercover informants, and a game of six degrees of separation from Osama bin Laden.
“This is a tax fraud case that was transformed into a trial on terrorism,” the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in ordering a new trial in the case of an Iranian-American who ran an Oregon-based Muslim charity. “The appeal illustrates the fine line between the government’s use of relevant evidence to document motive for a cover up and its use of inflammatory, unrelated evidence about [Osama bin Laden] and terrorist activity that prejudices the jury.”
In the Mayfield case, an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that Mayfield’s religion and circle of contacts in the Muslim community “likely contributed to the examiners’ failure to sufficiently reconsider” the fingerprint identification after questions were raised.
Those cases, and others that people here believe involved unfair targeting of Muslims, took place under George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Now there’s Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
A climate of suspicion
“We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” Cruz said in response to the Brussels attacks.
Such a directive strikes a particular chord in Portland.
“The Muslim community here understands what he is proposing because we have been under surveillance for many years,” says Kayse Jama, the Somalia-born executive director of Portland’s Center for Intercultural Organizing. “Pitting neighbor against neighbor and ordering law enforcement to focus on Muslims and not others is dangerous and against American values.”
Sarah Eltantawi, a professor of comparative religion at the Evergreen State College in neighboring Washington, agrees. “It’s plainly unconstitutional, boorish, base, and counter-productive,” playing into the narrative “[the Islamic State] and their fellow travelers want to advance,” she says.
The obvious question Muslims in Portland and across the country are asking: Does Cruz want to “secure” Muslims from something — or “secure” them in somewhere?
“It’s a recipe for a police state to have neighborhoods patrolled based on religion,” Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told me. “What constitutes a Muslim community? Is it a Muslim couple? Ten Muslims? One hundred? Is it going to be, ‘show us your papers’? Checkpoints? Midnight raids? It is reminiscent of the Stasi in East Germany, not the American government in 2016.”
Anyone who has watched protestors get beaten up at Trump rallies knows the power of words among zealots — including, sometimes, those who wear a badge.
“Fear fomented at the top trickles down and drives so many of the actions of the individuals on the ground,” says Steven Wax, who headed the federal public defender’s office in Portland for 31 years and defended Mayfield and others accused of terrorism, including several Guantánamo detainees. “If you’re a true believer, you ignore facts because you believe so strongly in your mission and start to believe in your own infallibility.”
A recent YouGov poll found that 74 percent of Republicans support Cruz’s proposal for patrols and 51 percent of all Americans endorse Trump’s ban on Muslim entry into the United States (except, of course, for Trump’s rich Muslim friends).
Many immigrants in Portland’s Muslim community have seen what happens when true believers are inflamed by the magniloquence of a charismatic leader; none more so than the city’s 500 Bosnian Muslim families, refugees of the Serbian pogrom against them in the 1990s.
“Everything started with hate speech, with inflammatory rhetoric. And then genocide,” Imam Abdullah Polovina, a refugee of the war, told me, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Not just one city, all over.”
The FBI’s use of undercover operatives in several Portland cases has created a climate of suspicion among the city’s roughly 50,000 Muslims — a mix of ethnicities including Pakistanis, Arabs, Turks, African-Americans, and Caucasians.
“The first time I met with the FBI, I told them, FBI equals fear in the Muslim community. Police department and the sheriff equals compassion, trust,” says Salma Ahmad, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Portland.
That aspect of the Portland experience has played out in Muslim communities across the country. A 2014 study from Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on a pattern of FBI “sting” operations: In some cases, the FBI “may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting operations that facilitated or invented the target’s willingness to act.” A 2012 report by the NYU School of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice warned that federal agents “rely on the abusive use of informants,” exaggerating the threat of homegrown terrorism.
“The U.S. government should stop treating American Muslims as terrorists-in-waiting,” Andrea Prasow, one of the authors of the HRW report, said in a statement on the findings.
A now-discredited 2007 report by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) on the “homegrown” threat from “Islamic-based terrorism” warned that while American Muslims “are more resistant” to the extremist jihadi ideology, “the powerful gravitational pull of individuals’ religious roots and identity sometimes supersedes the assimilating nature of American society.”
