The stories have come fast and successive in the weeks since Donald Trump stepped into the Oval Office: tales of Muslim travelers being detained and then interrogated about their religious beliefs.
On January 29, at John F. Kennedy Airport, federal agents questioned a green-card holder about videos of Muslim religious leaders preaching that they found on his laptop, said Anisha Gupta, a staff attorney at the Bronx Defenders who volunteered at the airport after Trump’s first executive order on Muslim travelers went into effect.
On February 4, a Muslim-Canadian family said they were denied entry into the United States. Fadwa Alaoui, the mother, told CBC News that an agent asked her, “Do you practice? Which mosque do you go to? What is the name of the imam? How often do you go to the mosque? What kind of discussions do you hear in the mosque? Does the imam talk to you directly?”
And on February 7, in a case that captured headlines around the world, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at the Fort Lauderdale Airport detained and interrogated Muhammad Ali Jr., the son of the legendary boxer. They pulled him aside, held him for nearly two hours, and asked him, “Where did you get your name?” and “Are you Muslim?”
“I haven’t been stopped like this when Bush was in office. I haven’t been stopped like this when Clinton was in office,” said Muhammad Ali Jr., in an interview with The Nation. “But it takes Trump getting in office to be treated like this. And I’m an American citizen.”
One month later, Transportation Security Agency officials at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, stopped and questioned Ali Jr. again, though they did not ask about his religion this time.
To Muslim advocates like Hassan Shibly, the chief executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) Florida chapter, such stories show that, with Trump in power, border agents feel “emboldened” to implement “discriminatory practices.”
After Trump’s executive orders targeting Muslims were signed, “all the gloves came off,” said Shibly.
Lawyers and civil-liberties advocates fear that the practice of detaining and interrogating Muslims about their religious beliefs at airports is increasing—a practice that echoes a history of US immigration laws and border-control policies that sought to keep out those who believed in communism, anarchism, and other radical left-wing ideologies. In this instance, the questioning of Muslims appears to reflect a theory within federal agencies that a person’s religious belief can indicate whether they have the propensity for violence. Border agents have weaponized that theory, and turned it into a basis for harsh questioning.
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Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York and supervisor of the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project, told The Nation that religious questioning is “not a new phenomenon,” but that it has “intensified” with the executive orders on Muslim immigrants signed by Trump, which bar travelers from a handful of Muslim-majority countries and call for intensified vetting of visa-applicants.
“There’s been a noticeable uptick in reports from traveling clients [of] being questioned at US customs about Islam since Trump’s [first] executive order,” Kassem added. (Trump’s first executive order suspending travel from seven majority-Muslim countries was signed on January 27, but was effectively blocked on February 9 by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. More recently, a judge in Hawaii froze Trump’s second order, signed on March 6.)
In addition to airport interrogations, advocates fear that religious questioning will be used increasingly by officials overseeing the visa-application process, particularly if Trump manages to push through one of his travel bans. Both the first and second executive orders signed by President Trump directed federal agencies to implement new screening standards for immigrants that would evaluate whether an applicant for entry to the United States supports “violent extremism” or terrorism. That language appeared to institute the type of “extreme vetting” that President Trump promised on the campaign trail.
“What Trump’s administration makes clear is that this will be used sweepingly. I don’t think there are expectations that extreme vetting means an individualized process,” said Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Texas A&M University and a former adviser to the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the US Department of Homeland Security. “I think it’s interpreted as you all are presumed to be potential terrorists, unless something unusual in your record shows you are not, for example if you’re a secular Muslim, or you’re a Muslim who converted to Christianity.”
For all the outrages faced by travelers like Muhammad Ali Jr. and the four Muslim-Canadians, the questioning of Muslims about their religious practices is not brand new. The Trump team may have ramped up a bunch of nasty, religiously intolerant practices, but they didn’t invent them. That honor goes to the George W. Bush administration, during which the practice of questioning Muslim travelers about topics such as which mosque they go to, and whether they are Sunni or Shi’a, is well documented. Nor did the practice stop under the Obama administration. On January 18, two days before Obama left office, CAIR filed numerous complaints about religious-based questioning to the Department of Homeland Security and to CBP. The Muslim advocacy group alleged that the ten travelers initially represented in the complaints (the number has since expanded) were asked questions such as: “Are you a devout Muslim?” “Do you pray five times a day?” “What school of thought do you follow?” “What Muslim scholars do you listen to?” and “What are the views of other imams or other community members that give the Friday sermon at your mosque?”
One traveler caught up in the Obama administration’s dragnet targeting Muslims is an imam from California who spoke with The Nation. For the past nine years, the imam, an American citizen, has come to expect detention and interrogation when he flies internationally. The types of questions, which usually occur on his way back into the United States, have varied for the religious leader.
Sometimes, he said, federal agents want to know whom he visited overseas. Other times they question him about what he studies. CBP agents have ransacked his suitcase, asked for his social-media handles, confiscated his cell phone, and given him intensive pat-downs.
During detentions and interrogations in airports, the imam said, CBP officers have also asked him things like, “What kind of Muslim are you, actually?” “What role does religion play in your life?” “Did you grow up a household where people prayed?” (The imam requested anonymity for fear that increased attention will lead federal agents to scrutinize him once again.)
The imam, who said he was last interrogated nearly a year ago, believes he has been targeted because he’s a Muslim. “They want to make you feel you’re a second-class citizen,” he told The Nation.
A CBP spokesperson denied the allegation that the agency targets Muslim travelers, saying that it “strictly prohibits profiling on the basis of race or religion.” Department of Justice guidelines bar federal law-enforcement from carrying out racial and religious profiling. But the guidelines, released in 2014, exempt border agents.
CBP is not barred from ever using religion as a basis for questioning, said Margo Schlanger, a University of Michigan law professor and the former head of the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security. An agent processing someone who is traveling to a faith conference, for example, could legitimately ask questions about their religious affiliation. But advocates, international travelers, and Americans citizens allege Muslims are being singled out solely because of their religion in a discriminatory fashion—and that CBP sees their religion as a sign of being a terrorist threat.
Targeting Muslims for interrogation about their religious beliefs reflects a view, particularly prevalent in law-enforcement circles since the September 11 attacks, that the depth of someone’s devotion to Islam can predict whether they are a security threat. In its crudest forms, “radicalization” theory, as it is known, posits that activities affiliated with a conservative practice of Islam—such as abstaining from alcohol, or wearing Islamic styles of clothing—are steps on a path that may end up leading to a terrorist attack.
“The only way that these kinds of questions make sense as a way of evaluating whether somebody is a security threat is if you assume that being a devout Muslim is a proxy for threat,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Those assumptions, however, have been “debunked by loads of empirical research that shows you can’t really look at religiosity as a proxy for a propensity towards terrorism,” Patel added.
The legality of questioning Muslims about their religious belief is currently being litigated.
In April 2012, the FBI and CBP’s practice of interrogating Muslims about their religiosity was challenged in federal court, when CAIR filed suit on behalf of four Muslim Americans who were interrogated about Islam by agents. The plaintiffs said that border agents, in subjecting them to invasive searches and interrogations, had violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution, their First Amendment right to practice their religion, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the United States from interfering with religious practice unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.” The federal judge dismissed the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act claims, saying the plaintiffs did not prove that federal agents had prevented the free exercise of religion. The equal-protection claims, however, are still being litigated.
During the discovery phase of the trial, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, an agency that works with CBP at border crossings, released a document that provides guidance to agents tasked with questioning people. The questions include: “What is your religion/faith?” “Do you have any relatives or friends who have been martyred fighting in the defense of your beliefs?”
Muslim Americans have also filed dozens of complaints with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties about religious questioning and detention. The office can investigate civil-liberties issues and issue reports and recommendations. In May 2011, the office announced it would probe the complaints of religious questioning, but the probe has not been completed because the CAIR lawsuit is still pending.
Beyond the legal concerns, Muslim Americans and civil-liberties advocates are worried that the apparent increase in religious questioning and detention of Muslim travelers is just the opening salvo of a broader Trump-era campaign targeting Muslims.
The Trump administration has brought anti-Muslim ideologues into the heart of power, and many Muslim Americans fear the executive order was the first step in a long campaign aimed at making discrimination against them official policy. Of particular concern is the role of Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist and former head of the far-right website Breitbart News, which frequently traffics in anti-Muslim bigotry. News outlets reported that Bannon helped draft Trump’s first executive order, which banned refugees and travelers from seven Muslim countries, and also suggested more vetting of Muslims.
“[Bannon] ran a hate site [and] has no business in the White House,” said CAIR Florida’s Shibly. “He’s made very clear his anti-Muslim agenda and his hopes to ban Islam from this country. We fear the Muslim ban we saw is just the beginning.”
And so, Muslim Americans and civil-liberties advocates are bracing for the worst. Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program, told The Nation the Trump administration poses an unprecedented threat to the civil liberties of Muslim Americans.
“We have entered an era where all Muslims are not just possible threats, but all Muslims are a threat. And some Muslims are threats that you can take action on now,” said Shah, describing what she sees as the administration’s thinking on Muslims. “And that is the agenda and viewpoint of the extreme fringe that now has the hold of the entire nation.”