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© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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With the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks upon us, it is important to recall that millions of Arab and Muslim Americans, who had nothing to do with those attacks, suffered enormous civil rights violations, physical attacks, job losses, verbal smears, and more, because of them or rather because of how they were positioned by government and media in relation to them. I titled my book on their post-9/11 experiences “Homeland Insecurity” in recognition of this key aspect of the national tragedy: although the U.S. was their homeland too, Arabs and Muslims were treated not as members of an injured nation but as suspects in a massive plot to undermine it. To this day, Arab and Muslim Americans remain under the Global War on Terror’s heightened security spotlight, not because there is any evidence showing that they collectively posed a threat, 1 but because of the ways they continue to be framed by the media, are characterized in popular culture and used to represent the “enemy” by certain political actors, and thought about by security and defense establishments. Arabs and Muslims have been cast as threatening human beings, a status that persists throughout the White-dominant global north. And so all of them, including entire nations, are held responsible for the acts of a few. This is precisely how racism works. Indeed, the domestic aspect of the U.S. War on Terror was launched as a racial project tethered to imperial interests from the start. It began unofficially after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war through the dual deployment of potent ideological messages and invasive national security strategies. On the level of ideas, narratives of Arabs and Muslims as inherent terrorists permeated the U.S. media, popular culture, and school textbooks. Indeed, throughout the latter decade of the 20th century, it was nearly impossible to find any other characteristic associated with them, except for the gendered variant: oppressed women. Meanwhile, national security agents actively surveilled pro-Palestinian activists, tactics later operationalized in Operation Boulder, a Nixon-era program to “subvert” domestic Arab terrorism, even though there had been none. Arabs studying in US universities who were engaged in free speech activities opposing American policies toward Palestine were the program’s prime targets, resulting in the deportations of thousands of them. The Interagency Contingency Plan to detain “Alien Terrorists and other Undesirables” in a prison camp in Oakdale, Louisiana, was a 1980s proposal crafted to manage alleged domestic terror threats; thankfully, it was not implemented. However, many view the sensationalized 1987 arrests of the “LA 8” pro-Palestinian activists framed as terrorists as a test case to see how far the government could go in pre-emptive detentions, a step called for in the Contingency Plan. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, it was thus easy “common sense” to the majority of Americans that millions of Arab and Muslim Americans should be treated as suspects. At the time, Attorney-General   John   Ashcroft said: The attacks of September 11 were acts of terrorism against America orchestrated and carried out by individuals living within our borders. Today's terrorists enjoy the benefits of our free society even as they commit themselves to our destruction. They live in our communities — plotting, planning and waiting to kill Americans again. The notion that Arab and Muslim terrorists were hiding in U.S. communities, living undercover lives that had public veneers of normalcy while waiting to attack, provoked fear in the hearts of Americans. Government   statements   were clear in their directives: "The federal government cannot fight this reign of terror alone. Every American must help us defend our nation against this enemy." Americans were told to closely observe Arabs and Muslims and consider their seemingly normal activities as suspect. Over time, the U.S. government rolled out more than twenty national security policies aimed specifically at them. These included mass arrests, preventive detentions, FBI interviews, registration and fingerprinting of tens of thousands of male foreign nationals, widespread wiretapping, secret hearings, closures of charities, criminal indictments, deportations, and reviews of private Internet, telecommunication, and financial records, which were secured through more than 30,000 national security letters issued annually to American businesses after the passage of the PATRIOT Act. 2 But the security spotlight did not dim a decade into the War on Terror, after tens of thousands of FBI interviews and hundreds of detentions revealed to the U.S. government that there was no domestic complicity in or support for the 9/11 attacks. Since then, and until today, a wide range of national security programs and systematic surveillance operations have targeted these communities. Some of these include the NYPD covert surveillance program, conducted in partnership with CIA operatives, that focused on Muslim communities in and around New York City. 3 The Trump Administration implemented the Muslim   ban ,” restricting all migration to the U.S. from specific Muslim-majority countries based on an alleged “terror threat.” The ban, approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, was a product of candidate Trump’s promise to enact a total   and   complete   shutdown   of   Muslims   entering   the   United   States. Another still-active strategy is the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism Program, a terror prevention program run through schools and community organizations that focuses on Muslim youth, under the presumption that they are potential terrorists. 4 Although White supremacists have long been a far more   serious   domestic   terror   threat   than Arab and Muslim Americans, they have been spared the racialized status of collective threat and its corresponding responses that is shared by persons inhabiting Black and Brown bodies. National security responses to the January 6, 2021 siege of the U.S. Capitol made this abundantly clear; there were no roadblocks, barriers, reinforcements, tear gas, or widespread uses of force and very few arrests. The post facto search for culpable parties has insisted on evidence and focused on specific individuals, not on spurious suspicions of entire groups. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the apparatus of U.S. empire, including a supportive media, leveraged a simplistic, criminalizing, and racialized “us and them” narrative to defend their collective punitive actions, both domestically and globally. Unfortunately, most Americans bought into this social construction, supporting both the deadly invasion of Iraq (which had nothing to do with 9/11) and severe abuses of the civil rights of Arab and Muslim Americans. Twenty years later, these dimensions of 9/11 must be central in our discussions about the meaning of that day. And as they are ultimately about how racism works, systematically casting some as threats and others as the threatened, these conversations must be not only about 9/11, but also about ending the damaging racial logic of White supremacy, which continues to be deployed on a global scale.
