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A Contrived Controversy: Know Your Rights Presentations Hurt the American Muslim Community?


Currently, in Chattanooga Tennessee, many people in the Muslim community are going to be interviewed by FBI. In this or any environment, what should they do?

If the FBI wanted to talk to you, either unexpectedly or in connection with some sort of investigation, and you ask a lawyer what to do, this will likely be the easiest question he or she will ever answer: Give the FBI agent your lawyer’s number. Do not say a word beyond this.

This is not controversial at all, at least not for non-Muslims. One of the most distinguished lawyers in American history, Robert H. Jackson, while a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in wrote in Watts vs. Indiana , “any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to the police under any circumstances.”

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If you don’t think you are a “suspect”- remember it is the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not the Federal Bureau of Social Visits. Even if you feel you are sufficiently articulate or well-trained in the law, or told you are not the subject of an investigation an interview with the law enforcement can still be damaging. It has happened before. A Law Enforcement agent will claim a “suspect” made a statement the individual denied ever making. The Jury will usually believe law enforcement.

If anyone in law enforcement were to be interviewed, the advice would be identical. In fact, police unions put a provision for this in their contracts.

Strangely, this standard advice has become somewhat controversial. In my own local community, some leaders have suggested organizations that advocate talking to a lawyer first, which is typical advice given in “know your rights” presentations offered by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), are simply engaging in fear mongering. Furthermore, they are damaging relationships with law enforcement by turning them into something that is needlessly “adversarial.”

The “know your rights” presentation has been a staple of community-based civic education for decades. Group such as the ACLU) and inside the Muslim community, CAIR, are known to provide education to students, immigrants, unions and various sorts of organizations, including law enforcement organizations, on the first, fourth, fifth and sixth amendments of the U.S. Constitution as well as on State and local laws.   The presentation would typically include some basic information on what to do when questioned by law enforcement, the rights of protesters (when appropriate) or other information necessary for people who wish to become engaged, active and less fearful citizens.

Why would anybody claim “know your rights” presentations are damaging? The most prominent place this type of sentiment is reduced to writing is from the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and their “Safe Spaces Initiative.”   While it has been problematic for a variety of reasons, some of which have been previously addressed, it provides advice to Muslim leaders and communities on educational programing it finds troublesome.   It does this by citing a well-known Muslim lawyer.

“Rabia Chaudry, a board member of the Maryland Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and an expert in training law enforcement on Islamic religious practices, noted many communities’ need to move away from being interested in only receiving “Know Your Rights” trainings. Based on her extensive experience of engaging both communities and law enforcement, she said she felt that an adversarial relationship between both sides harms everyone, especially communities.”

I asked Chaudry about this, since the statement (where she is not directly quoted) made no sense. First of all, the notion that Muslim communities are “only” interested in “know your rights training” seems preposterous, perhaps less than artful phrasing. Muslim community leaders cover other subjects all the time. Secondly, the implications that such trainings, designed to develop civic and constitutional literacy among Americans create an adversarial relationship that is harmful to communities is such a remarkable pro-ignorance claim that I had trouble believing Chaudry would ever make it.

As it happens, Chaudry did not make either claim. She told me over email that she was “slightly misrepresented” in Safe Spaces. She is certainly pro-engagement with law enforcement, but her advice concerning individual interactions with law enforcement interviews does not depart meaningfully from what any competent licensed attorney would say. Indeed, her presentations to Muslim groups includes what should be a non-controversial stance that Muslims should know their rights. She does, however, advocate engagement with law enforcement that is both “smart and safe.”

Another claim made in Safe Spaces is that case law lends support to the notion that an adversarial relationship, which is created when citizens learn about their own rights, is damaging because of US Supreme Court Case law. This novel claim came from a law enforcement trainer:

If a law enforcement agency has an adversarial and mistrusting relationship with their local community, any tips (especially anonymous ones) they receive from it may be treated with extra caution and hesitation because they won’t be certain of its reliability and ability to withstand scrutiny in court.

