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In a Virtual Internment Camp: Muslim Americans since 9/11
By Abdul Malik Mujahid
Since the events of September 11, 2001, Muslims and brown-skinned people in this country are under siege. While many have in fact been picked up and jailed without any probable cause, the majority are living in virtual internment camps. The climate for Muslims today is very much as it was for Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. Japanese-Americans in the Western states were rounded up and moved to internment camps so they wouldn't aid and abet the enemy. In a similar fashion, Muslims and other brown-skinned people perceived to be Muslim, are treated like the enemy and are also living in internment camps. The difference is the camps of today are virtual.
Concerted harassment by government officials, destructive and draconian laws aimed at limiting freedoms, media indifference, hate-filled public figures, and an apathetic citizenry have all come together to build the virtual internment camps that house the American Muslim community.
Living with Hate and Fear
Since 9/11, Muslims in America are living in fear. This fear has had the effect of a collective paralysis on the Muslim community and has made it easier for government officials and agencies to systematically dismantle the civil rights of this minority. There are three specific factors which together have fomented this fear: government action, irresponsible media, and the hate speech of some national leaders.
I. Government Action against Muslims
The first factor ' government action ' has done a great deal to undermine the self-confidence of Muslims. Arrests, special registration, police raids, FBI interrogations, profiling at airports, and secret evidence have left Muslims, particularly men, feeling insecure and even paranoid.
The administration of President George W. Bush has repeatedly declared that the war on terrorism would not be a 'war on immigrants' or a 'war against Islam.' But, in fact, it has turned out to be a war against Muslim immigrants and Muslim Americans. Although widespread discrimination against Muslims and brown-skinned people in America is coming from the general population as well, the majority of the most egregious problems today stem from the actions of the US Justice Department.
Dick Armey, a Republican conservative and a former House majority leader, said it best: "The Justice Department seems to be running amok. This agency right now is the biggest threat to personal liberty in the country." Despite this assessment, few Americans are aware of the department's misdeeds. Media and human rights organizations, while deploring the situation, have essentially failed to explore and present the full impact and magnitude of government policies on Muslims in America.
Because of government secrecy, the full extent to which people have been affected must be extrapolated from media accounts and from projections based on available government reports. These extrapolations are based on the informed opinions of Muslim community leaders, human rights organizations, peace groups, and lawyers' groups. They are shown below under the column of estimates.
Population Estimates of Virtual Internment Camp
If the average Muslim household is made up of three persons, the same as the general US average, the number of those directly and indirectly affected by these government policies will be 637,914 according to the government's own statistics.
If we take our estimate and multiply it by three family members per household, the total number of affected people is 1,302,465. Interestingly, this number is close to the results of a Zogby International public opinion survey which finds that 25 percent of Muslims reported that they have been victims of anti-Muslim discrimination, harassment or attack after 9/11.
How is it that such widespread discrimination and harassment of Americans can remain hidden? Because our government has decided to keep it hidden. As early as October 17, 2001, US Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive limiting the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). On April 22, 2002, the Attorney General issued an interim regulation forbidding any state or county jail from releasing information about INS detainees housed in their facilities. The battle for information is now being fought in the courts by newspapers and human rights organizations. But the virtual internment camp relies on secrecy and apathy to survive; the government doesn't want to tell and people don't really want to know.
Various media have peeked at the human face behind the suffering of Muslim Americans, Arabs, and South Asian communities. But what has been glaringly absent is any report or assessment of the enormity of the overall situation. Amnesty International, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and American Lawyers for Human Rights, have all taken up the issue of the violation of civil liberties and rights of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians. However, none has devoted resources to statistically outline the total magnitude of the problem. The focus of their complaints has been limited to the original 1,200 detainees of September 11 and the roughly 900 foreign detainees at the US Navel base in Cuba.
FBI 'reaching out' to Muslims
Attorney General John Ashcroft maintained a policy of constant law enforcement activity across the United States. He said, 'the sheer volume of activity' ensured that potential terrorists hiding in our communities knew that law enforcement was on the job in their neighborhoods. Such a climate could cause would-be terrorists to scale back, to delay, or to abandon their plans altogether.' Since that preventive and deterrent 'climate' can only be maintained by a constant show of force in the Muslim community, one program after another was announced in what could be described as ongoing dragnet activity.
Since the FBI's manpower was not enough for this perpetual activity, the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which includes at least 16 other agencies, was established in the FBI's 56 domestic field offices. All other local and state police were asked to conduct search and interview operations for the FBI. The Justice Department offers no statistics about how many were interrogated, questioned, tracked or searched. The government does admit to at least five rounds of 'search and interview projects' of profiled males, consisting of 5,000, 3,000, 6,000, 10,000, and 3,000 people. These interviews themselves amount to at least 27,000 persons.
There were many other localized raids which were conducted in different parts of the US by the FBI. One such raid was 'Operation Green Quest' in northern Virginia in which federal agents headed by US Customs Service swept through Muslim homes, businesses, schools, and organizations breaking down doors, handcuffing residents, and seizing personal property ranging from computers to children's toys. Once again no statistics are provided by the government about how many such local and regional operations have been conducted. In some Pakistani-American neighborhoods the net was cast so wide that FBI agents knocked on almost every immigrant door, many times leaving a card in door jambs and mailboxes throughout the neighborhood. 'Hello,' reads the handwritten note on the back of a card. 'I'm with the FBI. Please contact me ASAP.'
The massive FBI investigation into the 9/11 terror attacks, dubbed 'PENTTBOM,' involved 4,000 FBI agents and 3,000 support staff as they sifted through 96,000 tips provided to them by the public within a week of the tragedy. By January 2002, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the FBI had received half a million calls from concerned citizens with tips and leads. As the Inspector General of the Department of Justice reports, these leads were put in 'an FBI database that assigned each PENTTBOM lead a unique number. Leads then were'assigned to a JTTF team that included FBI and INS agents, among other law enforcement personnel.' This process of following up more than half a million leads itself must have led the FBI to check, interrogate, and investigate 100,000 Muslims and brown-skinned people even if they followed up on only 20 percent of the leads.
Since the FBI followed a classic guilt-by-association game plan with the detainees, it is highly likely that the agents ran checks on all names, addresses, and telephone numbers lifted from detainees' cell phones, palm pilots, and address books. In many cases, those interviewed by INS and FBI agents were asked to provide the names and numbers of their friends and relatives as well. If each of the 27,000 people contacted in the government's five rounds of interviews provided another five names, the dragnet would yield another 135,000 new persons for the FBI to follow up with.
Another set of Muslims targeted for interrogation were donors to three of the largest Muslim American charities which were banned, without investigation, after 9/11. Since all these charities had IRS tax exempt 501(c) 3 status, Muslims had been donating their Zakat, an Islamic charitable obligation, to them with no reservation. Now some of these 50,000 or so donors are being targeted for interview. Once again, no numbers are provided.
In going after Muslims charities, two categories of 'collateral' suffering have occurred. There are those people who were already relying on the goodwill of the Muslim community in America; projects and programs that were run by these charities in poor areas, in America and abroad, have obviously come to a halt. In addition to those people, many Muslims caught in the post-9/11 dragnet spent months languishing in jail or were deported simply because they did not have the funds to fight their cases. Had these funds been available, these innocent victims would have been able to retain counsel and at least had the opportunity to clear their names in a court of law.
In addition to charity donors, many Muslims with any kind of police record, even as victims, are being interviewed. Muslim professors, Imams, journalists and leaders have also told this author about regularly being visited by FBI agents. Today, the FBI routinely spies on mosques, Friday sermons, and other lawful Muslim activities.
These various estimates together put the number of Muslims caught in the FBI's dragnet at over 310,000. If we give the FBI the benefit of the doubt and say our estimates are over by 50%, that still leaves some 150,000 people the FBI has questioned, interviewed, or spied on. For more accurate figures, Americans will have to wait for the election of a more accountable and less secretive government.
In the early days after 9/11, arrests were so indiscriminate that on New Jersey turnpikes, traffic would be stopped and all people with brown skin would be detained. This type of trapping resulted in the detention of thousands of people who were later released without any charge. The 'hold until cleared' policy, which is now being criticized by the Inspector General of the Justice Department, has become the norm. This policy was the perfect embodiment of the government's 'guilty until proven innocent' stance when it came to Muslims throughout the country. This same thinking resulted in the arrest of between 400 and 1,000 Muslims who participated in the INS's Special Registration program in December 2002 in California. Since immigration officers were unable to handle the last minute workload, they detained people until they were processed.
