Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 500 terrorism cases, yet there remains scant public understanding of what these federal cases have actually looked like and the impact they have had on communities and families. Published by The Nation in collaboration with Educators for Civil Liberties, the America After 9/11 series features contributions from scholars, researchers and advocates to provide a systematic look at the patterns of civil rights abuses in the United States’ domestic “war on terror.”
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African-Americans in the heart of Michigan’s auto industry built the mosque I attended as a child. In the tide and tumult of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad inspired them first to join the Nation of Islam, and later Sunni Islam. In the late 1970s, in the impoverished black city of Saginaw, they converted an abandoned church into a mosque. My Pakistani immigrant parents joined the mosque when they moved to the wealthier white Saginaw township in the 1980s. Over time the regulars at the mosque became a hodgepodge of believers: South Asian and Arab immigrants who needed a house of worship and were unafraid of traversing the city-township boundary; and African-Americans whose embrace of Islam set them apart from their families.
Our African-American imam took turns with others to deliver the Friday khutba (sermon). We witnessed oral traditions accented from around the globe and across the road: the khateebs (deliverers of sermons) were lyrical and inspired, awkward and soft-spoken; the congregants received the khutba differently too, from active talk back to a silent receptive posture. While varied in style, the khutba routinely offered global context and critical content. The khateebs would remind us of the poverty in Detroit’s neighborhoods and the death in Baghdad’s streets. They would preach about the importance of the Muslim ummah (global community) and the duty to speak out against injustices small and large. The khateeb would regularly call for civic engagement as he also reached for religious inspiration.
These days, when I stop in a mosque, I am struck by the new normal: no politics, no world, no nimble movement between religious ethics and social context. Today’s khutbas present the congregation religious teachings in a void. Khateebs speak of the importance of honesty, forgiveness, humility and remembrance. They ignore Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantánamo and drones, informants and surveillance. They tell stories about Muhammad, Abraham, Moses, Mary and Jesus but leave out the universal themes of poverty, inequality and injustice.
From mosques to Muslim Student Association offices, American Muslim community spaces have been emptied of their politics, leeched of their dynamism as centers for religious and political debate. This new normal is the result of ten years of post-9/11 scrutiny combined with our government’s more recent embrace of “counter-radicalization” and “countering violent extremism” programs, which subject Muslim communities’ religious and political practices to aggressive surveillance, regulation and criminalization.