Florida terrorism scare demonstrates problems facing US Muslims

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Waseem Shehzad

Ramadan 11, 1430 2009-09-01

Special Reports

by Waseem Shehzad (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 7, Ramadan, 1430)

These are tough times to be a Muslim in North America, especially living in the US. Muslims travelling from Canada to the US at the beginning of September to attend the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) annual convention in Washington DC were told bluntly by US customs officials that Islam and America do not mix. This crude remark was made when American officials learnt that the convention theme was “Islam in America.” Yet ISNA is not a radical organization; its top echelon consists of people who have spent their lives trying to get on with the Saudi regime and every US administration, regardless of its orientation. ISNA’s main purpose appears to be to appease whoever is in power; worshipping the rising sun is their creed. In fact, George W. Bush’s victory in November 2000 was partly the result of efforts by organizations such as ISNA and its affiliates to gather Muslim support for him. So the behaviour of US officialdom is all the more remarkable, and reflects the new anti-Muslim mood sweeping the US since the events of last September.

Last month three Muslim students heading for medical school were apprehended on a Florida highway after a tip-off from a woman who claimed that she “overheard” them say they were going to bring something down on September 13. In the atmosphere of paranoia created by US officials, especially attorney general John Ashcroft, white Americans now feel they have a duty to look upon every “foreign-looking” person with suspicion. Ashcroft’s crude appeal to people to become vigilantes and report any “suspicious” activity to the authorities has led directly to such incidents. On the evening of September 12, Eunice Stone claimed that she had overheard three Muslim students say they were going to “bring it down.” She immediately took this to mean they were going to bring down a building. The three American-born Muslim students — Kambiz Butt, 25, Ayman Gheith, 27, and Omar Choudhary, 23 — were on their way to Larkin Medical Hospital in Miami, Florida to start their medical training. They stopped at Shoney’s restaurant in Cartersville, Georgia, before taking the highway known as Alligator Alley. There, as a result of Stone’s tip-off, the police were waiting for them. They were arrested and the highway closed for 17 hours while television and radio commentators outdid each other announcing the arrest of another set of “terrorists.”

Americans love drama: SWAT teams brandishing huge guns surrounded the highway and helicopters hovered overhead in case the “terrorists” tried to escape - where to, nobody explained. Journalists and an army of TV cameramen, the latter dressed in flakjackets, descended on the highway to film and record the arrest of “terrorists living in our midst.” After a 17-hour closure of the highway to search their car, their persons and clothes, the three were released without charge and without an apology. They were completely innocent; the woman had mistakenly assumed that they were planning mischief, when in fact what one of the students had said was someone whom he knew would bring down his car from Chicago to Florida.

Yet, far from deterring officials from fostering such paranoia, justice department spokesman Mark Corallo praised Stone’s behaviour: “Any time a citizen feels that they have witnessed something suspicious, we want them to notify the appropriate authorities. Citizen vigilance is an essential part of the fight against terrorism here at home,” the Associated Press quoted him on September 16. But Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said: “There’s a problem when you basically deputize everyone in America. Does a person reading the Qur’an in the airport, or a man wearing a skullcap, constitute suspicious activity? Where does it leave us?” Even the US Postal Service shunned the programme, in which truckers, train conductors, utility employees and others were supposed to report systematically on “suspicious activities”.

Although the three Muslim students had done nothing wrong, they lost their places at medical school. Dr Jack Michel, the head of Larkin Community Hospital, said that he could not take them on his programme any more. He claimed that he had received more than 200 emails, some of them threatening. Ruining Muslims’ lives is now obviously acceptable in the US. Mosques have been attacked and vandalised, Muslims have been taken off airplanes because some passenger did not like the look or dress of a Muslim or Muslimah, and grocery stores and gas stations run by Muslims have been attacked. All this is happening with official encouragement: Americans feel that they are justified in seeking revenge from all 7 or 8 million Muslims living in the US for what happened last September.

By this logic, every American found anywhere in the Muslim world can be considered a legitimate target, because America has done far worse things to Muslims and is doing so even now. US support for Israel is sufficient reason for Muslims to feel angry with America; American policies in Afghanistan are killing people. The ongoing campaign to launch a full-scale invasion of Iraq, even after US-led sanctions have killed more than 1.5 million Iraqi civilians since 1991, all create resentment against America. Does any of this justify attacks against individual Americans abroad? If not, how can ordinary Muslims be targeted in America for what happened there last year?

