Five years after 9/11: American Muslims remain under siege
Abdus Sattar Ghazali
Milli Gazette Online
The way America is now is not the way it was five years ago, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon have irrevocably changed everything. The 9/11 attacks were a tragic watershed which turned American Muslims from ordinary citizens into objects of suspicion and discrimination overnight. Not only the Muslims but their faith itself came under attack and distrust. The passing of five years has done little to dispel that. Muslims see that the United States is slipping into being a police state, at least to them. For Muslims, Bush Administration's "global war on terror" has become euphuism for racial profiling at airports and borders, monitoring of mosques, closing down of charities, FBI moles in their community, sting operations, high profile arrests on terrorism charges which are seldom proved in a court of law, and discrimination and harassment by law enforcement. It will not be too much to say that American Muslims remain under siege five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
As the nation heads to the midterm elections on Nov. 7 with the GOP control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance, President Bush and Republican leaders have stepped up warlike rhetoric. In an effort to bolster sinking public opinion about the unpopular war in Iraq and other national issues, they see "national security" or "fear factor" as their biggest advantage over Democrats. Most Americans are angry about "something" when it comes to how the country is run, and they are more likely than in previous years to vote for a challenger this November, according to a CNN poll of Sept. 4.
Hence, as part of a calculated effort to capitalize on the 5th commemoration of 9/11 attacks and gain the upper hand in the forthcoming election debate over national security, President Bush continues his "war on terrorism" with a political strategy that is best described as the "politics of fear." In an alarming speech before the Military Officers Association of America President Bush compared Bin Laden with Hitler. He said: "Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them." To send the message home, Bush mentioned Bin Laden 17 times in the 44-minute speech. Ironically, any mention of Osama bin Laden was absent from the White House report, titled "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" released the same day.
If history has any guidance: "The United States has always had this tendency to racialize its international conflicts domestically, to view international conflicts as domestic threats," says Professor Howard Winant, the UC Santa Barbara professor and co-author of "Racial Formation in the United States." "As a nation of immigrants, it's the easiest place in the world to internalize its external conflicts." During the World War II, Germans, Italians and, in particular, Japanese were viewed as suspicious on national security grounds. Similarly, the rise of communism in the Soviet Union was paralleled by Red Scares at home in the 1920s and again in the 1950s.
President Bush's tough speech on Sept. 5 follows his comments last month after an alleged terrorist plot was unveiled in London to blow up US bound planes. Bush saw the hand of "Islamic fascists" in the plot that later proved almost a hoax as the main actor of the plot, a British Pakistani – who allegedly took orders from Al-Qaeda's No.3 in Afghanistan – was found innocent. However, damage was done to the Muslim community. There were immediate calls for profiling of Muslims and Arabs at airports. At least four Republican office seekers called for profiling of Muslim airline passengers. Unsurprisingly, a poll released on August 29 by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut found 60 percent respondents said that authorities should single out people who look "Middle Eastern" for security screening at locations such as airports and train stations. A July Gallup poll showed that 39 percent of Americans admit to being prejudiced against Muslims and that nearly a quarter say they would not want a Muslim for a neighbor. So the calculated "fear factor" is working.
"Flying while Arab or Muslim" and "Driving while Arab or Muslim" has joined the profiling lexicon alongside "Driving while Black" and "Driving while Brown" since 9/11 attacks. Just two recent incidents will suffice in this context:
On August 14, a group of Muslim-Americans were detained for hours at New York 's Kennedy Airport when they came back to the United States from trips abroad. About 200 passengers of Arab, Muslim or South Asian backgrounds were plucked from the baggage area, held six hours without food or water by Customs and Border Protection agents and questioned about their views of Iraq. One of the passengers told a press conference that they were treated rudely when they asked questions of the officers. "We were treated really horribly by the officers that were there, we were yelled at, we were told to get back, threatened with arrest and threatened to have to stay longer if we complained."
On Sept. 5, a federal judge in Bay City , Michigan , threw out all charges against three Texas men who were arrested last month while driving at the Mackinac Bridge. State prosecutors slapped them with terrorism charges for buying hundreds of cell phones, but soon dropped them. The prosecutors then charged them with conspiring to traffic in counterfeit goods and carrying out an unlawful activity involving a financial transaction. U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Binder dismissed the federal charges saying there was no terror plot. The Texas men -- brothers Adham Othman, 21, of Dallas and Louai Othman, 23, , and their cousin Awad Muhareb, 18, - are of Palestinian descent. They were the victims of racial profiling - "Driving while Arab" - and there will forever be a stigma attached to them.
As the "war on terror" heads into its sixth year, a new racial stereotype is emerging in America . Brown-skinned men with beards and women with head scarves are seen as "Muslims" -- regardless of their actual faith or nationality. For women, the stereotype revolves around wearing a scarf, which complies with a religious requirement to cover their hair. To borrow anthropologist Paul Silverstein, Muslims "are the object of a series of stereotypes, caricatures and fears which are not based in a reality and are independent of a person's experience with Muslims."
Stereotyping Muslims has had other profound effects. A national study released last month, by economics researchers at the University of Illinois, found that the earnings of Muslim and ethnically Arab men working in the United States dropped about 10 percent in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Though the Muslims and Arabs are victims of guilt by association and politics of fear, they remain proactive. More often than not, they are now trying to assert their citizenship in an effective manner. Perhaps, the best example was Arab and Muslim reaction during the Israeli rampage against Lebanon in July and August last. In order to make their voice heard, Muslims and Arabs held nationwide demonstrations against atrocious Israeli attacks on civilian targets causing hundreds of casualties. Moreover, in a bid to counter the Israeli lobby, Arab American Institute declared August 16 a National Arab American Lobby Day to press their representatives to expand U.S. assistance efforts to Lebanon and Palestine. Arab Americans across the U.S. met with their members of Congress in their home districts.
At the same time, organizations like American Muslim Voice, the Council on American Islamic Relations and Muslim Public Affairs Council have stepped up their efforts in educating the public, media, government and law enforcement agencies about Islam, as well as registering Muslims to vote. More Muslims now participate in the political process. And, of course, more Muslims are active in civil liberty issues.
However, on the 5th anniversary of 9/11, the American Muslims and Arabs find themselves in a hostile environment similar to the era of immediately after 9/11. The fear is constantly whipped and hysteria is perpetuated by the government's wartime rhetoric, politicians and media.
Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective: