"Change" was President Barack Obama's campaign slogan. The seven-million strong American Muslim community, firmly believing in his "change" slogan, voted overwhelmingly for him in the 2008 presidential elections with the hope that his administration would bring an end to their humiliation and sufferings they faced in the Bush era in the name of "war on terror."
American Muslims were both pleased and surprised by President Obama's inclusive words in his inaugural address, on January 20th, when he said America is "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers." Such words signaled Obama's recognition that Muslims are an important part of the American fabric.
In his historic June 4 speech in Cairo, President Obama hinted to the problems facing the American Muslims by saying that the United States "rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat."
His Cairo statement coincided with a statement by Attorney General Eric Holder: "The President's pledge for a new beginning between the United States and the Muslim community takes root here in the Justice Department where we are committed to using criminal and civil rights laws to protect Muslim Americans. A top priority of this Justice Department is a return to robust civil rights enforcement and outreach in defending religious freedoms and other fundamental rights of all of our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the housing market, in our schools and in the voting booth."
Similarly, in his September 2nd speech at the White House Iftar dinner, President Obama emphasized that "the contributions of Muslims to the United States are too long to catalog because Muslims are so interwoven into the fabric of our communities and our country." While noting the contributions of American Muslims, president also alluded to their problems when he shared the story of the Muslim sixth-grader Nashala Hearn from Oklahoma, who was suspended twice last fall because the school officials claimed her hijab violated their dress code policy. The President said: "When her school district told her that she couldn't wear the hijab, she protested that it was a part of her religion. The Department of Justice stood behind her, and she won her right to practice her faith."
Not surprisingly, Valerie Jarrett, a Senior Advisor and Assistant to President Obama for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, was the keynote speaker at the inaugural session of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Convention 2009. She paid a tribute to the diligent work of Muslim Americans on behalf of the country. Citing President Obama's April 2009 Cairo Speech, Ms. Jarrett acknowledged the contribution of American Muslims to the overall development of American society and the strengthening of American institutions. Ms Jarrett pointed out: "Your work here is crucial in confronting the challenges that all Americans are facing. And you help advance the new beginning between the United State and Muslim communities around the world that the President called for in Cairo."
These courteous and good gestures by President Obama are accompanied by the appointment of a number of American Muslims to some minor positions in his administration. Rashad Hussain, an American Muslim lawyer, has been appointed as Deputy Associate Counsel to the President. Dalia Mogahed was appointed by President Obama to serve on the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) National Executive Director Kareem Shora has been appointed a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC).
However, all these good gestures and public policy measures have little positive impact on the restoration of civil rights of American Muslims curtailed since 9/11. Profiling has been institutionalized in the post-9/11 America. State and federal agencies, under the guise of fighting terrorism, have expanded the use of this degrading, discriminatory and dangerous practice. The damage to civil liberties has been extensive, and a lot of work remains to be done.
American Muslims and civil libertarians are particularly concerned about Justice Department guidelines implemented in the last days of the Bush administration, which allow race and ethnicity to be factors in opening an investigation. Other civil rights concerns include FBI agent provocateurs sent into American mosques, citizenship delays, politicized "terror" trials, and misuse by the Department of Justice of the "unindicted co-conspirator" label.
Today, eight years after 9/11, incidents of racial and religious profiling in the United States have increased dramatically. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, racial profiling became the norm at American airports where anyone belonging to the Arab or Muslim communities was systematically called out for questioning and sometimes even detained. Eight years hence, August 14, 2009 detention of Indian Muslim superstar Shah Rukh Khan's detention at Newark Airport in New Jersey is only one of the scores that take place every day.
COINTELPRO operation against the Muslims
Last October -- in the waning days of the Bush administration -- FBI director Robert Mueller signed new guidelines allowing broader FBI authority in pursuing potential threats to national security. The new guidelines allow agents to consider race or ethnicity in determining whether someone is a suspect. These guidelines -- which became effective Dec. 1, 2008 -- allow the FBI to launch a criminal investigation against someone without any factual predicate and without approval from FBI headquarters.
The guidelines are similar to COINTELPRO, an FBI program used in the 50s and 60s to spy on civil rights, environmental and labor groups, with the goal of unearthing Communist ties those organizations may have had. At Congressional hearings last May, FBI Director Mueller -- who continues to serve as FBI director in the Obama administration -- said the guidelines simply formalized processes the FBI had begun to use, post-9/11. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have not indicated whether they intend to scrap the new guidelines.
Tellingly, the Obama administration has also formalized laptop seizure rules. On August 27, 2009, the Obama administration disclosed that it will carry on Bush administration policies that allowed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to seize and search international travelers' laptop computers, cellular phones, cameras, and other electronic devices, even in the absence of suspicion of criminal activity. The DHS made public two directives that formalized operational practices established by the Bush administration to carry out searches of the personal digital instruments of travelers, US citizens or not, passing across US borders. According to the directives, border police "may detain electronic devices, or copies of information contained therein, for a brief, reasonable period of time to perform a thorough border search. If DHS turns up nothing incriminating, to regain the confiscated item the traveler must return to the border crossing where the item was seized, or else pay for its shipment.
Although the electronic media search regulations apply to all passengers but Muslims are perhaps the main target at present because they are the target of extra scrutiny at the airports and other points of entry.