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As the U.S. wages war on terrorism, America's Muslims feel the heat

Published July 2, 2003 at 8:38 p.m.

It's a sweltering Friday, the Muslim holy day, as worshippers trickle in the door of the Islamic Society of Vermont, welcoming friends and strangers alike with the traditional Arabic greeting, "Assalamu alaikum," or "Peace be upon you." The converted two-story brick barracks at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester is not exactly a stereotypical, domed mosque with a towering minaret, but it accommodates the dozens of Burlington-area Muslims who regularly come here to perform Salat, the five daily prayers required by their faith.

The men and women slip off their shoes at the door and segregate into two rooms for the afternoon worship. Upstairs, some 50 or so males -- from boys as young as 4 to bearded men well into their seventies -- kneel silently, occasionally prostrating themselves while Arabic prayers wail from a portable tape player. In this modest sanctuary, arguably Vermont's most ethnically diverse house of worship, the congregants' faces speak volumes about Islam's global appeal. A blue-eyed, fair-skinned youth in a Bosnia-Herzegovina football jersey stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a dark-skinned African in an ankle-length yellow robe. Beside him, a Pakistani man wearing a button-down shirt and slacks, an IBM-employee card clipped to his waistband, switches off his cell phone and sits down on his heels to pray.

These days, worshippers here are united not only by their common faith, but also by their ongoing struggle to regain acceptance in American society. Like those who lost loved ones in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America's Muslims, particularly those from Arab countries, were also victims of September 11. Though many of them are U.S. citizens -- some have lived and worked in this country for more than 20 years -- in the last year and a half they have seen their fundamental civil liberties erode as part of the federal government's anti-terrorism crusade. A new report released last week by a national advocacy group reveals that in many ways, U.S. government policies towards immigrants now bear a disturbing resemblance to those of a totalitarian regime.

You won't hear many of the older men in the Colchester mosque complain about America's current political climate. They smile politely, dismissing questions about discrimination and racial profiling with a wave of the hand. Americans are very nice and treat us well, they say. They admit they're more likely to be pulled aside in the airport for special searches and rigorous questioning, but things could be much worse. "I come from a part of the world, the West Bank, where every 10 miles you have someone strip you naked," says Mahmoud Hayyat, a Palestinian who has lived in Middlebury for more than 24 years. "This is moderate compared to what we go through whenever we go to Palestine."

But talk to some of the younger men and you uncover barely contained anger, frustration and disillusionment. Consider the experiences of Ashraf Mohamed, a 35-year-old Egyptian-born Vermonter who has lived in the United States for the last six years. In August 2000, he was driving a van for Federal Express through Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he was stopped by police for a blown headlight. In a case of mistaken identity, Mohamed was charged with stealing a car and jailed for 18 days. Though Mohamed had no criminal history, he was extradited to Pennsylvania in the middle of the night, shackled in body chains and held on $250,000 bail before finally being cleared and released.

Mohamed's attorney assured him he had grounds for a lawsuit against the government -- until the 2001 terrorist attacks occurred. "Three months after September 11, my lawyer called me at home and said, 'Ashraf, I cannot work on your case. The judge won't consider it,'" Mohamed recalls. "Why? 'Because you're Muslim and you're an Arab.' And that was the end of the story."

At the time, Mohamed was working on his Master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of Vermont. Within months, he dropped out of the program, largely because of what he saw happening to his Muslim friends. Though many of them had advanced degrees from MIT, Harvard and other prestigious American universities, they were all being laid off from their jobs. Several returned to their home countries, fearing that as Arab Muslims, they would not find work here again.

Last summer, Mohamed married an Egyptian woman and filed his application to bring her to the United States. As an American citizen, he should have had no problem being reunited quickly with his new wife. But 10 months later, Mohamed has yet to receive an answer from the U.S. government, despite repeated inquiries both here and at the American embassy in Egypt. "I came to America because I know it is a free country. People can get their rights," Mohamed says. "But now I find something here is destroyed. I'm an American citizen but I don't feel like an American at all."

Mohamed's troubles are not only common but mild compared to the experiences of other immigrants, particularly those from Arab countries. Last week, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., released an 18-month study of U.S. immigration policy since September 11. The report, entitled "America's Challenge: Domestic Security, Civil Liberties, and National Unity After September 11," found that not only have post-9/11 immigration policies stigmatized and alienated Arab- and Muslim-American communities, but they have done nothing to make Americans safer from future terrorist attacks. If anything, the roundups, arrests, intimidating interviews and detentions have made this country less safe.

Consider, for example, the special registration program launched by Attorney General John Ashcroft in June 2002. The program, formally named NSEERS -- National Security Entry/Exit Registration System -- required non-citizens from 25 Muslim countries to register their whereabouts with the government. Anyone who didn't come forward by the March 21 deadline faced criminal charges and possible arrest and deportation. The policy had major repercussions for Vermont in February and March when hundreds of Pakistani men were detained at the Canadian border, leaving their families with nowhere to go in the dead of winter. Although the program was officially discontinued three months ago, immigrants from those countries who did not register still face the possibility of prosecution.

"It was a totally foolish plan from the very beginning," says Patrick Giantonio, executive director of Vermont Refugee Assistance. "What they were doing is chasing the U.S.'s greatest allies out of the United States."

As Giantonio points out, of the more than 82,000 individuals nationwide who came forward to register, only 11 had even remote connections to terrorist organizations. And thus far none has been linked to terrorist activities. Nevertheless, many were deported for minor violations. "No one has the numbers or the stories of what happened to a lot of those people," says Giantonio.

Or consider all the "terrorism-related" indictments brought by the U.S. attorney general's office in New Jersey since September 11, 2001. As Harper's magazine reports this month, out of a total of 62 indictments, 60 were filed against Middle Eastern students for paying others to take their English-proficiency exams.

Such heavy-handed tactics would have done nothing to prevent the September 11 attacks, MPI points out, since all the hijackers would still be admitted to the United States today. "Al Qaeda's hijackers were carefully chosen to avoid detection," the report notes. "All but two were educated men from middle-class families with no criminal records and no known connection to terrorism."

MPI found that the government's policy of rounding up and detaining people based on their religion and country of origin -- the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim and/or from Arab countries -- also failed to identify any terrorists living in our midst. Apart from a handful of people charged with routine immigration violations or petty criminal offenses, the roundups only served to fuel the public's suspicion and distrust of Arab- and Muslim-Americans and to undermine those communities' willingness to assist in the war on terrorism.

Even more disturbing are stories now coming to light about the more than 1200 people detained indefinitely in the weeks and months after 9/11, the majority of whom, again, were Muslims from Arab countries. Although their exact number is unknown -- the U.S. government still refuses to say how many, who they were or what happened to them all -- MPI has compiled information on 406 detainees, the most comprehensive survey to date of post-9/11 arrests.

Even for advocates who are knowledgeable about this country's harsh, punitive and often capricious treatment of immigrants, the MPI report reads more like a description of a totalitarian regime than of a democracy supposedly based on due process and the rule of law. Of the 406 detainees -- one-third of whom came from either Egypt or Pakistan -- most were held for weeks or months without ever being charged, often without access to counsel or even their families knowing their whereabouts. "Many of the detainees were subjected to solitary confinement, 24-hour lighting of cells and physical abuse," the report notes. And more than half were subjected to an "FBI hold," which meant they were kept in jail even after a judge ordered them released or deported.

Nevertheless, MPI discovered that, unlike the 9/11 hijackers, the majority of non-citizens detained have "significant ties to the United States and roots in their communities." More than 46 percent have lived in the United States at least six years. At least half have children, spouses or other family members in this country. And many were arrested for no other reason than a neighbor or co-worker reported them to police because of their appearance or country of origin.

If there's a bright spot in the report, it's what MPI calls the "Muslim moment" -- a resurgence of political and civic activity among Muslim- and Arab-Americans in the wake of 9/11. Nationally, voter registration by Arabs and Muslim immigrants is on the rise, as is the number of applications for naturalization.

No one from the Islamic Center of Vermont was swept up in the government roundups or detained and questioned by the FBI. And not all the young men sound as bitter and frustrated as Mohamed. When Amir Lulic, a Bosnian immigrant living in Vermont, was asked if he has experienced discrimination from police or government officials in Vermont, he pulls out a recruitment pamphlet from the Burlington Police Department. "No," he says, "they want us to work for them now."

The other men in the room laugh. "Things are better in Vermont than elsewhere," adds Hayyat. "I hope it will stay that way."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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