After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Americans perceived to be of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim descent have suffered considerable discrimination in the United States. This discrimination has taken the form of violence and hate crimes, distorted media portrayals, political opposition to community centers and places of worship, and discrimination by law enforcement.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) defines Islamophobia as an “unfounded fear of and hostility toward Islam.” This fear often manifests in the “exclusion of Muslims from mainstream or political social processes, stereotyping, the presumption of guilt by association, [and] hate crimes.” As the Southern Poverty Law Center explains, “[Muslims] are regarded by many as a military enemy of the United States. They are perceived as a threat to the American social and cultural fabric . . . Never before has an American minority group had all of these factors arrayed against them.”
Islamophobia persists despite the fact that the vast majority of American Arabs and Muslims are peaceful, productive members of society, while so-called “radical” Muslims are vanishingly rare. In their study, “Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans,” professors at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University have shown that the number of American Muslims committing or facing prosecution for terrorism-related crimes has averaged only 17 per year since 9/11—a tiny fraction of the estimated three million Muslims living in the United States.
Muslims and Islamic organizations have regularly and unambiguously denounced acts of terror, as Charles Kurzman, Professor of Sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill, demonstrates. Neither has Muslim involvement in fighting terrorism been passive. Through over the 120 interviews conducted for “Anti-Terror Lessons” (cited above-hyperlink again), Professor Kurzman and his colleagues describe an American Muslim community that actively engages its members in combating violent ideologies, readily assists in terrorism investigations, and counsels individuals at risk of violence. Muslims do not look the other way when they suspect terrorist activity—like most Americans, they call the FBI.
Despite these realities, American governments at Federal, state, and local levels have continued to discriminate against those of perceived Middle Eastern or Muslim descent. Legal action of this kind of this is usually undertaken by using laws of general applicability that are applied selectively to Arabs and Muslims. They have also tended to rely on new laws and investigative techniques that appear to be race-neutral but apply overwhelmingly to Arabs or Muslims in practice.
To learn more about the various ways in which American laws have been used to further Islamophobia and discrimate against anyone perceived to be a Muslim, we invite you to explore these links:
Detentions and interrogations (Dragnet, The Absconder Apprehension Initiative, and The National Entry-Exit Registration System)
Surveillance and informants (FBI Informants, and The NYPD “Demographics Unit”)
Some Arabs and Muslims have attempted to hold the government accountable for law enforcement discrimination. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, a former detainee under the 9/11 “dragnet” sued the Attorney General and the FBI director, claiming they discriminated against him and other Muslims in naming them “high-interest” suspects. The Supreme Court dismissed the case on procedural grounds, noting in particular that in order to prove discrimination-motivated law enforcement tactics, Iqbal needed to prove “discriminatory purpose,” not just “intent as to awareness of” discriminatory consequences. One must act “because of,” not “in spite of . . . the action’s adverse effects upon and identifiable group.”
However, many of the victims of NYPD surveillance are bringing civil suits arguing that the Demographics Unit program violated their First Amendment rights to free speech, association, and religion. Those cases are still pending.