• Court finally rules what US Muslims knew all along: The ‘terror watchlist’ is unconstitutional

    September 20, 2019
    Court finally rules what US Muslims knew all along: The ‘terror watchlist’ is unconstitutional

    There is no way to officially find out if you are on the watchlist [Getty]


    On 5 September, federal court Judge Anthony J. Trenga ruled that the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), popularly known as the “terror watchlist,” violated the constitutional rights of those individuals whose names appeared on it.

    Twenty-three Muslim American plaintiffs, who after enduring scrutiny and interrogation, suspected that their names appeared on the secret list, brought the case against the US government. The ruling was a major victory for them, and the thousands of Muslim citizens included on the watchlist.

    The government will appeal the decision against the watchlist, which the Terrorist Screening Center has used as a pool of possible terrorists to be placed on the restrictive “No Fly List.”

    In his 32 page opinion, Judge Trenga of the Virginia federal court expressed his serious concerns with the secretive nature of the watchlist, which is believed to include 1.2 million individuals and approximately 4,600 US citizens and permanent residents.

    The Terrorist Screening Center, an agency administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), does not disclose the names of those included on the watchlist, even when requested by those suspecting inclusion. This secretive structure leaves no opportunity to challenge or appeal inclusion on the list, which can lead to arrest or intense scrutiny at the border.

    And, because the FBI shares the watchlist with “more than 18,000 state, local, county, city, university and college, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies and approximately 533 private entities,” it causes considerable damage beyond the realm of travel and airports.


    Being included on the watchlist cracks open a Pandora’s box of personal and professional concerns, which can be as nefarious as driving surveillance within community mosques, or ruining a candidate’s chances at a job interview.

    The only tipoff indicating you could be on the list, is being called in for secondary questioning at the airport, or – as in the case of Anas Elhady, the named-plaintiff in the case – being surrounded by Border Patrol agents, arrested, and relentlessly interrogated for more than 10 hours.

    This stridence on the part of the state reveals what Elhady suspected, that his name appeared among the other 4,600 names of American citizens and residents on the watchlist. For scores of other Arab and Muslim travelers stopped and scrutinised, interrogated and humiliated, this serves as the only notice of inclusion.

    Thursday’s ruling may change that moving forward, and in the process, quell the culture of paranoia that has gripped Arab and Muslim Americans for years.

    It recognises that the FBI’s refusal to provide notice, and an opportunity to challenge inclusion in the watchlist, is a violation of due process.

    Judge Trenga observed that the state, “provides no notice concerning whether a person has been included or remains in the [watchlist], what criteria was applied in making that determination, or the evidence used to determine a person’s [watchlist] status.”

    The ruling opens the door to a range of possible remedies, including amending the process whereby individuals suspecting inclusion can file for disclosure, and challenge their inclusion.

    More ambitiously, the plaintiffs – and the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the organisation that filed the case – may seek to entirely do away with the watchlist as it stands.

    Beyond process, Judge Trenga took serious issue with predictive design of the watchlist, which in practice, equates with racial and religious profiling.

    Unlike the narrower “no-fly list”, those persons included on the watchlist have committed no wrong, and are placed on it solely because of their religious or racial identity, country of origin, travel history, or other proxies that suggest racial and religious profiling on the part of the FBI.

    Indeed, another principal reason why the FBI is keen on suppressing disclosure of the names that appear on the watchlist is that it will reveal a pattern of religious and racial profiling, which opens the door for additional constitutional challenges being levied against it.

    While the decision will likely be appealed, it marks a watershed moment for the struggle against the crackdown on Arab and Muslim civil liberties.

    Beyond finding that the watchlist smacks against constitutional cornerstones of due process and transparency, Trenga’s ruling calls into question the problematic design of several other counterterrorism programs that punish Muslim citizens and residents under the pretext of terror suspicion.

    Programs like Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), whereby the FBI works closely with local law enforcement to prevent “Islamic extremism” and prevent terrorism, capitalise on the logic of prevention to monitor Muslims that have commit no wrong.

    For decades, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, and increasingly, local police departments, have been granted almost carte blanche and broad latitude within the realm of counterterrorism.

    As a result, the civil liberties of Muslims at travel ports, mosques and colleges, online and deep within their households, have been encroached upon and eroded.

    National security and terror prevention, in short, has been wielded more as a stick than a shield, causing considerable injury to innocuous and innocent people in the name of finding terrorists.

    This decision was a blow against the state-sponsored Islamophobia that has gone unchecked for far too long.

    And indeed, a victory for the very constitutional values that the War on Terror has ravaged for nearly two decades.

  • The F.B.I.’s Dangerous Crackdown on ‘Black Identity Extremists’

    September 20, 2019
    The F.B.I.’s Dangerous Crackdown on ‘Black Identity Extremists’

    Clergy members leading a protest in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager.CreditCreditSamuel Corum/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images


    An F.B.I. report leaked in October and scrutinized during an oversight hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday warns of an emergent domestic terror threat sweeping the nation and threatening the lives of law enforcement officers: the “Black Identity Extremist” (“B.I.E.”) movement. This designation, just recently invented by the F.B.I., is as frightening and dangerous as the bureau’s infamous Cointelpro program of the 1960s and ’70s, under which J. Edgar Hoover set out to disrupt and destroy virtually any group with the word “black” in its name. Today, entirely nonviolent black activists face violations of their civil liberties and even violence if they’re deemed part of B.I.E.

    The 12-page report, prepared by the F.B.I. Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit in August, and later made public by, both announces the existence of the “Black Identity Extremist” movement and deems it a violent threat, asserting that black activists’ grievances about racialized police violence and inequities in the criminal justice system have spurred retaliatory violence against law enforcement officers. It links incidents of violence by a handful of individual citizens like Michael Johnson, who shot 11 Dallas police officers in July 2016, to “B.I.E. ideology” and predicts that “perceptions of unjust treatment of African-Americans and the perceived unchallenged illegitimate actions of law enforcement will inspire premeditated attacks against law enforcement.”

    This is fiction. Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security intelligence agent, when asked by Foreign Policy in October why the F.B.I. would create the term “B.I.E.,” said, “I have no idea” and “I’m at a loss.” Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, said the “Black Identity Extremists” label simply represents an F.B.I. effort to define a movement where none exists. “Basically, it’s black people who scare them,” he said.

    “Could you name an African-American organization that has committed violence against police officers?” Representative Karen Bass asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Tuesday’s hearing. “Can you name one today that has targeted police officers in a violent manner?” It’s no surprise that he could not. Mr. Sessions, who confessed that he had not read the report, said he would need to “confirm” and would reply in writing at a later time. The F.B.I. itself admits in the report, that, even by its own definition, “B.I.E. violence has been rare over the past 20 years.”

    The Black Identity Extremist designation erroneously presumes a broad and disparate group of organizations with concerns about the criminal justice system represent a movement with a unifying ideology. This reflects ignorance — or denial — of the reality on the ground: There are dozens if not hundreds of groups with primarily black members that take issue with racial injustice but have distinct areas of focus, mandates, missions and memberships, and which are just as likely to conflict with one another as they are to overlap.

    Beyond that, the F.B.I.’s suggestion that people with “extreme black identities” may attack law enforcement officers has practical — and potentially deadly — consequences for those who are swept up under the newly created label. Although it’s unclear what actions the F.B.I. will take as a result of the report, the conclusions pave the way for it to gather data on, monitor and deploy informants to keep tabs on individuals and groups it believes to be B.I.E.s. This could chill and criminalize a wide array of nonviolent activism in ways that have terrifying echoes its infamous Cointelpro program, which investigated and intimidated black civil rights groups and leaders, including Marcus Garvey and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Under this program, F.B.I. agents concocted a false internal narrative connecting Dr. King to foreign enemies, allowing agents to justify threatening to publicize his private life and encouraging him to commit suicide. This is a reminder that while the “Black Identity Extremist” designation is new, the strategy of using a vague definition to justify broad law enforcement action is not. The report’s labored efforts to link what it calls the “violent anti-white rhetoric” of today’s black organizations to “B.I.E. violence” that “peaked in the 1960s and 1970s” suggests a plan to use similar tactics to the “monitor, disrupt and divide” approach that it used against civil rights activists.

