FBI should be able to target extremists without smearing people of faith

Written by William C. Duncan

September 6, 2023

In 2009, the FBI allegedly approached Muhammad Tanvir about informing on members of his Muslim religious community. Tanvir said that when he refused, he was placed on the federal no-fly list. He brought a lawsuit, and the FBI eventually relented and allowed him to fly. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled he could sue the FBI agents involved for violating his religious freedom.

In January of this year, the Richmond, Virginia, office of the FBI published a letter on alleged threats from “radical-traditionalist Catholic ideology.” The internal letter, which was leaked to the press, suggests that some individuals and groups characterizing themselves as “traditionalist” Catholics embrace threatening and violent tactics to oppose the government or to harm minority groups.

Although the memo disclaims any suspicion of “‘traditionalist Catholics’ who prefer the Traditional Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II teachings and traditions, but without the more extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric,” the memo’s language is obviously open to misunderstanding since it uses the term “traditionalist” and only distinguishes the targeted “radicals” from the innocent “traditionalists” by saying the former are “more extremist.” That distinction is troublingly subjective. The letter mixes discussions of individuals or groups who have talked about violence with discussions of opposition to abortion and other moral issues.

As the bishop of the Diocese of Richmond said:

The leaked document should be troubling and offensive to all communities of faith, as well as all Americans. If evidence of extremism exists, it should be rooted out, but not at the expense of religious freedom. A preference for traditional forms of worship and holding closely to the Church’s teachings on marriage, family, human sexuality, and the dignity of the human person does not equate with extremism.

Thus, it is not surprising that when confronted with an outcry from state attorneys general and others, the FBI said: “This particular field office product … does not meet the exacting standards of the FBI. Upon learning of the document, FBI Headquarters quickly began taking action to remove the document from FBI systems and conduct a review of the basis for the document.”

Although initial testimony from the FBI’s director suggested this memo was the work of one regional office, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee learned from a later, less-redacted version of the memo that the Richmond office had worked with offices in Portland and Los Angeles, which raises concerns that the Jan. 23 memo was not merely an aberration.

Additionally, the subcommittee learned “that the FBI had at least one ‘undercover employee’ working to cultivate sources among the Catholic clergy and leadership.”

The ongoing investigation and promised reform are critical to preventing any future efforts to target religious organizations. Surely law enforcement officials can counter the efforts of violent individuals and organizations without casting aspersions on people of faith who reject violence and extremism.

People of faith (and others concerned about constitutional protections), too, can learn an important lesson from this episode. Some spoke out when Muslim groups were targeted. That is laudable. It’s common for people to pay attention to potential threats when they feel those threats directed at them. But preserving religious freedom requires us to recognize how government targeting of beliefs and practices different than ours – whether religious or otherwise – can become the precedent that justifies the government targeting our own beliefs and practices down the road.

In other words, advancing religious freedom requires us to pay attention and speak out in support not only of those who believe similar things as we do, but of those who believe differently as well. The wise and far-sighted religious freedom supporter will recognize that the legal and cultural foundations which protect expression for unfamiliar or unpopular views will become the foundations for protecting their own views as well.

Insights: analysis, research, and informed commentary from Sutherland experts. For elected officials and public policy professionals.

  • An FBI field office issued a memo earlier this year discussing possible threats of extremism from “radical-traditionalist Catholics” that has created serious concern about targeting religious practices.
  • Congressional investigations suggest the FBI office that produced the memo did not “go rogue,” but sought to cultivate sources in the Catholic church and worked with other FBI offices as well.
  • This troubling episode points to the reality that the foundations of religious freedom are strengthened when people of faith and others speak out in defense of those who may be unfairly targeted by government officials, even when the targeted beliefs are different or unfamiliar.
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