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U.S. Muslim expert: We must check our prejudices

Nihad Awad
Nihad Awad  

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

(CNN) -- Three Muslim men driving on Florida's Alligator Alley were pulled over and interrogated Friday after a woman told authorities she overheard them at a Georgia restaurant making suspicious comments. The men were released after an extensive and long search determined there was no threat. One of the men said the woman was "flat-out lying" about the comments she said she heard.

CNN anchor Miles O'Brien was joined Saturday by Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington, about the issues surrounding the detention of the men.

O'BRIEN: Tell me what the family members are telling you.

AWAD: Well, they're concerned. From the beginning, I got a call around 11 o'clock yesterday, saying that they're concerned about the way their sons are treated, the media attention that has been there all over the country and probably all over the world. They're concerned about the reputation of their children and what will happen next and why they have been picked on just among so many people who just go to a restaurant and eat and just leave without any question, without any reports to the authorities.

O'BRIEN: What were they saying in that restaurant, Mr. Awad?

AWAD: Well, I have not spoken to any of those students and, again, let me just say this. It is very important for us to be alert and vigilant, but also we have to check sometimes our prejudices and, you know, stereotypes of others. The public and media attention was phenomenal yesterday [Friday].

And yesterday, also, I brought the point that just almost two weeks ago in the state of Florida, a Jewish doctor was busted by the local law enforcement authorities having more than 30 devices of explosives. Twenty of them were ready to go with a plan to bomb Islamic centers; a school, and a list of those; and a little plan, what he's going to do next. And I have not seen any live coverage of that incident.

O'BRIEN: All right, in...

AWAD: I have not seen that public attention.

O'BRIEN: We're showing a picture of the three men involved here [in the Florida case]. You're talking about another case. May I suggest to you, sir, that as a news event, this one rated more coverage because of the very public nature of it all? It happened on Alligator Alley. They had to shut down the highway. The air space was closed down. This other case didn't happen on a public byway, if you will. So I think there might be more to it than that. But let's not debate the journalistic decisions here.

AWAD: Well, it was...

O'BRIEN: If these three men were, in fact, joking, shouldn't they be arrested for felonious stupidity?

AWAD: It's a stupid joke. It is bad. I wouldn't do it and it does not reflect me or the Muslim community. And I think we have to check the resources, the sources, and just make sure that if this lady is credible, she did the right thing. The law enforcement authorities have done the right thing. And I think that the system was tested, the system is working, but also we have to see if our diversity is being tested at the same time.

O'BRIEN: Well, I mean what do you propose that a person should do if they hear a conversation such as the conversation this woman apparently heard?

AWAD: Oh, I...

O'BRIEN: Regardless of what the person's race or religious background might be? Of course they should call the authorities, shouldn't they?

AWAD: Oh, they, definitely. If I was in her position, I would do the same. But also I have to check what constitutes now a suspicious behavior or action...

O'BRIEN: I would say running through a toll booth is suspicious, isn't it?

AWAD: Oh, definitely. But also wearing a Kofi cap like this man was ...

O'BRIEN: No, no, no, no. She didn't say anything about the cap. She said they were talking about 9/11, wait until you see what happens on 9/13. A little later they run a toll both. Now, that's suspicious activity, in my opinion. (Editor's note: The man accused of running the toll booth denies the allegation)

AWAD: Definitely. But see, you know, the question is people have heard from her and they have heard from them. Now I think we have to have a serious investigation, who's telling the truth. But also, again, we have to commend her if she was credible and also we have to check our own prejudices and stereotypes. And we cannot just judge the looks of people, the way they dress and their religion.

O'BRIEN: All right, but...

AWAD: ... because we have incidents in the past.

O'BRIEN: Given the stakes here and given who the enemy is, can you conjure up any scenario where profiling is justified? I mean after all, there are millions of people in this country and there's only so many security officials, law enforcement people. Isn't racial profiling, within certain boundaries, appropriate?

AWAD: Well, remember after the Oklahoma City bombing? I have not seen white males being stopped while driving trucks passing by federal buildings. It is all to do and it should never have happened. But it does not happen today.

African-Americans can tell you a lot about racial profiling and Muslim and Arab-Americans can tell you abundant of stories now. Just yesterday I heard in our office that we are receiving so many reports from just couples who have been, for example, in Washington D.C., tourists taking pictures ... of a monument and being surrounded by 12 agents asking them not to take pictures. And these are Americans like you and me. Why are they being suspected? Because of the way they dress.

O'BRIEN: All right, we're just going to have to leave it at that, unfortunately. Obviously, that's not going to settle it. Nihad Awad, we appreciate you joining us. Thanks for your time, sir.

AWAD: Thank you.




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