Click here to read stories from the Muslim community in Boston.
In the weeks following 9/11, hastily-assembled Joint Terrorism Task Forces reacted to some 96,000 tips from the public by arresting at least 1,200 people, mostly Arabs, South Asians and Muslims from other regions. They entered a Kafkaesque world of the “disappeared,” where people were considered guilty until being ‘cleared’ and might continue to be detained after that or simply deported. Not a single person caught up in these ‘special interest arrests’ was ever charged in connection with 9/11 or any other terrorist plot.
These round ups and subsequent operations targeting mainly Muslims and Middle Easterners were undertaken to fill the information vacuum, and recruit informers. Changes to FBI guidelines made in May 2002 permitted the Bureau to monitor lawful domestic religious, civic and political activity without suspicion of wrongdoing. On January 27, 2003, FBI field supervisors were ordered to count the number of mosques and Muslims in their areas, and use this information to establish a yardstick for the number of terrorism investigations they would carry out. In 2008, FBI guidelines were further revised to permit agents to use ethnicity and religion as a factor (as long as it was not the only one) in opening investigations and infiltrating groups (see sidebar for more information). Agents were also given the green light to recruit informers without identifying themselves.
Nearly a decade after 9/11, Muslims in America feel under siege. Against a backdrop of rising Islamophobia stoked by the media, certain advocacy groups and politicians, first-generation Muslims who came to the United States from police states feel especially vulnerable. Having valued the freedoms they found here, they now see once vibrant neighborhoods decimated by JTTF raids and arrests – often as a result of information given by informers and agents provocateurs who have their own problems with the law. FBI agents repeatedly show up at their homes and places of work to ask them about personal aspects of their lives and about other community members. Muslims who are not American citizens – including up to a thousand imams – have been deported on a variety of pretexts, and others have been threatened with deportation when they refused to become informers. Many no longer feel comfortable in mosques which they suspect are being monitored and don’t know whom they can trust. They find it difficult to fulfill their religious obligation of charitable giving because the government has used secret evidence to shut down the main Muslim charities.
In addition, Muslims frequently encounter harassment on the streets, discrimination at work, and are targeted for intrusive questions, humiliating searches and long delays at borders and airports. Given the multiple entry points for feeding information about individuals and “suspicious activity” into the surveillance system, there appears to be no straightforward way to clear names and get off watchlists. In the age of Total Information Awareness, people who are innocent of any wrongdoing may spend their lives as “suspects.”
Photography: Ridwan Adhami RidzDesign
- Watch DemocracyNow!’s special: “Entrapment or Foiling Terror?” to learn more.