September 8, 2021 Surveillance Spotlight on Arab and Muslim Americans: An Enduring Legacy of the Global War on Terror
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
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HOME HOME THEMATICS THEMATICS
With the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks upon us, it is important to recall that millions of Arab and Muslim Americans, who had nothing to do with those attacks, suffered enormous civil rights violations, physical attacks, job losses, verbal smears, and more, because of them or rather because of how they were positioned by government and media in relation to them. I titled my book on their post-9/11 experiences “Homeland Insecurity” in recognition of this key aspect of the national tragedy: although the U.S. was their homeland too, Arabs and Muslims were treated not as members of an injured nation but as suspects in a massive plot to undermine it. To this day, Arab and Muslim Americans remain under the Global War on Terror’s heightened security spotlight, not because there is any evidence showing that they collectively posed a threat, 1 but because of the ways they continue to be framed by the media, are characterized in popular culture and used to represent the “enemy” by certain political actors, and thought about by security and defense establishments. Arabs and Muslims have been cast as threatening human beings, a status that persists throughout the White-dominant global north. And so all of them, including entire nations, are held responsible for the acts of a few. This is precisely how racism works. Indeed, the domestic aspect of the U.S. War on Terror was launched as a racial project tethered to imperial interests from the start. It began unofficially after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war through the dual deployment of potent ideological messages and invasive national security strategies. On the level of ideas, narratives of Arabs and Muslims as inherent terrorists permeated the U.S. media, popular culture, and school textbooks. Indeed, throughout the latter decade of the 20th century, it was nearly impossible to find any other characteristic associated with them, except for the gendered variant: oppressed women. Meanwhile, national security agents actively surveilled pro-Palestinian activists, tactics later operationalized in Operation Boulder, a Nixon-era program to “subvert” domestic Arab terrorism, even though there had been none. Arabs studying in US universities who were engaged in free speech activities opposing American policies toward Palestine were the program’s prime targets, resulting in the deportations of thousands of them. The Interagency Contingency Plan to detain “Alien Terrorists and other Undesirables” in a prison camp in Oakdale, Louisiana, was a 1980s proposal crafted to manage alleged domestic terror threats; thankfully, it was not implemented. However, many view the sensationalized 1987 arrests of the “LA 8” pro-Palestinian activists framed as terrorists as a test case to see how far the government could go in pre-emptive detentions, a step called for in the Contingency Plan. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, it was thus easy “common sense” to the majority of Americans that millions of Arab and Muslim Americans should be treated as suspects. At the time, Attorney-General   John   Ashcroft said: The attacks of September 11 were acts of terrorism against America orchestrated and carried out by individuals living within our borders. Today's terrorists enjoy the benefits of our free society even as they commit themselves to our destruction. They live in our communities plotting, planning and waiting to kill Americans again. The notion that Arab and Muslim terrorists were hiding in U.S. communities, living undercover lives that had public veneers of normalcy while waiting to attack, provoked fear in the hearts of Americans. Government   statements   were clear in their directives: "The federal government cannot fight this reign of terror alone. Every American must help us defend our nation against this enemy." Americans were told to closely observe Arabs and Muslims and consider their seemingly normal activities as suspect. Over time, the U.S. government rolled out more than twenty national security policies aimed specifically at them. These included mass arrests, preventive detentions, FBI interviews, registration and fingerprinting of tens of thousands of male foreign nationals, widespread wiretapping, secret hearings, closures of charities, criminal indictments, deportations, and reviews of private Internet, telecommunication, and financial records, which were secured through more than 30,000 national security letters issued annually to American businesses after the passage of the PATRIOT Act. 2 But the security spotlight did not dim a decade into the War on Terror, after tens of thousands of FBI interviews and hundreds of detentions revealed to the U.S. government that there was no domestic complicity in or support for the 9/11 attacks. Since then, and until today, a wide range of national security programs and systematic surveillance operations have targeted these communities. Some of these include the NYPD covert surveillance program, conducted in partnership with CIA operatives, that focused on Muslim communities in and around New York City. 3 The Trump Administration implemented the Muslim   ban ,” restricting all migration to the U.S. from specific Muslim-majority countries based on an alleged “terror threat.” The ban, approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, was a product of candidate Trump’s promise to enact a total   and complete    shutdown    of    Muslims    entering    the United   States. Another still-active strategy is the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism Program, a terror prevention program run through schools and community organizations that focuses on Muslim youth, under the presumption that they are potential terrorists. 4 Although White supremacists have long been a far more   serious   domestic   terror   threat   than Arab and Muslim Americans, they have been spared the racialized status of collective threat and its corresponding responses that is shared by persons inhabiting Black and Brown bodies. National security responses to the January 6, 2021 siege of the U.S. Capitol made this abundantly clear; there were no roadblocks, barriers, reinforcements, tear gas, or widespread uses of force and very few arrests. The post facto search for culpable parties has insisted on evidence and focused on specific individuals, not on spurious suspicions of entire groups. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the apparatus of U.S. empire, including a supportive media, leveraged a simplistic, criminalizing, and racialized “us and them” narrative to defend their collective punitive actions, both domestically and globally. Unfortunately, most Americans bought into this social construction, supporting both the deadly invasion of Iraq (which had nothing to do with 9/11) and severe abuses of the civil rights of Arab and Muslim Americans. Twenty years later, these dimensions of 9/11 must be central in our discussions about the meaning of that day. And as they are ultimately about how racism works, systematically casting some as threats and others as the threatened, these conversations must be not only about 9/11, but also about ending the damaging racial logic of White supremacy, which continues to be deployed on a global scale.
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
Surveillance Spotlight on Arab and Muslim Americans: An Enduring Legacy of the Global War on Terror
Written by
Associate professor of sociology and social justice and the director of Peace Studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT