Erosion of Civil Liberties


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


The United States has a checkered civil rights history that unfortunately often includes the demonization of minority populations, and the American Muslim community is no exception. Since September 11, American Muslims have collectively experienced greater public and legal scrutiny. While the group’s status as a targeted minority demographic group must be seen within the broader context of the struggle for fair and equal treatment carried out by other prominent minority communities previously under the spotlight—including the African American, Jewish American, and Japanese American communities—the profiling of American Muslims has additional repercussions in this age of hyper-globalization.

For years, the concept of “racial profiling” has reportedly undermined important terrorist investigations here in the United States. Immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, former Justice Department inspector general Glenn Fine officially reported that at least 1,200 men from predominantly Muslim and Arab countries were detained by law enforcement officials nationwide within the first two months alone after the attacks. Surprisingly, the inspector general also ultimately conceded within this official report that a senior officer in the Office of Public Affairs stopped reporting the cumulative count of detainees after 1,200 because the “statistics became too confusing.”

Moreover, in November 2001, former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft directed the FBI and other federal law enforcement officials to seek out and interview at least 5,000 men (without due cause and based on national origin) between the ages of 18 and 33 who had legally entered into the United States on non-immigrant visas in the past two years before 2001 and who came from specific countries linked by the government to “terrorism”.

As Georgetown University Law Center professor David Cole puts it, “Thousands were detained in this blind search for terrorists without any real evidence of terrorism, and ultimately without netting virtually any terrorists of any kind.”

Such instances of racial profiling were exacerbated in part because they were backed by legislation, which allowed unwarranted searches of private property and also gave access to records previously deemed inaccessible without showing probable cause of a criminal act. This was exemplified on October 25, 2001, a mere 45 days after September 11, when Congress passed the now infamous House Resolution 3162 titled the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act”, otherwise known as the “Patriot Act,” which led to devastating consequences for many American Muslims.

Under Sections 411 and 802, the official definition of “domestic terrorism” was broadly expanded so that university or college student groups who engage in certain types of legal and peaceful protests could very well find themselves labeled “domestic terrorists.” For example, the sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota, once declared that the student groups “Anti-Racist Action,” “Students Against War,” and “Arise” were potential “domestic terrorist” threats based on powers newly granted to him under the Patriot Act.

The highly contested Patriot Act paved the way for similar legislation and procedures that greatly limited American Muslims’ access to their guaranteed rights as American citizens. Arguably, the greatest factor at play was the assumption of members of the intelligence and law enforcement communities that there is an intrinsic link between religiosity and terrorism, specifically in cases of homegrown terrorism. Often referred to as the “religious conveyor belt” theory, the belief that religion (in this case, Islam) pushes individuals to adopt extremist ideology and carry out terrorist attacks has greatly influenced intelligence and law enforcement procedures post-9/11. However, this theory stands in direct contradiction with later research conducted by government, social scientists, and psychologists, and is congruent with efforts to penetrate American Muslim communities.

The origins of the “religious conveyor belt” theory can be found in the highly controversial 2007 New York Police Department (NYPD) report titled, “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.” The report concluded that “radical Islamic views” serve as a catalyst for violent extremism based on a handpicked sample of 10 case studies of homegrown terrorism. Furthermore, the report determined that there are “signatures” of potential terrorists, such as growing a beard or becoming involved in community activities. It is not surprising that these markers are mostly likely to be found in a large segment of the American Muslim population.

In 2011, it was uncovered that the NYPD had used millions of taxpayer dollars to develop an elaborate surveillance program based on the findings of this report. Journalists Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman of the Associated Press discovered that the NYPD was mapping, monitoring, and analyzing the daily lives of American Muslims in New York City and surrounding areas, and consistently spying on Muslim neighborhood cafes and Islamic places of worship. It was also uncovered that the FBI was infiltrating mosques to learn what was being said by imams and congregation members.

Understandably, these revelations brought on harsh criticism of the NYPD and FBI by both Muslims and non-Muslims who saw these procedures as unconstitutional and an intrusion on American Muslims’ First Amendment rights. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio (then a mayoral candidate) also condemned this news on Twitter during his campaign for mayor when he said that he was “Deeply troubled NYPD has labeled entire mosques & Muslim orgs terror groups with seemingly no leads. Security AND liberty make us strong.”

The public outcry over the surveillance of American Muslims culminated in June 2013, when the ACLU, NYCLU, and the CLEAR Project at CUNY Law School filed a lawsuit against the NYPD’s “discriminatory and unjustified surveillance of New York Muslims.” It wasn’t until January 2016 that the lawsuit was finally settled and the NYPD was barred from carrying out investigations on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity. Furthermore, the settlement discredited the NYPD’s 2007 “Radicalization in the West” report and ordered it to be removed from the police department’s website.

It is hard to deny the fact that such procedures are predicated on the belief that Muslims pose a direct threat to national security. In the post-9/11 context, American Muslims are commonly viewed through a “good versus evil” binary lens. Unfortunately, the rise of groups like Daesh and the global growth of violent extremism have kept American Muslims at center stage and exacerbated the belief that they are a threat to national security. President Donald Trump’s calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States and to reinstate unconstitutional surveillance methods reveal just how little progress has been made to protect American Muslims’ civil liberties.

Moving forward, it is crucial that intelligence and law enforcement agencies acknowledge the fact that the unconstitutional surveillance of American Muslim communities is being used as extremist propaganda and thus, jeopardizing broader counterterrorism efforts. They must also acknowledge the fact that their methods have undermined American Muslims’ efforts to fight extremism in their own communities and prevent further attacks from occurring. The question that we must ask ourselves today is: “Can we treat an entire community as a suspect, but also expect them to function as our partner?”

Though this trend may not seem promising, it perhaps provides motivation for American Muslims to learn from, and play their part in, the counter movements of other minority groups, who have been battling similar social injustices for decades. In working together to highlight injustices and civil liberties violations among all minorities, we not only show solidarity as Americans who support the Constitutional values that were established to protect our freedoms, but also educate and impact those in positions of power.