After the attacks on them World Trade Centre and Pentagon, at least 1,200 people (possibly many more) were rounded up by US authorities. The overwhelming majority were completely innocent; most had in fact merely overstayed their visa, a common occurrence in the US. There are about 5.5 million people in this category, but only Muslims and Arabs were arrested and jailed without charge or legal advice. The case of Shakir Ali Baloch, a 40-year-old Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin, is typical. American federal agents picked him up from a Long Island City driving school on September 20, 2001. He is medical doctor who could not get a job in Canada, so he went to the US to see what he could do there. Canadian citizens do not need a visa to enter the US, so he had no problem getting in; they can stay there for six months. Baloch overstayed but thought that after confessing this to federal agents, he would be deported to Canada. Instead he had to endure a seven-month ordeal during which he was beaten, strip-searched, tortured and repeatedly questioned about his faith. He was denied access to Canadian consular officials as well as contact with a lawyer. When his family contacted the Canadian government and Ottawa made enquiries, the US government at first flatly denied arresting him.

It was only when lawyers and civil-rights activists found him at the Metropolitan Correction Centre in New York that the Canadian government became sufficiently concerned to send a note requesting an explanation. The US state department simply dismissed the query, saying that Baloch had waived his right to contact the Canadian consul. Baloch said he did so because he thought he was being deported, and added that his later requests were denied. When he was finally allowed to contact a lawyer, he was moved out of solitary confinement but then charged with illegal entry and obtaining a forged national security card. He was eventually deported without his watch, briefcase, clothes, shoes, Canadian health card, citizenship card and social insurance card.

The Canadian government also appears not to be taking sufficient interest in defending the rights of its own Muslim citizens. For instance Omar Khidhr, a 15-year-old Canadian-born Muslim, was arrested in Afghanistan by American troops last July. He was alleged to have shot and killed an American soldier, but he was not charged. He has been held by US forces, but the Canadian authorities have remained largely silent about his case, despite his being a minor. Omar’s father, Ahmed, has done charitable work in Afghanistan since the early nineteen-eighties; in 1995 he was arrested by the Pakistani government and charged with involvement in an attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. When Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien visited Islamabad, he raised the issue with then Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who promptly released him. Ahmed Khidhr’s name has appeared on the US list of suspected terrorists but, given the paranoia sweeping America, who would be foolish enough to hand themselves over to the cowboys in Washington?

When American-born Muslim citizens are denied their basic rights, how can citizens of other countries hope for justice? Last June John Ashcroft told a press conference in Moscow that the US government had arrested Abdullah al-Muhajir, formerly Jose Padilla, who was “thinking” of making a “dirty bomb.” This nonsense was then flashed across television screens and splashed in bold headlines across newspapers throughout the US. It later transpired that Padilla had been arrested a month earlier; why did Ashcroft choose Moscow as a venue and wait for a month to make his dramatic announcement, if Padilla were indeed such a threat? And what is a “dirty bomb” anyway? And how did Ashcroft and others find out that Padilla was “thinking” of making a bomb; do they have the ability to look into people’s minds? Similar treatment was meted out to Yasir Hamdi, an American-born Muslim whose parents are from Saudi Arabia, yet John Walker Lindh, a white American, was given very different treatment. Both Hamdi and Lindh were arrested in Afghanistan; Lindh has been charged in a civil court and has a lawyer to represent him, but Hamdi is considered an enemy combatant and is being held in a navy compound without access to a lawyer. Padilla, who is of Latino origin but was born in the US, is also classified as a material witness and, therefore, denied access to a lawyer.

The case of three Pakistani-born scientists is also revealing. Irshad Shaikh, his brother Masood and their friend Asif Kazi were arrested from their Chester, Pennsylvania, homes in November 2001 in the aftermath of the anthrax scare. They all worked for Chester City in the science lab, investigating hazardous materials. Their homes were raided, their computers, books, papers and passports were seized, and they were accused of involvement in the manufacture or use of chemical and biological agents, a charge which they vigorously denied. Even their fellow scientists at the city have supported them, but although the FBI and justice department have returned all their equipment and no charges have been made, their names have not been cleared. “My mother is about as likely to be a terrorist as Irshad Shaikh,” said Greg Pappas, a former senior policy adviser to the US Surgeon General. “The idea is ludicrous!” Apparently not so ludicrous to Ashcroft and his overzealous officials, for whom every Muslim is guilty until proved innocent.

Paranoia reigns supreme in the US, and Muslims had better look out.

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