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History Does Not Repeat Itself, But Ignorance Does: Post-9/11 Treatment of Muslims and the Liberty-Security Dilemma

 

One early April morning in 2003, Mohammad Ali lined up in front of Federal Plaza 26 in Manhattan behind many dark-haired men. The atmosphere was tense and—like the other men around him—Mohammed was fearful of what would happen, although he had been assured by an immigration lawyer that he had nothing to worry about. And because no one could tell him what to expect if he did not register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he appeared in good-faith, willing to obey the rules and laws of the country that had granted him and his family asylum in the mid-nineties. He had no idea that he would not come home to his wife and three children that day, or for that matter, ever again. After proceeding to the third floor to room 310, he was told that his lawyer had filed his asylum paperwork incorrectly.  Incidentally, Mr. Ali was put and detained for seven months in Elizabethtown, New Jersey and then deported back to his country of origin Bangladesh. 

In the aftermath of 9/11, the US Government has increasingly implemented special programs with hopes of “curbing and countering terrorism” and “enemy combatants.” Although it is not explicitly stated in the official documents, these policies, such as the USA Patriot Act and the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or Special Registration program, have been targeted towards and thus disproportionately affected Arabs, South Asians and Muslims in America. These policies have missed its target and abused the trust of cooperative communities. In addition, an increased sense of threat held by many Americans has often formed a basis for subtle, pervasive societal racism. The corollaries of “The War on Terror,”  has had multiple effects on the Arab, South Asian and Muslim communities in America—both positive and negative, but often life-changing. Furthermore, not only has it conflated immigration with terrorism, it has also evoked other periods in American history, when the rights and liberties of a specific minority have been sacrificed for national security.

In 2002 and 2003, the Special Registration program required male non-citizens above the age of 16 from 25 countries to register with the Department of Homeland and Security (DHS) as a measure of counter-terrorism. It is no coincidence that 24 of these countries had predominantly Muslim populations. Out of the 80,000 who registered with DHS under the Special Registration Act between 2002 and 2003, 13,100 were put into deportation proceedings. Like Mohammed Ali, most of them were charged with minor immigration offenses, such as overstaying visas. “The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, clearly conflated immigration with questions of national security and criminalized immigrants in a way never seen before,” says Tushar Sheth from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Even before September 11, several mid-nineties draconian immigration laws including the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, restricted and controlled immigration from countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya. Tushar Sheth views these laws as dangerous and absurd: “It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.” With regards to the special registration program, he states that it had no transparency at all because the consequences of non-cooperation were unclear. Ultimately, it was ineffective in curtailing terrorism, because none of the registered men were found to have connections to terrorism. In addition, the laws have been counter-productive: because many men were encouraged to register by their community leaders or Imams, previously cooperative communities are now closed as possible sources of intelligence.

Opening the big folder with documents from the Human Rights Commission, Mohammed Razvi starts reading aloud “Ten year old girl, Pakistani, Muslim. Question: have you been discriminated against? Answer: Yes, I was walking and a lady called me a terrorist and made killing signs. Have you reported this to the police? No, I was too frightened to tell anyone.” Without taking a pause, the man with the short beard and lively eyes turns to the following page and continues: “Let’s look at another case—an eleven year old girl, born in the US to Pakistani-born parents. Have you been discriminated against? Yes, they called me Afghani and asked me, how can you be here if you just dropped the twin towers?” The events of September 11 changed her life because “it makes me sad that I am being blamed for something that I didn’t do.” While running his hand through the many individual discrimination cases in the folder, Mr. Razvi sighs and says: “Hundreds and hundreds of cases, I could go on and on.” Mohammed Razvi, who is called Moe by many, is the director and founder of the Council of Pakistan Organization (CoPO). CoPO was founded in February 2002, after Mohammed Razvi and other community members recognized the crisis faced by the low-income Muslim community in the aftermath of 9/11. Razvi had turned one of his businesses on Coney Island Avenue into an ad-hoc office for people seeking legal help for family members who had been picked up by the FBI in the months after the Twin Tower attacks. According to Mr Razvi, approximately 500 men in his community were detained. Eventually, the name of the organization was changed “because [he] had Indians, Bangladeshi, Haitians, Mexicans and Sri Lankans coming in.”

The Coney Island Avenue neighborhood in mid-Brooklyn can be characterized as predominantly Muslim and South Asian—mainly Pakistani and Bangladeshi. According to a survey conducted by CoPO in 2003, the community was already poverty-stricken and marginalized before 9/11, but the “rise of racist brutality, racial profiling and selective immigration enforcement, only added to the woes.” Razvi describes the impact of 9/11 and the Special Registration program on the community as fundamentally changing the demographics. From fear of being deported, many families fled with their sons and fathers. The principal of the Public School 217 around the corner from the CoPO office said that 50 students just disappeared with their families. “That’s 50 families, that’s 300 people considering that there are usually 6 people in South Asian families,” says Mr. Razvi with a concerned voice. 

With the flight of families, the customers vanished, which in the long-term impacted the business and commercial structure in mid-Brooklyn. Although many were at their peak before 9/11, 30 out of the approximately150 businesses owned by Muslims in the area went out of business. Special Registration worsened the problem. Restaurants laid off their workers and dropped up to 80% of their income, and some jewelry stores and insurance companies had to close their doors completely. “Special registration has not only ripped families apart, but whole communities,” says Mohammed Razvi, “and that’s why our mission continues even after the Special Registration has stopped. We are rebuilding the community through community education workshops, legal clinics, youth programs, as well as encouraging them to register and vote.” 

Despite the dire picture that emerges from talking with CoPO, Tariq Mohammed, an Indian Muslim living in New York, highlights some of the positive consequences of 9/11. “Before, Muslims and Arabs, especially those in the higher socio-economic groups, had felt immune to prejudice and unwilling to participate in the civil rights or human rights struggle.  The events of 9/11 demonstrated their own inadequacies and focused their attention on their identity, rights and civic participation.  The younger generation has begun to assert their own agenda as American, Muslim-Americans.” 

The targeting of a specific group of people in a time of national emergency, based on a putative national or religious affiliation with the ‘enemy,’ seems to be embedded in the history of the United States, the most prominent example being the Japanese Internment during World War II. According to Robert Asahina, Visiting Scholar at the Asian-Pacific-American Studies Institute at New York University, parallels can be drawn in comparing the Japanese Internment and the treatment of Muslims after the events of 9/11 with regards to some faultlines of American democracy. These fissures are exacerbated in wartime: the tendency to diminish the civil liberties of certain groups of people, often marginalized, in order to guarantee national security. When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, he commenced one of the most egregious deprivations of liberty in the United States history – the internment of 110,000 Americans and permanent residents without trial or hearings. These men, women and children, of whom two-thirds were citizens of the United States, were summarily declared guilty and regarded as the “enemy race” by the virtue of their Japanese ancestry. Robert Asahina states that “the doctrine of executive orders provides the president with the authority to override Congress in times of emergency.” In 1944, a sharply divided Supreme Court also upheld the constitutionality of the Order in Korematsu v. United States. In his powerful dissent, Justice Jackson illustrated the consequences of this majority decision: “once a judicial opinion rationalizes an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution […], the court for all times has validated the principle of racial discrimination…the principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.” 

However, Robert Asahina points out there is a difference in scale and political climate regarding the human rights violations of people of Japanese ancestry and the current policy regarding Arabs and South Asians after 9/11.  Most notably, “We have had the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” which has strengthened minority rights. Nevertheless, although there has been no wholesale policy of direct exclusion from public life of a certain group of people after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush’s administration’s policy responses have been colored with similar assumptions of collective guilt. Robert Asahina warns that such a possibility still legally exists, “because Korematsu has never been declared invalid—technically, something like the Japanese Internment can happen again, to anyone, citizen or non-citizen of the United States.” 

David Cole, professor at Georgetown University Law Center, states that “in the wake of September 11, we plainly have to rethink the balance between liberty and security once more.”  The liberty-security dilemma has been debated by political philosophers since the 18th century. The United States government’s response has revealed a “contestability of rights.” According to Darren W. Davis and Brian D. Silver, political scientists at Michigan State University, the willingness to trade-off civil liberties with more personal security coincides with a sense of threat. In this analysis, the individual’s support for civil liberties stands opposed to the government’s efforts to provide security from terrorism. A balance could be achieved when a democratic society distributes costs and benefits equally on society. In the case of the Special Registration program and other policies imposed on the Muslims in the United States after 9/11, however, the liberties of a minority group have been sacrificed to benefit the majority’s security interests. Non-citizens do not have the right to vote and lack representation in the political arena, and are therefore especially vulnerable. The United States Constitution, however, provides basic rights such as political freedom, due process and equal protection of the laws on all persons subject to the law. David Cole argues that “these rights are best understood not as special privileges stemming from a specific social contract but from what it means to be a person with free and equal dignity.” Consequently, the fundamental challenge to the United States’ democracy is not how it treats those with a political voice, but how it treats and protects those without a voice in the political process. 

As the eldest daughter, Navila Mohammed has taken on the role of the head of the family, since Ali Mohammed, the principal breadwinner, is gone. Unlike many of her community members, who have become alienated by the government and retreated into the community, she has taken a leadership role and has committed herself to dialogues with the majority population. When she speaks about her deported father in Bangladesh, she does not discuss the liberty-security trade-off. Instead, she speaks about violated rights, discrimination—the language of citizenship. But apart from that she also speaks in a very human language of pain and loss:  the worst part, for Navila, is that her father did not even have the chance to say good bye.  

Having faith in humanity and our country, we can only hope that another 12/7 or 9/11 will not happen again. However, if another tragedy strikes, another opportunity will present itself to our nation. What America does with its power will be a testament to its commitment and dedication, or lack there of, to the ideals it was founded on. May diversity and democracy prevail.

 

References

 

Cole, David. "Enemy Aliens." Georgetown University Law Center: 2002

Working Paper Series in Business, Economics and Regulatory Law (June

2002)

Davis, Darren and Brian Silver. “Civil Liberties vs. Security: Public Opinion in the Context of Terrorist Attacks on America.” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 48. (January 2004).

"Have We Learned the Lessons of History?: World War 2 Japanese

Internment and Today's Secret Detentions." American Immigration Law

Foundation. (October 2002)

"Law Enforcement and Arab American Community Relations After September

11, 2001: Engagement in a Time of Uncertainty." Vera Institute of

Justice (June 2006)

"Special Registration: Discrimination and Xenophobia as Government

Policy." Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (January

2004)

Interviews:

Maher Abdel, an engineer for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (July 28, 2006)

Robert Asahina, Visiting Scholar for Asian/Pacific/American Studies

Institute at New York University (July 26, 2006)

Antoine Faisal, Founder and Chief Editor of Aramica (July 28, 2006)

Mohammed Ravzi, Director of Council of Peoples Organizations. (August 2, 2006)

Sarang Sekhavat. Iranian-American, Deputy Director of Arab

Anti-Discrimination Committee (July 28, 2006)

Tushar Sheth, Lawyer for Asian American Legal Defense Fund (July 27, 2006)

Websites:

"The USA Patriot Act and Government Actions that Threaten Our Civil

Liberties." American Civil Liberties Union. Available at

http://www.aclu.org/FilesPDFs/patriot%20act%20flyer.pdf. (February

2003). 

 

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