September 4, 2002
For Muslim Americans, Sept. 11 marks the anniversary of a difficult year. Like all Americans, Muslim Americans will be mourning the innocent victims of that horrific crime against humanity. We too felt the shock, anger and grief of that day. But, unlike the rest of the country, we are bracing ourselves for a fresh onslaught of abuse.
Reports from California and Florida indicate that an upswing in hate crimes has already begun.
In late August, police arrested a Florida podiatrist, who had in his possession 20 homemade bombs and two anti-armor rockets (among other weapons) and a list of some 50 Muslim places of worship. His assaults were luckily averted, but they are the latest manifestation of violent hatred against a whole community.
Since Sept. 11, more than 1,700 anti-Muslim incidents have been documented by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Since many of them go unreported, the actual number is likely much higher. In a recent poll, CAIR found that 57 percent of American Muslims report that they have experienced bias or discrimination since Sept. 11. The poll also discovered that 48 percent of respondents believe their lives have changed for the worse since the attacks.
This is hardly surprising. For the past year, Muslims have endured a daily barrage of demagoguery, distortions and outright lies about their faith. Never well understood in this country, Islam is now routinely caricatured. When the evangelist Franklin Graham calls Islam "an evil and wicked religion," I wonder what drives a man in his position of influence to malign 1.3 billion people around the world.
Most Muslims find such comments not only destructive but also ignorant. The Islam we know and practice is a faith that inspires a rich tradition of social justice and tolerance. We no more believe in Franklin Graham's version of Islam than we do Osama bin Laden's.
Unfortunately, despite its initially tolerant rhetoric, the Bush administration has been unfairly targeting Muslims.
Since Sept. 11, actions that we would previously have dismissed as unthinkable in the United States are occurring with astonishing regularity and coordination by the government. Muslims who are noncitizens have been rounded up by the hundreds and have languished in jail for months without being charged with any crime. The administration refuses to release their names, while people whose family members have gone missing stand outside detention centers in the New York area carrying their photos. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher has likened their fate to the "disappeared" of Argentina in the 1970s.
Muslims from select countries must soon be fingerprinted upon entry to the United States in a clear case of racial profiling. The FBI is keeping tabs on libraries and bookstores. And a Bush-appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights has suggested that if another attack were to occur, internment of Muslims and Arabs in the United States would be a possibility. "I think we will have a return to Korematsu," commissioner Kirsanow said, referring to the Supreme Court decision that sanctioned the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II.
Furthermore, American citizens can now be detained, denied access to a lawyer and held without charge in a military brig for an indefinite period. Judicial review is meant to protect us from abuses from our government, but the administration continually seeks to circumvent the role of the judiciary. One federal appellate judge, Chief Judge Henry Wilkinson III, has noted with concern that under the administration's position, now "any American citizen alleged to be an enemy combatant could be detained indefinitely without charges or counsel."
Democracy derives its power, its moral authority, and its consent from the public precisely by protecting the weak from the tyranny of the strong. Notions of due process and equality before the law are central to this. When you lose that protection, you have lost it all.
The government has an obligation to keep its citizenry safe from attack. But we must be vigilant in our understanding that it is wrong to trade off someone else's liberty for our own sense of security. The government is sacrificing the rights of Muslim immigrants because they are politically powerless. Meanwhile, the administration is banking on secrecy to accomplish its unconstitutional goals, and that same secrecy has, by and large, allowed the public to blithely accept its actions. Yet, as Judge Damon Keith of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recently wrote, "Democracies die behind closed doors."
Now is the time for Americans of all varieties to stand up to the abuses done in their name. We should loudly oppose secret and unfair practices not only because we could be next in line for government mistreatment if we express an unpopular opinion, nor simply because our neighbors have been unduly targeted on the basis of their national origin, religion or political leanings. We should do so because justice demands it.
On this day when we remember the victims of Sept. 11, let's not count the Constitution as one of those casualties.
Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor in the English department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and co-editor of "The Edward Said Reader" (Vintage, 2000). He can be reached at email@example.com.