American Muslims Seven Years After 9/11

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Seven years after 9/11, Muslims in America remained at the receiving end with assault on their civil rights and their faith in the name of “war on terror.” Muslims are the prime targets of the post 9/11 reconfiguration of American laws, policies, and priorities. Defending civil rights remains the single most important challenge before the seven million-strong American Muslim community as the consequences of the 9/11 tragic terrorist attacks continue to unfold seven years after the ghastly tragedy. The government initiatives have reshaped public attitudes about racial profiling and created a harsh backlash against the Muslim community. At the same time Muslims and Islam remain a popular past time for the US media and some prominent religious and political leaders who never miss any opportunity to attack Muslims and their faith in the name of extremism. Unfortunately, in the post-9/11 America , Islamophobia is not only more widespread but more mainstream and respectable.

Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson’s article titled “Holding Muslims at Arm’s Length” best reflect how fear mongering and Islamophobia is being used in the 2008 presidential election. He points out that in his year-and-a-half-long run for president, Obama has visited churches and synagogues, but no mosque. Jackson answers to Obama’s meaningful reluctance to visit a mosque when he quotes a Newsweek poll of May which concludes that only 58 percent of Americans think Obama is a Christian. 

Tellingly, in July, The New Yorker magazine publishes a cover cartoon depicting Barak Obama, wearing traditional Muslim dress, while his wife, Michelle, is dressed in combat trousers and carrying a machine-gun. This cover legitimizes the rumors regarding Obama. It is not a satire but promotes fear, stereotypes and racism. 

American Muslim community was dismayed at the Islamophobic rhetoric at the Republican Party Convention that ended in St. Paul , Minnesota on September 4, 2008. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in their speeches made bigoted remarks that equated Islam with terrorism.

"For four days in Denver , the Democrats were afraid to use the words ‘Islamic terrorism,’" Guiliani said. "I imagine they believe it is politically incorrect to say it. I think they believe it will insult someone. Please, tell me, who are they insulting, if they say ‘Islamic terrorism?’ They are insulting terrorists."

"Is a Supreme Court liberal or conservative that awards Guantanamo terrorists with constitution rights?" Romney said. "John McCain hit the nail on the head: radical violent Islam is evil, and he will defeat it!" 

The Republican Party leaders’ Islamophobic remarks are not surprising since Sen. McCain and his supporters have in the past used rhetoric that only serves to marginalize Muslims. In his speeches, McCain often refers to “radical Islam,” “Islamic terrorism" or “Islamic extremism," rhetoric that has been questioned by the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security. 

Islamophobic comments in the election campaign are damaging to the Muslim American community. They are symptomatic of a culture that continues to treat Muslims as suspects and not as equal citizens in this country.

Thanks to rising Islamophobia, a Pew poll finds forty-five percent of those polled saying Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers. The survey also found that public attitudes toward Muslims have grown more negative in recent years, with 35% of respondents expressing an unfavorable view. 

It will not be too much to say that anti-Islam and anti-Muslim feelings were fueled by such government programs as a mock attack on a fake mosque in Illinois. In May last, over 120 officials from almost 30 government agencies participated in the drill in Irving, Illinois, targeting a community facility that had been re-named the "Irving Mosque" for the purposes of the exercise. In the exercise, officers from the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS) stormed the "mosque" using an armored car. One "hostage" was hooked up to an explosive device and the "suspects" in the "mosque" released nerve gas. 

What message that exercise conveys to the American masses who are already conditioned by the anti-Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric by some radio hosts, electronic and print media as well as some political and Christian Right leaders in the post-9/11 America? Surely, it reinforces the anti-Islam and anti-Muslim image among the masses. Tellingly, a March 2008 Gallup survey, finds that a substantial number of Americans have a negative perception of Muslims. The poll shows that only 17 percent have positive perception while 23 have negative. 48 percents were found neutral which are surely not positive. 

