By William Fisher
Daniel Sutherland, head of the civil rights division of the Department of Homeland Security, says the government needs the help of American Muslims and Arab-Americans to fight terrorism at home: "Homeland security isn't gonna be won by people sitting in a building inside the Beltway, " he says.
But, five years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “Islamophobia” -- intensified by the war in Iraq and U.S. government actions at home – has left millions of American Muslims fearful of harassment, discrimination, and questionable prosecutions, and confused about their place in American society.
What is the impact on Muslims and Americans of Arab descent? One, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “It sometimes feels suffocating being in the U.S. now. We cannot turn on our TV in the evening to watch CNN or MSNBC or the other ‘news stations’ because of people like Glenn Beck and others who consistently spew hate, nonsense and misinformation about Islam and Arabs on primetime. And if we try to watch mindless drama on TV we are bombarded with shows about Middle East/Arab and Islamic terrorism -- shows like 24, Sleeper Cell, The Agency, etc. It is very difficult being an Arab/Muslim American these days.”
That appears to correctly sum up the feelings of those whose help the government says it is seeking.
Most members of these communities believe that the government is – perhaps inadvertently -- fanning the flames of bigotry by using phrases like “Islamo-Fascist” from the lexicon it has crafted for the “Global War on Terror” and by actions such as high-profile press conferences announcing prosecutions that often collapse.
Recent polls indicate that almost half of Americans have a negative perception of Islam and that one in four of those surveyed have "extreme" anti-Muslim views. A survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that a quarter of Americans consistently believe stereotypes such as: "Muslims value life less than other people" and "The Muslim religion teaches violence and hatred."
In 2005, CAIR received 1,972 civil rights complaints, compared to 1,522 in 2004. This constitutes a 29.6 percent increase in the total number of complaints of anti-Muslim harassment, violence and discriminatory treatment from 2004. It is the highest number of Muslim civil rights complaints ever reported to CAIR.
Following 9/11, the U.S. Department of Justice began rounding up Arabs and other Muslims and – mistakenly – anybody who looked “Middle Eastern,” including Sikhs from South Asia. In the months after the attacks, some 5,000 men were held in detention without charges, most without access to lawyers or family members. As confirmed in an investigation by the DOJ Inspector-General, many were held in solitary confinement and physically abused.
There were no prosecutions and no convictions of any of these people. Some, who were in the U.S. with expired visas or who had committed other immigration infractions, were deported.
Since then, the seemingly endless catalog of harassment and infringements on the civil rights of U.S. citizens has grown unabated. A few examples:
Ahmad Al Halabi graduated from high school in Dearborn, Michigan, the center of the nation’s Muslim community. He joined the Air Force and was assigned as a translator for al-Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was accused of spying and spent 10 months in solitary confinement before the spy charges were dropped.
Osama Abulhassan and Ali Houssaiky, both 20 and from Dearborn, were charged with supporting terrorism in Marietta, Ohio, in August after making bulk purchases of cheap, prepaid cell phones from discount stores. The charges were dropped a week later.
Four men were accused after the 9/11 attacks of being part of a "sleeper cell" that was planning terrorist attacks. Two of the men were convicted of conspiring to provide material support and resources to terrorists, but a federal judge overturned the verdicts at the Justice Department's request in 2004 because prosecutors withheld evidence at the trial that could have helped the defendants.
Farooq Al-Fatlawi, a bus passenger en route to Chicago, was put off with his bags in Toledo, Ohio, after he told the driver he was from Iraq.
A San Francisco Bay Area civil rights activist, Raed Jarrar, was barred from a plane for wearing a T-shirt that said, "We will not be silent" in Arabic and English.
A respected upstate-New York oncologist, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, was arrested as a possible terrorist in 2003. Political leaders like then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and Gov. George Pataki happily served as cheerleaders by making inflammatory terror-related public statements. But when their terrorist claims failed to materialize, the government expanded its case. And the judge in his trial granted a prosecution motion to exclude any reference to terrorism from the courtroom. Dhafir was convicted of Medicare fraud and using his charitable organization, Help the Needy, to violate Iraq sanctions to send money to illegal groups in Iraq. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Six imams seen praying in a Minneapolis airport terminal were later removed from their US Airways flight after a passenger passed a note to a flight attendant saying that the men were acting suspiciously. The imams were removed from the plane in handcuffs. They were questioned and released, but the airline says the crew acted properly in having the imams removed, and refused to issue them new tickets the following day. The imams are suing the airline.
Often cited as “Islamophobia Exhibit A,” Canadian Muslim Maher Arar, was abducted by U.S. officials at Kennedy airport in New York in 2002, and then transported to a prison in Syria where he was confined for more than 10 months in a cell that looked like a grave. He was beaten, tortured, and forced to make a false confession about having ties to Al Qaeda. A Canadian commission of inquiry ruled after a two-year investigation that all the charges were unfounded. But Arar was barred from suing the U.S. Government, which claimed that a trial would divulge “state secrets.”
The U.S. government agreed to pay $2 million and issue a written apology to a Muslim attorney in Oregon who was jailed after the FBI mistakenly linked him to the Madrid train bombings. Brandon Mayfield sued the FBI, alleging that his civil rights had been violated and that he was arrested in part because he is a Muslim convert.
Fox television’s hit drama '24' portrayed an American Muslim family as being at the heart of a terrorist 'sleeper cell.' A spokeswoman for CAIR said the show was 'taking everyday American Muslim families and making them suspects.”
When Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, announced that he was planning to take a ceremonial oath of office on a Qur’an, right-wing radio and Internet bloggers went into high paranoia mode. Oh my God, talk show host Dennis Prager fumed, Ellison can't be allowed to do that; it "undermines American civilization."
The American Family Association (AFA), a conservative religious group, posted an "Action Alert" on its Web site requesting that supporters urge lawmakers to pass "What book will America base its values on, the Bible or the Koran?" the AFA said.
The U.S. Treasury Department, in its efforts to cut off financing for radical Islamic organizations, has used a provision of the Patriot Act to designate charities that support Muslim causes as terrorist organizations. Once a charitable organization is designated as a supporter of terrorism, all of its materials and property may be seized and its assets frozen. Thus far, the effort has resulted in the government shutting down five charities. But there has only been one indictment, no trials, and no convictions. Only one official criminal charge has been brought against a Muslim organization for support of terrorism, and that case has not yet made it to trial. Three months ago, Federal agents raided the offices of one of the nation's largest Islamic charities, Life for Relief and Development. Agents seized computers and donor records. But no charges have been filed and the charity remains in business.
While many American Muslims serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, they have less luck trying to get jobs in the civilian agencies involved in national security. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when on a recruiting binge to find and hire new analysts and translators, many Arab-Americans and other American Muslims came forward and applied. But they have met with little success because they are frequently denied security clearances on grounds that they have friends and family back in the Middle East.
Samer Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, probably speaks for the feelings of most of the U.S. Muslim community, “Quite simply,” he says, Islamophobia “produces an environment that is fundamentally at odds with what the U.S. is supposed to be about; our values for treating everyone fairly and not discriminating on the basis of skin color, race, religion, gender, etc.”
Prof. Shehata adds, “This is damaging certainly for all Americans and it is also damaging for the reputation of the U.S. overseas. One of the questions I hear the most whenever I am in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East is: how is it like now in the U.S. for Arabs? Have you been the victim of discrimination, bigotry, abuse?”
It is obvious that our government has not yet achieved a rational balance between investigation and intimidation. If it doesn’t get it right, it will have lost a critical resource.
Nobody wants terrorists in our midst. But we cannot win by losing.