As per the Attorney General's orders, 'suspected terrorists' can be picked up for any reason and on any occasion. Here are some examples:
Since hardly any of these people were ever charged with anything, it is unlikely that any record was kept of their illegal detention. For the people who were actually arrested, the government does occasionally give a number totaling 6,483 in the following way:
Shortly after September 11, the Attorney General announced that he would use every law on the books to target and detain 'terrorists.' He said, 'Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa ' even by one day ' we will arrest you. If you violate a local law, you will be put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible.' The Attorney General used 'terrorist' and 'suspected terrorists' alternatively, essentially for the Muslim community. He further declared, 'In the war on terror, this Department of Justice will arrest and detain any suspected terrorist who has violated the law. Our single objective is to prevent terrorist attacks by taking suspected terrorists off the street. If suspects are found not to have links to terrorism or not to have violated the law, they are released. But terrorists who are in violation of the law will be convicted, in some cases deported, and in all cases prevented from doing further harm to Americans.'
While theoretically this position is all well and good, the question was and is how to transform such a policy into action. While the Attorney General may or may not be referring specifically to Muslims, those charged with law enforcement in the field ' police officers, FBI agents, immigration officers, border guards ' have no guidelines or even a general clue about how to administer the 'find the terrorists' directive. This has led to widespread and indiscriminate targeting and racial profiling of Muslim people.
On November 8, 2001, facing criticism that it had arrested so many people but had charged none with any terrorist-related crimes, the Justice Department simply announced that it will not issue a tally of its detentions. The arrests have continued. Using Georgetown University Professor David Cole's formula, if detentions had continued at the initial rate of approximately 600 a month, there would be more than 12,600 arrests after 21 months. It is likely that the rate of arrests dropped off after the first few weeks, but it is also possible that it remained high, considering multiple dragnet initiatives were carried out after 9/11. The only way to ever come to an accurate calculation of the total number of Muslim and brown-skinned detainees would be to collect all the data from local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies of all arrests and temporary detentions even in cases where the person was not charged.
National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS)
Despite loud protest from all civil rights groups and lawyers' associations, the Justice Department's Special Registration program resulted in 144,513 males between the ages of 16 and 40 being interviewed, registered, photographed, and fingerprinted. Their Sixth Amendment right to counsel was denied as they were not allowed to have their lawyers present while they were being interrogated.
Many of those detained during registration were let go after the government took their passports, driver's licenses, social security cards, and other forms of identification. The result was that many men were left destitute and could not provide financially for their families. These men were left with no identification and with no means to prove who they were. What is the total number of Muslims who faced this trauma? No one knows. Many who refused to register went underground and have created a new underclass. Their fear of registration has now rendered them illegal. How many are part of this new underclass? Once again, no one knows.
Some 35 million people enter the United States every year but only Muslim visitors are required to register. The program has been criticized as being nothing but racism masquerading as national security. Of the 25 countries on the special registration list, all but North Korea are Muslim or Arab. This program is essentially working on the premise that if the net is wide enough and cast far enough, that it may snare a few important fish. That, of course, is assuming any terrorists or their sympathizers will register. Ultimately, the NSEERS dragnet elicited some eleven people suspected of terrorist connections. But this has been at the expense of the dignity of the Muslim American community and relations with the Muslim world as a whole.
Federal agents deported 75 percent more undocumented Arabs and Muslims last year than the year before, a marked shift in immigration enforcement. At the same time, officials booted out 16 percent fewer illegal immigrants overall as they shifted their focus away from Mexicans. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer analysis of 1993-2002 deportation data, the INS deported 3,208 people from the 33 'high-risk' Muslim countries. According to the National Lawyers Guild, 'People with serious breaches of the law are not looked at, while in the Muslim or Arab community somebody with a minor violation automatically gets deported.' At this moment 13,434 Muslim immigrants who registered as part of the INS's Special Registration Program are facing deportation.
The carelessness is evident in the statement of Barbara Comstock, a Justice Department spokeswoman, who said many detained foreigners were guilty of something even if officials couldn't prove it. The figures provided do not include 'voluntary deportation' which many Muslims chose over the absence of proper access to defense and harsh treatment in the prison system.