In other words, no matter how much they may look like you and me, they can’t be trusted. “They’re protecting each other,” Trump said in mid-March, accusing American and British Muslims of failing to report radicals, while Cruz has criticized the NYPD for dropping a mosque surveillance program that the program’s chief testified never produced a single prosecution.
A community on edge
The dichotomy between local Portland officials who built bridges and federal authorities perceived as antagonistic is one reason that despite a deep-seated suspicion about Trump, Cruz, and their ilk, Portland’s Muslims still cling — almost desperately — to a conviction that the America they love will not abandon them.
“Deep down in our hearts as Muslims, we believe that this noise from Trump is no more than a McCarthyism 2.0 going on, and in my humble opinion, this too shall pass, like any other storm,” says Mohammad Saeed Rahman, the Pakistani-born head of a financial advisory firm who recently registered as a Democrat after a lifetime as a Republican .
Khalid Khan, a professor at the University of Portland, shares that sentiment. “Every society has its Taliban,” he says of Trump and like-minded extremists. “But we have confidence the American people are smart enough not to elect him.”
Last month, the city council in Beaverton, a Portland suburb that is home to Nike, passed a resolution to “declare support for the Muslim community and reaffirm Beaverton as a welcoming city” for immigrants. Portland passed a similar resolution in December after Trump’s call for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States. “Presidential candidates have the right to say dumb things, and we have the right to censor them for it,” Commissioner Nick Fish said at the time.
For Salma Ahmad, the resolutions only confirmed her belief in the country that has been her home for 50 years. “I treasure in my heart the Constitution, because it is my protection,” says the Philippine-born Ahmad, who was a guest at Obama’s State of the Union address in January and has served as a liaison between the FBI and Portland’s Muslims.
But many in the community remain on edge. “You have a good number of people who cannot deal with the pressure, and they just isolate themselves,” says Imam Polovina.
60 percent of American Muslims say they have suffered religious discrimination in the past year, according to the ISPU poll. Oregonians have not been spared.
In early March, a Buddhist monk was assaulted and called a “fucking Muslim” in the northern Oregon town of Hood River. In February, an elderly Afghan man was beaten to death in his home in a Portland suburb, and while police said it did not appear to be a hate crime, many here are still suspicious.
And Portland Muslims say rude comments — particularly to women wearing hijab — are all too common. When Dana Ghazi, the president of the student’s association at Portland State University, ran for office on an anti-racist, anti-homophobic platform, she “received emails and tweets that aimed at attacking my identity as a Middle Eastern Muslim immigrant rather than discussing my politics.”
Meanwhile, there is continued suspicion that the community is still infiltrated by informers.
“The mosque is supposed to be a place where we can relax and embrace each other, but people don’t want to embrace someone and then find out he is an informant,” says Ahmad. Imam Polovina agrees: “Some of our people don’t even trust me, because in Bosnia, the government made some imams into spies.”
Mayfield was subject to surveillance, including eavesdropping devices in his home, for almost a year. The affidavit for his arrest made much of the fact that he was Muslim: He had done the legal work to arrange custody for the son of a local Muslim convicted of terrorism; he ran ads for his immigration and family law practice in a local Muslim community newspaper; he was seen driving past his mosque “several times a day.” And so it went.
But Mayfield’s case is just one among many that have rocked the Portland Muslim community. One of the most sensational was the conviction of the so-called “Portland Seven,” a group of men who set out to join the anti-American jihad in Afghanistan. Only one made it and was killed there; the rest were arrested on a tip from an FBI informant when they returned home. Other high-profile cases involved Mohamed Osman Mohamud, given a 30-year sentence for attempting to set off an explosive device at the city’s Christmas tree lighting, and Reaz Khan, convicted of sending money to someone who became a suicide bomber in Pakistan.
Some in the Portland community say even the convictions are the result of entrapment. In Mohamud’s case, the FBI’s own internal emails said their agents’ assessment was that the then-19-year-old Somali-American was not capable of planning and executing the bombing on his own. The “bomb” he used was a fake supplied by the FBI. His case is on appeal. And then there are those against whom the evidence was circumstantial at best. Pirouz Sedaghaty (who uses the name Pete Seda), the publisher of that local Muslim community newspaper cited in Mayfield’s affidavit, is a case in point. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison for tax fraud in a trial that centered on claims he funneled money to terrorists through his Ashland, Oregon-based charity. After a media frenzy, the verdict was overturned when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a simple tax fraud case had been transformed into a terrorism trial.
