Fighting the Demonization of Ordinary American Muslims—Like Me

July 16, 2016


By Ali Albassam, Security with Human Rights volunteer

Newt Gingrich recently proposed that American Muslims be tested and questioned on their religious beliefs—and face deportation.

Gingrich told Fox News:

“The first step is you have to ask them the questions. The second step is you have to monitor what they’re doing on the Internet. The third step is, let me be very clear, you have to monitor the mosques.”

Gingrich’s comments are the latest in this trend: After horrific terrorism attacks, pundits take to cable news to offer discriminatory, anti-Muslim proposals and rhetoric.

For me, it hits home. I was twelve years old when the 9/11 attacks, a crime against humanity, occurred. A wave of discrimination followed—for me, and for many other American Muslims.

In my eyes, I was as American as anyone else my age. I celebrated the Fourth of July with my family, played high school sports and shared many of the same interests as my peers.

But after 9/11, I was frequently bullied in school and harassed in public, especially when I was with a relative who wore a headscarf. These changes made me paranoid, and I struggled with an identity crisis. Seemingly overnight, I went from being a regular American, to public enemy number one—by virtue of my faith.

I kept telling myself that things would get easier, that the feeling of being “othered” would eventually fade away, and that my faith would no longer be defined by the heinous actions of a few.

Unfortunately, the political and social climate for American Muslims has only worsened over time. Anti-Muslim discrimination is now mainstream and heavily ingrained within U.S. culture. We see it on TV news and Hollywood movies that continuously depict Muslims as terrorists.

Violence against American Muslims and mosques continues to be reported in the aftermath of attacks in the U.S. and Western Europe. Most frighteningly, it’s not just rhetoric – we’re seeing proposals to change U.S. law and law enforcement practices to target law-abiding American Muslims.

Gingrich joined other public figures in suggesting widespread monitoring of mosques—without suspicion of a crime. In fact, the NYPD has in the past done so—designating entire mosques as “terrorism enterprises” in order to justify the use of invasive surveillance measures.[2]

These policies demonize Muslim Americans and falsely portray the entire community as complicit in terrorism. In actuality, according to one study[3], two out of every five disrupted terrorism attacks between 2001 and 2011 were based on information provided by Muslim community members.

Another example is a Senate hearing on “Radical Islam” held a few weeks ago, as a response to the mass shooting in Orlando. As a volunteer for Amnesty International USA in Washington, D.C., I felt compelled to attend.

During my commute to the Senate building, I became overwhelmed with anxiety, afraid that I would somehow feel betrayed by my own government. But upon arrival, my anxieties quickly diffused. I noticed a long line of diverse attendees that wrapped around the building. Many showed up to protest the hearing and found creative ways to get their message across. Code Pink’s posters read, “Islamophobia is un-American”, and activists handed out “Islamophoben” pills to “cure irrational fear of Muslims.”

A handful of those who participated in the hearing conveyed a similar message.

Senator Coons (Del.) and Senator Durbin  (Ill.) spoke out against anti-Muslim bigotry during the hearing.  “We can and must defeat terrorism without sacrificing our constitutional principles,” Coons said.

“And to sacrifice these principles and blame over a billion Muslims … only serves to divide Americans, to alienate the Muslim world and legitimate the murderous groups.”

“We are being called upon like many generations have in the past, to respond to a legitimate fear of terrorism in a way that is consistent with our American values and when we lapse into this notion that we are going to condemn a faith I think we’ve gone too ”

Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a former undercover FBI agent of 16 years, testified that using terms like “radical Islam” actually “puts us on a path to perpetual war with predictable consequences to civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law.” He added, “[this language] only serves to stoke public fear, xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.”

Amnesty International USA, in this statement for the record, said that for U.S. law enforcement to single out American Muslims would be blatant religious discrimination, and fly in the face of U.S. commitments to support religious freedom at home and around the world:

“The U.S. should not join the dubious company of governments and armed groups that single out religious minorities for discriminatory treatment—including on the grounds of security. Examples include China, where Zhang Kai, a lawyer supporting churches resisting the removal of crosses, was placed under “residential surveillance” and accused of endangering national security in August 2015 ; and Iran, where in 2013 an Iranian-American Christian pastor was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for “forming house churches with intent to harm national security.”

The U.S. government must not respond to terrorism by betraying the very values it was founded on. By ensuring that American Muslims are treated with dignity and without discrimination in civic and political life, the U.S. can set an example of an effective counter terrorism strategy that doesn’t abandon its core values.

Learn more about Amnesty International USA’s The America I Believe In campaign. Take action: Tell your elected officials to stand up for human rights.