Search, Seize, and Spy
There are more than 80 FBI planes and helicopters being used to 'track and collect intelligence on suspected terrorists,' according to a March 15, 2003 Associated Press report from Washington DC. Note the word 'suspected.' No warrants are necessary for the FBI to track cars or people from the air. For those searches which require a warrant, some 18,000 terrorism-related subpoenas and search warrants have been issued since 9/11.
This absence of controls or checks and balances has left people in the Muslim community feeling like their lives are being lived under a microscope. Privacy is arbitrary for many Muslims who even find their mail is routinely opened, delayed, or lost without any information given to them or any attempt to explain why this is happening. This is simply one example of how broadened federal power is being used. Government agencies now obtain private communications, business and library records, financial data and classified intelligence, often in secret. The Attorney General informed the Senate Judiciary Committee early this year that he had authorized more than 170 secret 'emergency' searches since the Sept. 11 attacks'more than triple the 47 emergency searches that have been authorized by other attorneys general in the last 20 years.
The Fourth Amendment requires probable cause of a crime before a phone can be tapped or a home searched. Abuse by law enforcement led Congress to establish secret courts under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to authorize 'foreign intelligence' wiretaps and searches. The FISA court was established in 1978 amid revelations that the FBI had abused its authority by spying on high-profile Americans, such as Martin Luther King Jr.
This federal court meets in complete secrecy in a highly restricted room inside the Department of Justice building in Washington D.C. Even though the court's rulings may result in criminal charges, convictions, and prison sentences for US citizens, their writs and rulings are permanently sealed from review by those accused of crimes and from any substantive civilian review. Today even this secret FISA court has stated that the FBI misled the court in 75 cases.
In Brooklyn, New York, the Pakistani immigrant community numbered some 120,000. Of these, some 15,000 have fled. Because of the flight of immigrants, business on Chicago's Devon Avenue, the largest South Asian neighborhood in the Midwest is down about 50%. Dozens of businesses have simply shut down. In Buffalo, NY, refugee shelters and motels were overflowing and the local prison was overcrowded with Pakistani families that had been arrested en masse. Not all of them were illegal immigrants, but they feared what the special registration process would bring for them. If we assume a similar pattern of flight for immigrants from all 25 targeted countries, we are looking at a mass exodus of some 50,000 people.
II. Media and the Lack of Information
Since 9/11, mainstream media, generally, have taken up the cause of the government and fully support the 'war on terror.' But in their zeal to be onside they have set aside their duty to critically reflect on what is happening in our country. Part of this neglect can be seen in the way Muslims are treated in the media. From time to time we do see stories about the day to day hardships in the lives of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians. But there has been no attempt to generate any real and serious debate about the domestic and foreign policies resulting from the events of 9/11 that have contributed to these hardships. Government policies that have been the single most important contributive factor in the creation of this climate of fear have never been successfully challenged.
For the most part, media outlets in this country have been, at best, negligent about covering stories that illustrate how quickly our country is changing and abandoning the values that make it great. At worst, the media have been complicit in keeping the public in the dark about these changes. For example, few Americans have heard about the Afghan-American film director who was killed and dismembered by his film's producer. The producer said he killed the man because he suspected he was pro-Taliban. The story only came to the fore when the film received an Oscar nomination in 2002. The indifference to this event speaks to media disinterest in covering stories about people now suffering in the USA because of their religion, national origin or skin color.
There have been many stories that have serious implications for the direction our country is going in that have been given the equivalent of 15 minutes in the spotlight. There was no serious discussion of the leaked sequel to the Patriot Act; there has been no real discussion of the government's decision to collect DNA from anyone arrested for anything. In other words, if someone gets arrested at a political rally, for example, he or she can expect to have their DNA forcibly collected. There has been no real discussion of the deportation of thousands of people in the wake of 9/11 for minor visa violations; no discussion of the secret arrests and detainments; there has been no discussion of how US citizens accused of crimes have been stripped of their rights and are being held indefinitely and without charge. These are all examples of the successive steps the government is taking toward limiting the freedoms of all Americans and yet those who are responsible for carrying this discussion are silent.
