Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 September 2007
Issue No. 863
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Muslim Americans today

Homeland discrimination for Arabs and Muslims remains a staple feature of Bush's war on terror, writes Abdus Sattar Ghazali*

A Muslim bus passenger en route to Chicago is put off with his bags in Toledo after he told the driver he is from Iraq ( Detroit Free Press, 12 June 2007). The Dearborn offices of two Muslim charities -- Al-Mabarrat Charitable Organisation and Goodwill Charitable Organisation -- are raided ( Detroit Free Press, 24 July 2007). A mosque in Rochester is vandalised for the third time this year (Associated Press, 30 May 2007).

These recent episodes symbolise the dilemma of American Muslims in post-9/11 America. Six years after the terrorist attacks, American Muslims remain under siege with institutionalised profiling, discrimination, high publicity trials, raids on Muslim charities and the defaming of mainstream Muslim organisations. Muslim Americans 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 in the work place. American Muslims were shocked to find their bank accounts closed for no other reason but their faith.

There is a rising tide of Islamaphobia, intensified by the war in Iraq and US government measures at home. Americans' attitudes about Islam and Muslims are fuelled mainly by political rhetoric and media reports that focus almost solely on the negative image of Islam and Muslims. The vilification of Islam and Muslims has been relentless among segments of the media and political classes since 9/11. Six years after 9/11, attacking Islam and Muslims remains fashionable sport for radio, television and print media. Unfortunately, the events of 9/ 11 were used to greatly magnify hostility towards Muslims and cloak it in pseudo-patriotism. Alarmingly, Muslim- bashing has become socially acceptable in the United States.

Six year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American Muslims and Arabs continue to suffer a severe wave of backlash violence. Hate crimes have included murder, beatings, arson, attacks on mosques, shootings, vehicle assaults and verbal threats. The mosque in Tucson, Arizona, was vandalised twice within a span of two months. Another Arizona mosque was attacked with an acid bomb. Arsonists in Florida torched a Muslim home. Those involved in such hate crimes cannot have been unaffected by evangelists, some politicians and anti-Muslim elements in the media.

There is a substantial increase in law enforcement discrimination against American Muslims causing delays in citizenship processing for Arab-sounding immigrants. Several national human rights organisations have joined forces to help litigate delayed cases. According to immigrant advocates, hundreds -- if not thousands -- of men with Arabic-sounding or Muslim names were experiencing interminable delays. More than 40 lawyers filed lawsuits in federal courts, requesting that a judge step in to force US Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) to complete the stalled naturalisation cases. In response, the CIS decided it would stop interviewing people whose FBI background checks had not cleared.

In post-9/11 America, Muslims are witnessing a smear campaign against prominent Muslim civil rights groups. Established Muslim organisations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council are being targeted. In an unusual move, prosecutors publicly named 307 individuals and organisations as "un-indicted co- conspirators" relating to the Holy Land Foundation charity that was shut down in December 2001. Among those listed are three major American Muslim organisations: ISNA, the North American Islamic Trust and CAIR. Collectively, these groups represent the viewpoints and interests of the mainstream American Muslim community. Anti-Muslim groups are seizing on this as an opportunity to defame Muslims further.

Six years after 9/11, Muslim charity organisations remain under pressure. Two Muslim charities were closed in Dearborn in July on the day of the trial of the largest Muslim charity, the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), in Dallas. The HLF was tried on suspicion of ties with the Palestinian Hamas group, while the two Michigan charities were suspected of having ties with extremist groups in Lebanon. Just like the Holy Land Foundation, all assets of the two Michigan charities have been frozen.

A continuing stream of high-profile trials on terrorism charges, the allegations of which usually don't hold up in the end, continue to keep the American public afraid. A Justice Department audit report, however, pointed out that federal prosecutors counted immigration violations, marriage fraud and drug trafficking among "anti-terror" cases in the years after 9/11 despite no evidence linking them to terror activity. In February, Chicago businessman Mohamed Salah and Virginia professor Abdul-Hallen Ashqar, accused of furnishing money and fresh recruits to Hamas, were acquitted by a Chicago jury of racketeering.

In another high-profile "terrorism" trial case, a federal judge in June extended the contempt citation against Sami Al-Arian, a former Florida professor who has refused to testify in the investigation into whether Islamic charities in Northern Virginia were financing "terrorist" organisations. Though a Florida jury acquitted him on all counts in 2005, federal authorities keep him in prison.

What is the long-term impact on Muslims of post 9/11 laws and government policies? A recent study by Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights entitled Voices from Silence found that, without exception, all those interviewed had either directly experienced discriminatory or hostile acts after 9/11 or knew people who had. Meanwhile, a report by USA Today pointed out that after six years of America's war on terrorism, many of Dearborn's Arab descendants are hunkering down and keeping a low profile. A study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that six years after the 9/11 attacks, US Muslims are "largely outside the US mainstream".

On a positive note, many Muslims are responding to post-9/ 11 challenges proactively. Three Arabs have been appointed this month to official positions in Michigan and New Jersey. Ismail Ahmed was named to lead Michigan's Department of Human Services by Governor Jennifer Granholm. In New Jersey, Samer Khalaf and Tawfiq Barqawi were appointed respectively to the Executive Committee of the State of New Jersey Human Relations Committee and the New Jersey Governor's Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Immigration Policy.

In a display of their emerging political power, political candidates at state and local levels are courting voters in northern Virginia's Muslim community. More than 70 candidates for the Virginia General Assembly and county offices showed up recently in Reston to tout their records and issue campaign promises to the fast-growing Muslim community. Additionally, the seventh annual "civic picnic" was organised by area mosques to encourage Muslims to get more involved in local politics. More than 56,000 Muslims are registered to vote in Northern Virginia, and last year, more than eight in 10 turned out to vote.

In a spirit of solidarity with Muslims, Alabama House and the Connecticut and Texas senates are opened with Islamic prayers. Karim Abdullah, imam of the Birmingham Islamic Centre, gave the opening prayer in the Alabama House. Saud Anwar, co-chairman of the American Muslim Peace Initiative, delivers the invocation in the Connecticut Senate. Imam Youssef Kavacki offered blessings from the Quran on the Texas Senate floor. Interestingly, in a lawsuit to allow use of the Quran when administering oaths, a North Carolina County judge has ruled that any religious text can be used to swear in a witness or juror in the state's courtrooms, not simply the Bible.

American Muslims join the nation in commemorating the sixth anniversary of the ghastly 9/11 tragedy with optimism that the present state anti-Muslim campaigning in the war on terrorism will subside in due course, just as happened during World War II with the Japanese-Americans who also endured similar national intolerance, social prejudice and legal injustice.

* The writer is executive editor of the online magazine The American Muslim Perspective (www.amperspective.com) .

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