The United States of Islamophobia

January 19, 2012

President Barack Obama's signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on December 31 shocked many people who hoped that Obama, a former constitutional law professor, would reverse the abuses routinely committed by the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

But while the NDAA--with its provisions that authorize the military, on the say-so of the president, to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens--is ominous, it certainly isn't Obama's first assault on civil liberties. After spending his presidential campaign in 2008 criticizing the Bush administration for providing a "legal" justification for torture, Obama has refused to take action against Bush-era officials for violating international law, and he has made sure the U.S. government's repressive apparatus remains in place, at home and in countries around the world.

Abdul Malik Mujahid is a leader of Muslim Peace Coalition, an organization formed in 2011 to challenge Islamophobia. He spoke with Eric Ruder about the anxiety that the NDAA has caused in the Muslim American community--and what people are doing to stand up for their rights.

WHAT WAS your reaction was when you heard that Barack Obama had signed the NDAA?

I REMEMBERED a moment when Obama was asked a question while he was still on the campaign trail and competing with Hillary Clinton. "If Dr. King were alive today, would he support you or Hillary Clinton?" someone asked. Obama took a professorial pause and then responded, "He would support neither one of us; he would be mobilizing people for his demands."

I think all those people who took his promises at face value should have considered that he is a savvy politician. And like all savvy politicians, he must be held to his promises, rather than trusted to deliver.

He has continued and in some ways strengthened the policies of abuse characteristic of the Bush era. Without a doubt, the signing of legislation that authorizes the indefinite detention of American citizens adds to this.

I'm not an economic refugee in America. I had better job, a better life, in my home country. I came here because of the Bill of Rights, because of the promise of freedom above and beyond the practice in my country. But today, it seems like there is more freedom written into the law in Pakistan than there is in the United States.

Protesters stand up to Islamophobia in New York City
Protesters stand up to Islamophobia in New York City (Matt Swagler | SW)

HOW DID it get to this point?

I THINK we're all responsible in not taking a strong enough stand against the first dawn of indefinite detention at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Once they were able to do that, they started little Gitmos all around the world.

And then the U.S., which at times champions human rights, went on the offensive to justify torture, which created even more space for the rest of the torturers in the world who hadn't yet gone where America has gone. Today, there are many more Gitmos around the world, some controlled by America and some controlled by other nations, but all in the name of "national security."

Meanwhile, those detained don't have the opportunity to have a trial, they aren't allowed lawyers, and they literally have no way to defend themselves from whatever charges may be lodged against them. The impact of this goes way beyond America.

In truth, the Muslim community in the United States has been living in a virtual internment camp ever since 9/11. Since then, more than 700,000 Muslims have been interviewed by the FBI. That means nearly 50 percent of all Muslim households have been touched by this "investigation." Practically all mosques have been "checked for nuclear bombs" or other fear-provoking reasons. That's the level of trust we "enjoy" in the Muslim community.

Our community has been continually hammered by a mix of repressive policies and media finger-pointing, which has resulted in a new form of Islamophobia. This discrimination is a toxic brew of misguided public policy, fueled by irresponsible pundits, and the impact is significant.

Wages of Muslims fell by at least 10 percent, even before the economic downturn of 2008. Some 75 percent of young Muslims report that they've been personally discriminated against or their friends are being harassed and profiled. According to Columbia University researchers, around 7 percent of all Muslim children in public schools have been physically beaten up.

We live in a very precarious situation in the Muslim community. The newest phase of this is the criminalization of Islam through "anti-sharia laws," which have now been introduced in 26 states. Four states have already passed such proposals into law, and at least one legislative chamber in four more states have passed similar bills.

Together, these developments have created an environment which can only be described as a virtual internment camp. And then along comes Obama's passage of legislation authorizing indefinite detention. It seems self-evident that this is not going to be targeted at people generally, but at the Muslim community or those who look like they might be Muslim.

How the targeting takes place is outrageous, too--there are cases of investigations of people who dye their hair or change their names. These are things that people do all the time, but today, they may trigger an "investigation."

HOW MUCH fear exists in the community, and what kind of impact do you think it will have?

THERE IS a very high level of concern in the community--a whole lot of fear. For example, the many causes that people have traditionally contributed to are getting starved for resources because almost every person who has donated anything to any charity has had a knock on their door by the FBI.

People are scared. It seems that there's a regime of fear. The result is that the Muslim community, as opposed to the Jewish community or Catholics or Protestants or Mormons, has a higher unemployment rate. More people declare themselves to be self-employed, which generally means that they don't have a job, and that they are struggling to make ends meet since the crisis hit in 2008.

So there's been a huge impact, and people are talking about it. I find that a lot of Muslims have made phone calls and reached out to politicians around the question of indefinite detention, and they've been terribly disappointed in the response. If Obama loses the 2012 election by a margin of 1 percent or something like that, it is likely that the difference can be explained by the Muslim vote, which he repelled.

IN WHAT ways is the Muslim community standing up to these violations of basic civil liberties?

THE MUSLIM Peace Coalition is a coalition of Muslims who are antiwar and who are oriented to organizing within the peace and justice movement in 15 states. We have launched a campaign to call out Obama for this violation of our rights and the rights of all Americans.

The campaign focuses on three areas. First, we are seeking to organize legal professionals to stand up and speak out against these injustices. By drawing together lawyers, bar associations and judges in city after city and state after state, we are building opposition on the legal front.

We are also working on getting 1,000 academics and 1,000 clergy people to sign on to our campaign. Academics give the movement intellectual depth, and clergy give the movement moral depth. This may not provide immediate results, but it's an essential part of a sustained campaign as we near the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

At the same time, there is a growing realization in the Muslim community that we cannot stand alone--that we must stand with all organizations and individuals who stand for peace and justice for all people throughout the world. Hence, we plan to send representatives to the upcoming national conference of the United National Antiwar Coalition on March 23-25, in Stamford, Conn. The goal is to get many people there to help create some momentum in this area.

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