    The F.B.I.’s branding of individuals and groups troubled by racial injustice and police misconduct as dangerous “Black Identity Extremists” echoes and validates the way racist fringe groups on the right, like neo-Nazis or the K.K.K., see these activists. By encouraging the public to view groups like Black Lives Matter (which has offered a robust critique of systemic police violence against African-Americans and has organized peaceful direct actions but has no links to terrorism or violence) as a threat, the designation indirectly emboldens private violence against black activists. To make matters worse, the F.B.I. memo comes at a time of mounting white supremacy and white nationalism, and as the Trump administration has announced plans to cut Countering Violent Extremism funds to fight against white supremacists and neo-Nazis despite their having actual historical links to violence.

    Finally, the F.B.I. designation compounds the vulnerability of black Muslims, who make up the largest segment — at least 25 percent — of the Muslim population in the United States. Muslim communities are already the targets of counter-radicalization policing. Neighborhoods, campuses and institutions where black Muslims organize around racial justice and against police brutality could now be doubly scrutinized with double the threats to civil liberties, particularly as the Trump administration seeks to intensify counter-radicalization measures.

    In fact, the fabrication of a “B.I.E.” movement that could justify the F.B.I.’s marshaling of its counterterrorism capabilities against anyone who it decides fits the vague, baseless designation potentially threatens the civil liberties of all Americans. The Cointelpro program began with an effort to prevent the rise of a “black messiah who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement” and evolved to target the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets and those who protested against the Vietnam War. Similarly, the F.B.I.’s broadening of the “War on Terror” to include Black Identity Extremists in addition to the primary targets of that campaign — Muslims — could be just the beginning. It’s not hard to imagine that those who advocate for women’s rights, immigrant rights and other groups could be the subject of a fantasy “movement” in a future F.B.I. report.

    After years of silence, a Senate committee convened by Senator Frank Church of Idaho in 1975 finally revealed how deeply the Cointelpro program degraded American democracy by infiltrating and causing dissension within organizations, stoking rivalries, and even placing agent provocateurs inside protest movements to initiate violence. Lawmakers should pay the same attention to what the F.B.I. is doing today. Representative Bass’s Tuesday grilling of Mr. Sessions about the B.I.E. report was a start, but the issue demands more attention. Congress should hold formal hearings dedicated to the F.B.I.’s use of domestic terrorism resources and accompanying designations to target citizens who have done nothing more than express their desire for justice.

  • Understanding Islamophobia and its Many Dimensions

    September 16, 2019
    Understanding Islamophobia and its Many Dimensions

    Islamophobia in America is, in great part, a racial project. It is spawned by a master discourse that drove European supremacy and today powered by popular views and state policy seeking to safeguard its domestic progeny, white supremacy. The narrow racial framing of Muslim identity, deeply embedded in the American imagination, not only converges with the rising tide of anti-Muslim animus we now understand and know as ‘Islamophobia’ – but indeed, an integral part of it.

    Islamophobia is far more than merely “dread or hatred of Muslims,” or “fear or dislike” of the religion and its followers. These prevailing definitions tend to fixate on explicit or irrational animus, and far too often, the behaviors and actions of individuals. The role of the state, and its vast network of agencies and agents, is often removed from discussions of Islamophobia. However, the actions of the state and the state’s relationship to the actions of citizens, is vital to understanding Islamophobia.

