Sade and four of his twentysomething friends sit at a hookah cafe almost underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn. It’s late, but the summer heat is strong and hangs in the air. They sit on the sidewalk in a circle, water pipes bubbling between their white plastic chairs.
Sade is upset. He recently found out that his close friend of almost four years was an undercover police detective sent to spy on him, his friends and his community. Even the guy’s name, Kamil Pasha, was fake, which really irked the 24-year-old Palestinian-American. After appearing as a surprise witness at a recent terrorism trial in Brooklyn, Pasha vanished. That’s when Sade (who doesn’t want his last name used) discovered the truth.
“I was very hurt,” he says. “Was it friendship or was he doing his job?” He takes a puff from his water pipe. “I felt betrayed.” The smoke comes out thick and smells like apples. “How could I not have seen this? The guy had four bank accounts! He was always asking for a receipt wherever we went. He had an empty apartment: a treadmill, a TV and a mattress. No food, no wardrobe.” He shakes his head. “We were stupid not to figure it out.”
Informants and spies are regular conversation topics in the age of terror, a time when friendships are tested, trust disappears and tragedy becomes comedy. “You have to know the family,” Sade says. He goes around the circle. “His mother is my aunt. I’ve known him since I was in second grade. I know where his family lives, and he’s also my cousin,” he says, ticking off each person in turn. He gets to me. “You I’m not so sure about!” he says, and all the young men laugh loudly.
If questioning friendship isn’t enough, Sade has also had other problems to deal with. He quit his Wall Street job last year because of all the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim invectives slung at him. He’s happier now in a technology firm owned and staffed by other hyphenated Americans, but the past five years have taken their toll. I ask him about life after September 11 for Arab-Americans. “We’re the new blacks,” he says. “You know that, right?”
Sade’s comment points to the persistent racism of the past half-decade, a new prejudice concocted out of old-time religious chauvinism, classic ethnic bigotry and a hefty dose of political repression. Arabs, South Asians and Muslims around the country have had to deal with a series of laws, executive orders and policing strategies–dubbed “designer” laws by some American Muslims–that target them almost exclusively. Many have become accustomed to drawing links with the wartime fate of Japanese-Americans.
But “designer” laws produce more than historical comparisons. Japanese internment occurred at a time in American history when Asian exclusion laws were still on the books. Jim Crow was alive, and racism was formally a part of the American system. Today’s “war on terror,” by contrast, plays out in our post-civil rights era. In a society that mouths the virtues of multiculturalism, the present war has legislatively produced the first virtual “race” for the twenty-first century, the Muslim race.
Today the government uses both political repression and cultural fearmongering against Arabs, South Asians and Muslims in the United States. Through its “designer” laws, the Bush Administration seeks to isolate and restructure these communities by creating a broad category of suspicion based almost exclusively on the combination of national origin, ethnicity and religion.
Consider how it has played out. First there was the preventive detention of 5,000 men, grabbed because of birthplace. Then the government sought 19,000 “voluntary” interviews between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The program of “Special Registration,” begun a year after 9/11, required the interviewing and fingerprinting of more than 170,000 men from twenty-four Muslim-majority countries (and North Korea). Special Registration initiated deportation proceedings for almost 14,000 more people. Not one of these initiatives produced a single terrorism conviction, but together they served as theatrics purporting to show that the government is fighting the war vigorously at home, especially by clearing the nation of thousands of its Muslims.
Five major Muslim charities have been shut down through enforcement of the Patriot Act, even though the authorities have never shown any significant evidence of terror financing by any US-based charity, according to OMB Watch. Most recently, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was reduced to collecting dry rice, cooking oil and diapers to send to the afflicted in Lebanon. Supplies were distributed instead of cash because “of the severe restrictions currently placed on financial aid by the U.S. government,” CAIR said. Spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told the Washington Post, “If you send lentils, at least no one can accuse you of supporting terrorism.”
And many Arab and Muslim immigrants applying for American citizenship are hitting an invisible wall. Mustafa Aziz, an Afghan who served for four years in the US Air Force, is one. He’s the lead plaintiff in a recently filed class-action suit against the government for delaying naturalization petitions from Arabs and South Asians. The law requires immigration officials to decide within 120 days. Aziz and others have been waiting up to four years to hear about their future.
This is a partial list, but the effects are clear: increasing domestic discrimination against Arab, South Asian and Muslim Americans powered less by historical hierarchies of race and more by a contemporary foreign policy that they can’t influence. While the “war on terror” has clearly repressed the political rights of many in the United States, it is unimpeachably true that it has isolated and limited the liberties and speech specifically of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians. Eyed suspiciously as fifth columnists hiding sedition behind the five pillars of Islam, Muslims are unfairly held responsible as a group for the actions of any other Muslim worldwide. They are treated as guilty until proven innocent, and their guilt is premised almost exclusively on their birthplace or birth religion.
It might sound familiar. Guilt by association recalls the red-baiting of McCarthyism, but in fact the cold war performed better on racial justice than the “war on terror” does. The cold war spawned massive political repression at home and divided the world into violent spheres of influence. But its global agenda could not keep America’s domestic politics isolated. From Truman to Johnson, Presidents had to confront the contradiction that the government advocated freedom abroad while maintaining segregation at home. Since American activists and international critics focused the world’s attention on the country’s legally enshrined racial discrimination, successive administrations felt their grip on America’s global narrative of progress could slip at any time.
Accomplishments were needed, according to Mary Dudziak, who reveals in Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy that key racial justice reforms, from the end of World War II until the Johnson Administration, were undertaken significantly as foreign policy gestures. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was decided specifically with an eye toward improving the US reputation abroad. After Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the US Information Agency propagandized that the new law would enhance “the international influence of the United States.”
What a difference a war makes. Domestic racial justice expanded during the cold war out of the exigencies of global leadership and global competition. But the “war on terror,” likewise rich with a rhetoric to export “freedom,” does precisely the opposite. It deliberately curbs the rights of Muslims as a group to show the rest of the country and the world how to be “tough on terror.” The model continues to be adopted by much of the West.
The parallels and paradoxes with regard to the cold war go deeper still. Beginning in the 1950s, the State Department sought to counter the nagging international press reports of domestic racism through extensive propaganda efforts. The department dispatched prominent African-American jazz musicians around the world to showcase the wonders of American racial and musical harmony. (The musicians often wouldn’t play by the rules, as Penny Von Eschen shows in her book Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.)
In June similar ideas again lit up the State Department. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes recruited four Muslim American “civilian ambassadors” to travel to Europe and display how warmly the United States welcomes its Muslims. According to Radio Free Europe, the State Department aimed to show the world that the United States offers its Muslims “democratic values with opportunities and freedom beyond their dreams.”
But the dream life of Muslims is not really the issue. Nor is the question of whether American Muslims have more freedom than their co-religionists do in Europe or elsewhere. The question really is whether Muslims as a group have the same opportunity to practice their faith and exercise their rights as other Americans do. With the restrictions on their speech, giving and immigration, their pervasive anxiety about voicing unpopular opinions and the reach of police informants where there is no reason to suspect illegal activity, the answer must be a resounding no.
And five years on in the “war on terror,” national attitudes continue to harden. The figures are depressing. Thirty-nine percent of Americans admit to holding prejudice against Muslims, according to a July USA Today/Gallup Poll. The same percentage of respondents think Muslims–US citizens included–should carry special IDs. And more than one in five doesn’t want Muslims as neighbors.
Meanwhile, knowledge about Islam remains as elusive as the moon’s green cheese, despite the laudable efforts by local and national Muslim organizations to educate the broader public. Almost 60 percent of all Americans have never met a Muslim. One in ten thinks Muslims believe in a moon god.
All this leaves Arab-Americans like myself beleaguered but not surprised. Since 1971 the government has illegally listened in on our conversations, infiltrated our political organizations, detained our members on “secret” evidence, spied on our leaders (including Edward Said) and arrested people for distributing pro-Palestinian literature that was available in public libraries (the infamous LA8 case). All of this was done to cement American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But there’s a difference between the earlier period and today. Before 2001 the government focused its efforts almost exclusively on immigrants and activists and especially on immigrant activists. Today, group membership alone, through national origin, religion or ethnicity, suffices as grounds for legal and cultural suspicion.
The challenge is not to be maudlin about our fate. I for one understand that what has happened within the United States still pales in comparison with the destruction wrought overseas by this idiotic “war on terror,” a campaign that simplifies real politics to caricature and marshals political violence in the name of eliminating political violence. Since the government has viewed us largely with suspicion rather than affection, perhaps proof has finally been found for the maxim that it is better to be feared than to be loved. It is after all with great proclamations of concern that the “war on terror” exports “liberty” to Iraq and beyond. Suspicion may be painful, but liberation? That has proved catastrophic.