Meanwhile, Eritrean-born Yonas Fikre claims he was interrogated and tortured in Dubai for 106 days after refusing an FBI request to return to serve as an informant in Portland’s biggest mosque, Masjed As-Saber.
Rahman says it was “the stupidity” of the Portland Seven that put the city’s Muslim community “on the map” for federal law enforcement agencies. “They paid the price, but they took the rest of the community with them,” he says. Others believe it was a “crusade” by overzealous members of the FBI’s JTTF.
Either way, the drama — or trauma — isn’t over.
Six degrees of bin Laden
The ongoing case of the Masjed As-Saber imam appears — on the surface at least — to be the latest example of trial by innuendo.
“Portland imam had ties to Osama bin Laden, 4 terrorist groups years ago, government alleges,” read a headline in the Oregonian last summer. The story reported that the government had initiated proceedings to have the cleric’s citizenship stripped.
A big piece of the U.S. Department of Justice complaint — a civil immigration suit, not a criminal indictment — focuses on the fact that Sheikh Mohamed Kariye “helped to train others to fight jihad against Soviet military forces” in Afghanistan and was “in charge of checking in jihadist fighters” when they arrived in Pakistan. In the process, he “dealt directly” with bin Laden and his Palestinian mentor, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam. But the government’s lawyers downplayed one inconvenient detail: He did it in the mid-1980s, when both bin Laden and the U.S. government were supporting the anti-Soviet mujahideen militias.
As the Oregonian pointed out, the complaint also doesn’t say that “bin Laden established al-Qaida in 1989 … years after Kariye parted ways with the mujahideen.”
Other supposedly damning evidence against Kariye: A person the FBI alleges was a “prominent member” of al-Shabab, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, witnessed his marriage in Somalia. But the wedding was 16 years before al-Shabab was formed. And in the 1990s, Kariye was alleged to be associated with two charities that were only later designated terrorist organizations by the United States. The list goes on.
The government has been after Kariye, a conservative Salafi cleric, for a long time. In 2002, he was arrested at the Portland International Airport, as the Oregonian reported, when traces of explosives were allegedly detected on his suitcases. He spent five weeks in jail before the government decided that there was no residue.
In 2010, Kariye learned he was on the “no-fly” list. He joined others on the list in suing the government, demanding reasons for the listing and the opportunity to appeal. They won an initial victory in 2014 when the U.S. District Court in Oregon ruled that the no-fly list is unconstitutional. In the wake of that ruling, the government filed its suit to “de-naturalize” Kariye. Despite all the innuendo about terrorism, the case boils down to an allegation he lied on his immigration form.
But to anyone buying into the current election-year rhetoric, the circumstantial evidence is compelling: Kariye is a Somali-born Muslim. The Portland Seven came from his mosque. So did two others convicted on terrorism-related charges. He fought in Afghanistan. He knows people who know people who are bad guys. Surely, he must be guilty of something.
After all, as Donald Trump told CNN, “Islam hates us,” and “it’s very hard to separate” the militants from other Muslims “because you don’t know who’s who.” Especially when you’re dealing with, as Ted Cruz said of Europe, “a toxic mix of migrants who have been infiltrated by terrorists.”
Muslims in Portland, as elsewhere, are listening closely. As we talked American politics and Bosnian history in his modest office, Imam Polovina paused and looked thoughtful for a moment, as if picturing the killing fields of Srebrenica.
“To be honest, my friend, Trump speaks his mind. We have a clear message from him and those like him,” he told me. “So now we need another clear message: Watch out for what might happen. Talk. Speak your mind. But be aware there may be consequences.”
Photo credit: RICARDO DEARATANHA/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Correction: The murder of the elderly Afghan man in a Portland suburb occurred in February, not March. And, due to a transcription error, the quote from Ibrahim Hooper, incorrectly placed the Stasi in Hitler’s Germany, not East Germany.