    Islamophobia is also state law and policy. It is expressly found in its letter and hidden in facially neutral terms intended to discriminate, affixed with the state seals of approval that obliges the polity to adhere to the message that Muslim identity is presumptive of terror threat, and Islam a civilizational foil that must be confronted, or contorted in a form palatable to the state. Approaching a definition and framework for understanding Islamophobia, in all of its complexity, enables an appreciation of its numerous tentacles, and how these tentacles intersect with other forms of racism and bigotry, are extended by law and policy, and reach to color the perspectives of not only non-Muslims, but also Muslims, and everybody and anybody conditioned by the American Islamophobia that prevails today.

    This historical context, coupled with its modern complexity, inspired my new definition and framing of Islamophobia. Above all, Islamophobia is founded upon the presumption that Islam is inherently violent, alien, and unassimilable – driven by the belief that expressions of Muslim identity correlate with a propensity for terrorism. In addition to this foundational definition are three attendant dimensions: (1) private Islamophobia; (2) structural Islamophobia, and; (3) dialectical Islamophobia.

    First, private Islamophobia is the fear, suspicion, and violent targeting of Muslims by private actors. These actors could be individuals or institutions acting in a capacity not directed to the state. Craig Hick’s murder of the three Muslim America students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 2015 is a clear example of private Islamophobia, as are arsons on mosques or attacks on visible Muslims. Acts of private Islamophobia, oftentimes driven by caricatured understandings of Muslims and Islam, also menace non-Muslim individuals and institutions thought to be Muslim, such as South Asian Americans or Sikh temples.

    Structural Islamophobia, the second dimension, is the fear and suspicion of Muslims on the part of government institutions. This fear and suspicion are manifested and enforced through the enactment of and advancements of laws, policy, programming, or formal pronouncements by state agents. Laws like the US PATRIOT Act or Countering Violent Extremism, the vile anti-Muslim rhetoric of President Trump and the campaigns of state congressmen to pass anti-Sharia legislation distinctly and diversely illustrate structural Islamophobia. Structural Islamophobia has been openly extended by statesman on the Right, including Presidents George W. Bush and Trump, but also democrats like President Barrack Obama, who established counter-radicalization policing as his signature counterterror policy. Unlike private Islamophobia, structural Islamophobic policy and positions are just as often driven by rational motives as they are irrational, strategically deployed to carry forward specific domestic and international state objectives.

    Third, dialectical Islamophobia is the process by which structural Islamophobia shapes, reshapes and endorses views or attitudes about Islam and Muslim subjects. State action legitimizes prevailing misconceptions and misrepresentations of Islam and communicates these damaging ideas through state-sponsored policy, programming or rhetoric. Law is not merely policy, but also a set of messages and directives disseminated to broader society, instructing them to partake in the project of policing, punishing and extra-judicially prosecuting Muslims. We see this process functioning most vividly during times of crisis, such as the direct aftermath of a terror attack, when hate incidents and violence toward Muslims and perceived Muslims are pervasive.

    This definition enables an understanding of the epistemological and legal roots of American Islamophobia, and its ferocious rise during the past several decades. Just as critically, this framework enables analyses of Islamophobia as it interacts and converges with other systems of stigma and subordination, and indeed, the most ominous among them.

    Beyond its popular cover, Islamophobia is everything from law to Hollywood misrepresentations, violent assaults on conspicuous Muslims and innocent bystanders wrongly profiled as Muslims. Islamophobia is all of this, but also far more. It is, above all, a fluidly shifting and intricate system that cannot be reduced to mere “fear or dislike” of Islam and its followers, who occupy a range of distinct stations in society and experience it differently, and for the most vulnerable, disproportionately.

    Reckoning with Islamophobia requires situating it within the American context that feeds and foments it, which perils a broad population of could-be victims that manifest the multi-layered diversity of the country they strive to call home – against the collaborative efforts of the state and elements in society that fight to keep Muslims at the margins.

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