While mainstream media reporting has essentially failed to generate any debate, national opinion makers, through their 'talk radio' and syndicated columns, regularly throw up poisonous and ignorant commentary. In the wake of 9/11, syndicated columnist Ann Coulter wrote America 'should invade their [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.' Coulter also called for the 'mass deportation of Muslims.' William Lind, with the Free Congress Foundation said, 'Islamics [sic] cannot fit'..They are a fifth column in this country.' Some of these media campaigns have specific goals. One such campaign in Florida, with massive play given to it by a local radio host, resulted in the firing of tenured professor Dr. Sami Al-Arian from the University of South Florida. There was also a similar campaign in North Carolina to force the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. to abandon its requirement that students study a selection of verses from the Quran in the summer of 2002.
III. Anti-Muslim/Anti-Islam Speech
The third factor that has helped create and sustain fear is the hate speech of public figures and leaders close to the Bush administration who regularly and very publicly vent anti-Islamic speech. Since 9/11, President Bush has consistently said that Islam is a religion of peace and warned against anti-Muslim prejudice. However, one of his close personal advisors and an influential public figure, Rev. Franklin Graham, called Islam a 'very wicked and evil' religion. Daniel Pipes, President Bush's nominee to the United States Institute of Peace, a federal agency that gives grants and hosts scholars, suggests that mosques in America are breeding grounds for militants. US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, has gone so far as to compare his God to the God of Muslims, saying "Islam is a religion in which Allah requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sent His son to die for you."
President Bush has continued to say that Muslims are good people and that Islam is peaceful, but he has also continued to coddle and patronize people who are outspoken about their dislike, and in many cases hatred, of Islam and Muslims. Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberston, Jerry Vine, all people who are high-profile men in America and yet all have had extremely destructive things to say about Islam and Muslims. Unfortunately, these are also men of influence and have a huge sway with Americans, especially Christians. When anti-Islamic speech comes from a particular group within a faith community, it appears as though those are the sentiments of the entire community. These men have helped create an environment in which it seems there is a fundamental conflict between Christians and Muslims.
A January 2002 poll showed that some 24% of Americans had a negative view of Islam and Muslims. By October, that number had risen to 33%. The most recent PEW Foundation survey found that the number as of July 2003 was 44%. The number of Americans who think this way is increasing as the 'war on terror' continues.
Our country is in the grips of a threat greater than terrorism. Democracy is eroding and it seems no one cares. We are heading down a road which will ultimately lead to a country where no one is safe and no one is secure. Right now it is a small minority that is being targeted but Americans would do well to remember that our post-9/11 laws and policies can apply to any and all. Muslims in this country are being persecuted solely on the basis of their religious affiliation but because of our secretive government, complicit media, and hate-spewing public figures Americans are unaware of most things and don't care about what they do know.
The Bush administration has refused to release Patriot Act-related records to Congress; it has refused to release the names of detainees or open their court hearings to the public; it is relying increasingly on secret evidence and exemptions under the Homeland Security Act to the Freedom of Information Act. We now have a secretive government acting outside the scrutiny of the public and its representatives. Since the Attorney General has declared a war on the streets of America against Americans, authentic information about the casualties and collateral damage have disappeared.
In 1942, 110,000 Japanese-Americans were herded into internment camps. They were singled out because of their race and country of origin. They were declared enemies of the state and lived, imprisoned in these camps, until the end of World War II. Only recently has our government apologized for this outrage.
But less than a decade after apologizing for this injustice, America has once again embarked upon a campaign that has severely undermined the civil rights of a minority community. This time, the fear and suspicion are aimed at Muslims and brown-skinned men. But rather than putting this new enemy in actual internment, their imprisonment is virtual. The walls of this virtual internment camp are the interrogations, home invasions, detentions and arrests, special registration, closed courts and their secret evidence, deportation, and discrimination that Muslims have faced since 9/11. This virtual internment camp is sustained by fear and hate, as well as a potent mixture of wartime racism, religious bigotry, and intolerance.
Most Americans seem to feel that sacrificing other people's liberty is fine as long as it means security for themselves. We should heed the words of one of this nation's founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, when he said, 'Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.'
A sustainable democracy requires an active and educated citizenry. Passivity and apathy will end up being worse enemies for us than any terrorist group. Our lack of engagement and lack of caring for our neighbors makes it easier for our government to enact laws and make policies that will make America less free, not just for some shunned and humiliated minority, but for us all.
© 2003 Abdul Malik Mujahid
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