Racial Profiling

Profiling has been institutionalized in the post-9/11 America. State and federal agencies, under the guise of fighting terrorism, have expanded the use of this degrading, discriminatory and dangerous practice.

American Muslim community was alarmed by the proposed Justice Department policy change that would allow the FBI to investigate Americans without evidence of wrongdoing, relying instead on a terrorist profile that could single out Muslims and Arabs. Under the new guidelines, which are expected to be implemented later this year, the FBI would be permitted to consider race and ethnicity when opening an investigation, according to an Associated Press report. 

Agents would also be allowed to ask open-ended questions about the activities of American Muslims and Arab-Americans, and could initiate an investigation if a person’s employment or background is labeled as "suspect" by government analysts looking at public records and other information.

The Justice Department profiling proposals followed a November 2007 Los Angeles Police Department program to “Map” (read profile) Muslim communities in southern California . There are estimated 500,000 Muslims living in the greater Los Angeles area, including Orange and Riverside Counties, which make its concentration of Muslims the second largest in the United States, after New York City. The profiling plan was abandoned after an uproar by Muslim and civil rights groups.

Not surprisingly, in March, a United Nations report said that the US law enforcement is guilty of discrimination in its use of racial profiling to target Arabs and Muslims since the attacks of Sept 11, 2001. The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination “is deeply concerned about the increase in racial profiling against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians in the wake of the 9/11 attacks,” the report said. The report urged the US administration to “review the definition of racial discrimination used in the federal and state legislation and in court practice”. 

A COINTELPRO Operation 

Muslims are virtually facing a new FBI counter intelligence program similar to the COINTELPRO operation against the African Americans during the 1960s. Harassment through the legal system was one of the methods employed by the FBI at the height of the COINTELPRO operation and the same method is being employed now with high profile trials of Muslim leaders. 

Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian political activist and former professor of the University of South Florida, released on bail in Virginia on September 2 after more than five years in federal custody, faces criminal contempt charges despite a plea agreement that he would not have to testify in any other case. In 2005, a Florida jury rejected federal charges that Al-Arian operated a cell for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Al-Arian later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was scheduled for release and deportation in April this year. However, he was subpoenaed and jailed for refusing to testify against others. To borrow Dr. Al-Arian’s lead Counsel, Professor Jonathen Turley, “Having lost the case in Florida , the Justice Department has openly sought to extend his confinement by daisy-chaining grand juries.” His trial to criminal contempt begins in December.

In a similar high profile trial, in November 2007, Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a Palestinian-American former professor at Washington ‘s Howard University , was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for refusing to testify in 2003 before a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant movement Hamas. Dr. Ashqar was convicted of criminal contempt and obstruction of justice. Tellingly, in February 2007 a jury had acquitted Dr. Ashqar of all terror-related charges.

In another high profile case, the trial against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development what – once the nation’s largest Islamic charity – ended in a mistrial on October 22, 2007 as federal prosecutors in Dallas, Texas, were unable to gain a conviction on charges that the group’s leaders had funneled 12 million dollars to the Hamas militants. After two months testimony and 19 days of deliberations jurors returned no convictions against any of the five former leaders of the Holy Land . Mohammad El-Mezain, the Holy Land ‘s original chairman and endowments director — was acquitted on most of the counts by a unanimous jury. HLF retrial will begin later this month.

Such high profile trials were draining the resources of the Muslim community while giving bad publicity. In short, seven years after 9/11 Muslims in America remain under siege. Profiled, harassed, reviled, attacked, peeped at by the CIA and the FBI, interrogated and permanently controlled at airports, the whole community is virtually excluded of American society. Muslim have experienced a large volume of negative reprisals from sectors of the American public in the form of violent hate crimes, defamatory speech, attacks on hijab-wearing Muslim women and discrimination and harassment at work place.

In the post-9/11 America they find themselves on the defensive and struggling to convince at times skeptical fellow citizens that they can be both Muslims and loyal U.S. citizens.

-Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective: www.amperspective.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: asghazali@gmail.com.

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