The Cost Of Islamophobia
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.
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.
What is the impact on Muslims and other Americans of Arab descent? One, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IPS,
"It sometimes feels suffocating being in the US 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 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
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.
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
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 center-right government
promised it would 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
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.
But 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 the 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."
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?"
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