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CHALLENGES 2006-2007: A People Under Siege

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Dec 19 2006 (IPS) - Five years after the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, “Islamophobia” – intensified by the war in Iraq and government actions – has left millions of Muslims here and in other Western countries fearful of harassment, discrimination and questionable prosecutions, and confused about their place in society.

Recent polls indicate that almost half of U.S. citizens 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 people here 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.

What is the impact on Muslims and other Americans of Arab descent? One, who did not want to be named, told IPS, “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.”

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 centre 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.

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.

Six imams seen praying in a Minneapolis airport terminal were later removed from their U.S. 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. Treasury Department, in its efforts to cut off financing for radical Islamic organisations, has used a provision of the Patriot Act to designate charities that support Muslim causes as terrorist organisations. Once a charitable organisation 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 organisation 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.

This kind of post-9/11 hysteria is not limited to the U.S. In Britain, which has suffered from terrorist attacks, Member of Parliament and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw suggested that his female Muslim constituents remove their face-covering veils so that he could better interact with them.

And attempts by the British government to engage with the Muslim community since last year’s bomb attacks in London have reportedly backfired and are not hampering the spread of extremism. A report by the think-tank Demos said, “Instead of isolating extremist elements, government initiatives had tended to ‘drive a wedge’ between the Muslim population and the wider community.”

In the Netherlands, once thought to be the most open and tolerant society in Europe, the centre-right government promised to introduce legislation to ban the wearing of burqas and other facial coverings in most public places, including courts, schools, trains and even streets.

France, rocked last summer by riots in poor Paris suburbs largely inhabited by North African and Middle Eastern immigrants, has already banned the wearing of headscarves by students in public schools. And Nicolas Sarkozy, a government minister expected to be a leading candidate for the country’s presidency, has taken a hard line on both immigration and France’s large Muslim population. He says he refuses Islam “in France” but claims to endorse “an Islam of France.”

In the U.S., the government acknowledges the complaints of American Arabs and Muslims. Daniel Sutherland, head of the civil rights division of the Department of Homeland Security, says fighting terrorism while respecting civil rights involves “difficult challenges”.

But Sutherland says the government needs the help of these groups to fight terrorism at home: “Homeland security isn’t gonna be won by people sitting in a building inside the Beltway, ” he says.

Most members of that community believe that the government is – perhaps inadvertently – fanning the flames of bigotry by using phrases like “Islamo-Fascist” from the vocabulary it has crafted for the “global war on terror” and by actions such as high-profile press conferences announcing prosecutions that often collapse.

Samer Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, probably speaks for the feeling in most of the U.S. Muslim community, “Quite simply,” he told IPS, 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.

“This is damaging certainly for all Americans and it is also damaging for the reputation of the U.S. overseas,” he said. “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?”

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