There are two different parts to this claim, which, interestingly enough, was provided anonymously but adopted by MPAC.   The first is “any tips” received from a source that law enforcement does not have a good relationship with is now suspect because the source of this tip has been educated about his or her rights under the Constitution. This is completely baseless. There is no Supreme Court case law anywhere that could support such a notion.

You can certainly be educated about your rights and provide a reliable tip to law enforcement. Law enforcement will not ignore it merely for that reason and courts will not exclude evidence that came from you.

The second parenthetical claim is true as far as it goes, an anonymous tip will be regarded as less valid in search and seizure cases. The reason for this has nothing to do with a citizen’s relationship with law enforcement and whether or not citizens have been educated about their rights. The cases cited by MPAC, Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56 (1980) and Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990) involve questionable police practices based on “anonymous tips.” An anonymous tip is not the same as a tip from somebody who has an adversarial relationship with law enforcement. It actually may be quite the opposite. The anonymous tip may be an illegal search or illegal surveillance re-branded by the police to make bad conduct more palatable to courts. Courts know this, and require additional police work beyond an anonymous tip for a search for illegal weapons or contraband to withstand scrutiny. If their police work does not withstand scrutiny, Evidence may not be used against the defendant in court. This kind of rule exists to not reward the police for bad behavior. It does not exist to keep citizens ignorant.

Plainly, the notion that it is damaging for citizens to be educated about their constitutional rights because that creates an “adversarial relationship” with law enforcement that weakens their ability to provide tips is nonsense.

Unfortunately, whenever there is a call for vigilance in the community when the FBI wants to interview people, some Muslim leaders who should know better will claim this and other “know your rights” advice fosters an adversarial relationship or that we have nothing to hide. Don’t buy it. If you are questioned by law enforcement, follow the advice of Justice Jackson and every other competent lawyer in the country. Know your rights. Be safe. Be smart. Get a lawyer.

Ahmed Shaikh is an Estate Planning Attorney in Orange County, California. He is also on the Board of the ACLU of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @bornshaikh

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  1. Peter Hall

    July 28, 2015 at 11:20 PM

    Such a very sad situation for ANYBODY to need a lawyer if the Police or anybody else wants to interview you. No Police force or law enforcement body if perfect, but has it really come to this that no one in the USA can trust the Police or Law enforcement enough to co-operate without fear?

    As an Australian, I know are Police are not perfect either, but my first reaction if I got a call from the Police asking me to assist would be, how can I and when?

    The sad fact is in the USA many minorities, through imagined, perceived and or very real fears, not able to trust co operating with the authorities without fear of personal consequences.

    The result of this is, that the very co-operation the Law enforcement agencies rely upon, is no longer forthcoming due to the way they deal with members of the public.

    As I said this is very sad for everybody.

  2. Three Letter Agency

    July 29, 2015 at 12:36 AM

    I’ll take my chances with MPAC over CAIR any day of the week.

    • T-man

      July 29, 2015 at 1:11 AM

      That’s the weirdest and most unexpected comment on an article like this lol. What a douche. The article is telling you to know your rights, that MPAC has misquoted Rabia, that it misquoted (and perhaps even fabricated) case law about adversarial relationships with law enforcement… And all you got is “I’ll take MPAC over CAIR? screw them both… who cares! Just know your damn rights and stop being an idiot. Sheesh!

  3. GregAbdul

    July 29, 2015 at 12:11 PM

    The vast majority of Muslims are not interviewed by the FBI. The FBI is not sitting outside our mosques with pad and pencil, asking every Muslim in America questions meant to entrap us. My problem is with the focus of our American Muslim organizations. It’s like we don’t understand America. The FBI is not stalking us. Looking too hard for sleeper Muslim terrorists? Maybe. The fact is, the one in a million of us who happen to go rouge are used to stereotype and damage our faith. The ten or so American Muslims, sick and stupid enough to try to join ISIS from US soil, are our enemies and I want the FBI to get them and I want them to know that I will assist the FBI in getting them. I am an American. I see common ground with Islam and America. Islam forbids me from fighting with guns and knives without being under a military command.

    White America (general American society) fights Islam by a thousand little cuts. When the woman wears hijab, she is shunned and denied opportunity. Muslim is the new black. If you wear the beard, the kufi, the thobe, or take or have a Muslim name they can recognize, the hateful American is not going to call the FBI to interview you. They deny us jobs. They deny us business. They deny us decent pay and it is not only us.

    We have common cause with America’s progressive movement. Our conflict is the gay support in the Western progressive movement, which many Muslims cite when they talk about the evils of America. CAIR should be a civil right’s organization, but it’s not. The Muslim Legal Fund of America should be a civil right’s organization but it’s not. Instead, when the FBI finds a hot trail to the few among us, this is what “our organizations” have decided to focus on. The FBI goes public that they have evidence that someone is living here, under a written agreement with the US government and plotting against the government (violating basic rules of Islam) and CAIR and MLFA are rushing to fight for those people and they too often ignore the rampant prejudice against Muslims in America…because they fell that would too much in acting like and joining the historical fight of blacks in America. The immigrants don’t want to be tied to the black Americans, so we get this, “when the FBI comes” talk.

    In the name of Allah: Muslim men: grow a beard. Put on a Kufi. Be proud of your Muslim names….and please….

    Join the real fight.

  4. Za Desi White Woman

    July 29, 2015 at 12:32 PM

    Robert H. Jackson, while a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in wrote in Watts vs. Indiana , “any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to the police under any circumstances.”

    This ↑

  5. Maheen

    July 29, 2015 at 7:25 PM

    Strange that you are asking us to co-operate with the same law enforcement that placed an FBI informant in a mosque in your area, Orange County, Craig Monteilh. He was so extreme that members of the same mosque he was spying on reported him to the FBI for his extremism. After Cointelpro, and post-9/11 fishing expeditions, any Muslim that talks to these people without a lawyer is asking for trouble, to put it mildly. I encourage every Muslim in Chattanooga to watch Muslim Advocates’ excellent video “Got Rights” on how to handle an FBI visit. And yes, know your rights, because God knows, in this country, when you aren’t white and rich, nobody else cares about them, especially law enforcement.

    Here’s the video

    • Ahmed Shaikh

      July 29, 2015 at 8:20 PM

      Maheen, I am not sure how you came to your conclusion. I am well aware of Monteilh, that is my local Islamic Center. Yes, the FBI in our area has a hostile and unprofessional disposition towards the Muslim community and is unfortunately poorly run. Many of us know this well. I do hope this changes, but the FBI has made no efforts to fix it’s problems. Thank you for the video.

  6. MLFA

    July 30, 2015 at 3:24 PM

    If you or someone you know has been approached by federal law enforcement agents (FBI, DHS, etc.), call Muslim Legal Fund of America at 972-331-9021 and dial extension 118 (leave a message if you call while the case manager is out of the office). Never talk with law enforcement without an attorney.

  7. Naushk

    July 31, 2015 at 3:38 AM

    Assalaamu alaikum. While that is good advice for US citizens and residents, it doesn’t seem to work too well for non citizens such as international students and H1 visa folks. I used to be on the board of a masjid in a university town for many years and our standard advice was what is mentioned in the article. However, in the hindsight, everyone of the internationals following this advice were eventually removed from the US in unexplainable visa renewal denials or reentry denials to the US. In contrast, those internationals that did soak to the FBI a few times were mostly okay and moved on with their plans to finish degrees, get jobs, and green cards, etc.

    • Ahmed Shaikh

      July 31, 2015 at 7:52 PM

      Knowing your rights is good for everyone, regardless of citizenship.

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