The State of Civil Liberties in Today’s America
By Christina Abraham
June 2, 2005
In November of last year a Muslim doctor was pulled over by police officers and searched; his car was seized.
The officers accused him of planning to purchase drugs. They arrested him without a warrant, and without reading his rights. During his detainment, the man requested that he be allowed to pray, but the officers would not release the handcuffs on his hands. Instead, they told him to pray as he was; they stood around him calling him Bin Laden, Jihadi, and terrorist. The police found nothing with which they could incriminate him, no evidence to support the arrest; the man’s records are currently being expunged.
It should go without saying that Muslims in the United States seek the same things every other member of this society seeks: freedom, security without fear. It is unfortunate, however, to see so many cases reported to CAIR-Chicago that depict a very different type of existence for Muslims in the post 9/11 era. A society in which the police, the FBI and other organizations that are supposed to protect the citizenry are actually causes for fear. A society where policies adopted by the government infringe upon the very liberties they claim to be protecting. In fact, there are more cases dealing with discrimination from government organizations than any other type of case, including employment discrimination. Incidents of government discrimination make up 41% of the total cases in our local chapter and 29% of incidents reported to CAIR nation-wide.
Another case that took place in March of this year saw a Muslim man, after being stopped for a routine traffic violation, handcuffed and taken to the local police station by two officers. The officers then took the handcuffed man into the station’s bathroom and began to physically assault him. They slammed his head into a wall which resulted in a large cut above his eye. The ordeal was captured on tape by video cameras. The officers were charged with battery, official misconduct and obstructing justice. Now, regardless of whether they are convicted, the Muslims of this city are sent a clear message when incidents like this occur: the entities in which they seek protection are the very entities from which they need to be protected. The complaints that there is a growing and indiscriminate backlash against Muslims and their institutions in this country since 9/11 and the Iraq war is gaining credibility.
Now it can be said that these are sporadic incidents carried out by overzealous officers acting on their own and are not a product of the policies adopted by our governments, local or federal. However, one need only look at the policies endorsed by our government to understand that there is a certain level of subconscious encouragement for these egregious violations of civil liberties, if not outright and premeditated. Policies such as the USA Patriot Act that make it conspicuously easier for investigators to monitor individuals without their knowledge, secretly obtaining records and personal belongings of both citizens and permanent residents, policies that make private information available to non-governmental third parties, and makes the process for obtaining search warrants far less stringent – these policies compromise the rights of all citizens and because of the very basis upon which the act was passed, they target the Muslim American community . As the findings in CAIR’s Annual Report states:
“As financial institutions began to implement the USA Patriot Act, customers with Muslim names reported various discriminatory experiences. The Act requires banks and other financial institutions to verify identities of new customers and to report suspicious activities to the authorities. The Act places sanctions against institutions for noncompliance. In many cases, however, customers whose names are not on the government’s list of ‘Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons’ and who have done business with banks and other financial institutions prior to the passage of the USA Patriot Act have been unnecessarily requested to provide detailed documentation of their identities and other financial and tax records. In other cases, people were notified that their accounts had been cancelled or closed without any explanation.” A case such as the last one mentioned was reported to CAIR-Chicago in April. A charitable institution that provides funding for elementary schools in impoverished areas of Pakistan had its bank account closed without reason. In a perfect illustration of the aforementioned fear, the executive chair of the organization was too afraid to even file a FOIA request because he thought it might result in some sort of retaliation from the government or more invasions of his privacy and infringements of his rights.
Another phenomenon that has begun to occur since 9/11 is the citizenship delays that more and more Muslims are facing. These individuals fulfill all of the requirements of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services and are not granted citizenship status because they are subjected to background checks that have no time limitations and have left people waiting take their oaths for several months, even years. We have several such cases at CAIR-Chicago and are working with other organizations that have also spotted the same phenomenon.
These policies have left their indelible mark upon the Muslim community. Special registrations, FBI interviews, the closing of bank accounts, the monitoring of the books they read, search warrants for their person or property for no other reason except that they are Arab and/or Muslim, the seemingly unending delay in obtaining their citizenship due to background checks that have no time limits, have real implications for the members of the Muslim American community. It has made them fear their government rather than respect and revere it. It has made them feel like outsiders, though they are citizens and integral members of society. The message sent to them by our government is clear: this is not your home.
When our very own government condones the profiling and targeting of its Muslim citizens, what will stop the local police officer or the hiring manager at a company from doing the same? At what point will this stripping of civil liberties in the name of “security” cease? At what point will this dehumanization of fellow members of society end? And what are we, as a community of minorities, waiting for before we come together to secure our rights? Our civil liberties are not privileges graciously granted to us by our government, they are rights that we are entitled to, that countless people struggled for, and that today we must struggle to maintain.
In yet another incident that was reported recently to CAIR-Chicago, a man was selling his car, and received a phone call from a woman who said she was interested in buying. She did not want to meet him at his home, but instead insisted on meeting him somewhere else. When he met the woman at a Starbucks he was surprised to learn that she and her companion were actually FBI agents. Needless to say they were not interested in buying his car. Instead they proceeded to question him about his involvements, his past acquaintances, his family and friends. When he expressed his desire to have an attorney present they intimidated him into speaking with them on the spot. They then informed him that his home was being searched as they spoke and showed him the warrant. The FBI had banged on the door of their home demanding his wife open up. When she had asked them to give her a minute so that she could clothe herself appropriately they responded with “Oh no no no” and forced the door open. Afraid, the wife had run into the bathroom to try to cover up, but she was quickly joined by two agents, one of whom pushed her. They then proceeded to search their apartment for six hours with utter disregard for his personal belongings – even ripping open his mattress and breaking his bed frame, while his wife and young children were made to sit in silence. His children still have trouble sleeping through the night, one, an adolescent, has even wet her bed on several occasions since. Nothing was found to incriminate the man; he was neither arrested nor charged.
On the occasion when one is unfortunate enough to have charges brought against them, often the charges are so serious that it is difficult to find an attorney to take the case, and when one is lucky enough to find an attorney willing to take the case, they demand more money than these people can possibly amass. Almost always, they end up being represented by a public defender who cannot give their case the attention it deserves, and they are not given the fair trial that is supposed to be guaranteed to them by this, the land of liberty.
I was asked to reflect upon the general trends of the post 9/11 experience for the Muslim community and the impact that government legislation has had on them. These are my reflections: we live in a state where human dignity is sacrificed to paranoia and ignorance. Where groups that are not fully understood or appreciated are targeted and marginalized. Where the means of expression have been radically reduced, where the people who are brave enough to stand up for the values that this country is supposed to embody are stifled and made examples of through various forms of humiliation. And where others have been forced to believe that they are marginal and that nothing they do can change that, so they stand by and silently wait for these moments to pass like a fleeting nightmare.
We must never forget that we are all connected as members of a human community, and that the dehumanization of one of us is the dehumanization of us all. That a single violation of civil rights, however far away from you as it may seem, weakens the entire framework of our liberties and threatens the basis upon which they were fought. These are our God-given rights, it was not any government that bestowed them upon us, nor should any be allowed to take them away.