The Council on American-Islamic Relations filed suit on August 8 against Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal agencies, which it accuses of creating “a kind of second-class citizenship” for American Muslims.
The lawsuit argues these agencies use an interagency watchlisting system that separates American Muslims from their children, denies them employment opportunities, prevents them from traveling by air, and rejects or delays their immigration benefits.
CAIR’s challenge comes months after an annual report on the status of civil rights for Muslims in the United States, which found more Islamophobic episodes were instigated by federal agencies than either hate groups or individual bigots.
The report, based on complaints made to or investigated by CAIR, found the number of anti-Muslim incidents rose 17 percent between 2016 and 2017. It described some of the personal experiences of discrimination.
“Targeting by Customs and Border Protection” ranked within the five most prevalent kinds of abuse in 2017–a first since CAIR began issuing its annual report. CBP-related incidents outpaced even hate crimes to become the second most common type of discrimination last year.
CBP’s Islamophobia most frequently takes the form of racial profiling and invasion of privacy, explained Zainab Arain, a CAIR research and advocacy coordinator and author of the organization’s most recent civil rights report.
“Muslim travelers are often taken to secondary inspection and questioned about their background, their communication, and their contacts in the United States,” Arain shared. “They are asked religious questions that have nothing to do with the mission of CBP, which is to determine if individuals are lawfully permitted to enter the country.”
Besides being an abuse of power by CBP, Arain emphasized the unconstitutional nature of religious questioning.
“They are also seizing and searching people’s electronics at the border without probable cause,” Arain continued. “If someone refuses to unlock their device, CBP will often take it from the individual and keep it to jailbreak.”
Unlike CBP, the FBI has regularly appeared as a leading perpetrator of anti-Muslim discrimination in CAIR’s annual reports, most recently coming in fourth place.
The FBI’s targeting of Muslims most often involves unwarranted surveillance of and unjustified visits to mosques, homes, and workplaces to question people about their social networks and religious beliefs.
“Questions include: Do you know so-and-so at your masjid? Do you know anybody who is ‘radicalized?’ What do you think about such-and-such imam? What are your thoughts about this school of religious thought?” explained Arain. “Such behavior discourages Muslims from exercising their first amendment right to free practice of religion because they feel threatened.”
Taken together, federal agencies were responsible for 35 percent of all documented complaints–more than any other category, including harassment, hate crimes, and employment discrimination.
In its report, CAIR attributes this “almost unprecedented level of government hostility toward a religious minority” to the presidency of Donald Trump in general and his multiple executive orders banning Muslim travel to the U.S., which spurred 18 percent of all recorded Islamophobic incidents from 2017.
Government is often the primary threat to American Muslims in the United States.
“I’d say that’s about 90 percent of our work,” said Roksana Mun, referring to assisting Muslims with issues involving law enforcement and immigration.
Mun is the director of strategy and trainings for Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York City-based non-profit founded in 2000 to organize South Asian immigrant workers and youth. (“Desis” is a term for all of those who descend from South Asia.)
About 70 percent of DRUM’s membership is Muslim and a majority are undocumented immigrants, making them twice targeted under the current administration. Many DRUM members migrated to the United States from Brazil, crossing the dozen countries in between to turn themselves in to CBP at the border while claiming asylum.
Recent changes to the interpretation of asylum law by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which are already resulting in the detention and deportation of asylum-seekers, have DRUM members afraid for their futures.
“They’re essentially eliminating asylum pathways for people who are particularly coming from these Muslim-majority countries that are facing lots of religious and political persecution,” said Mun.
While DRUM members have not had to contend as much with the FBI, they have dealt with its closest local analog: the New York Police Department.
“As far as we’re concerned, the NYPD often acts like it is its own intelligence agency that supersedes its city and state boundaries,” said Mun, pointing to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Associated Press. The series documented the department’s overarching, warrantless, and ultimately fruitless decade-long surveillance and entrapment of Muslims throughout the Northeastern United States.
Akin to CAIR’s findings about the FBI, DRUM members have been racially profiled, surveilled, and questioned by the NYPD.
Rather than treat government-sponsored Islamophobia as entirely distinct from individual bigotry or hate groups, Mun sees it as both the source, and most unchecked form, of anti-Muslim discrimination.
“When it’s an individual person taking violent action on their own, they’re being enabled and justified,” Mun said. “They feel justified in what they’re doing because they see the Islamophobic policies that are being enacted by these federal agencies.”
“But the difference is,” Mun continued, “there’s actual accountability mechanisms for your employer if they discriminate against you. There’s accountability measures–however we may feel about the criminalizing aspect of it–of somebody who commits hate violence.”
“There are virtually no parallel accountability measures on federal agencies like the FBI or local agencies like the NYPD,” Mun concluded.
In response to government Islamophobia, CAIR and DRUM both advocate that Muslims know and assert their rights. CAIR recommends that victims of anti-Muslim discrimination contact the organization to report their experiences for inclusion in its database, as well as for legal aid.
CAIR is also pursuing litigation against CBP, FBI, and other federal agencies for their use of the Terrorist Screening Database, better known as the “terrorist watch list,” which the organization calls unconstitutional.
The advocacy group encourages American Muslims and allies to take political action against Islamophobia.
“People should use their voices and their votes to fight against this,” said Arain. “They can join local and national movements that are organizing efforts to counter bigotry and prejudice. People should vote out officials who are advancing an agenda of hate and vote in officials who seek to move this country in a direction that advances freedom, dignity, and respect for all.”
For its part, DRUM is more introspective and radical. It will continue to provide members with access to pro bono immigration lawyers, but Mun puts greater emphasis on organizing across Muslim, Hispanic, and black communities to fend off law enforcement.
She brings up the willingness of national Muslims’ rights organizations like CAIR to invite government agencies into their neighborhoods following 9/11–perhaps a demonstration of good faith, but one that was exploited by law enforcement to facilitate surveillance and entrapment.
Considering how the government should be challenged, rather than welcomed, all along, Mun contends the next step in the road ahead is abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“People who want to come here should be able to seek asylum, should have wide access to be able to do so,” she argued, pointing out that ICE was a direct byproduct of the 9/11 attacks and Islamophobia that directly followed.
Regardless of which organization’s approach proves most effective, there is an urgency to resistance. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly decided to uphold the latest iteration of Trump’s Muslim ban, clearing the way for more extreme government-sponsored Islamophobia.
“Our data for anti-Muslim bias incidents following the Supreme Court decision is, as of yet, uncollected,” said Arain. “However, based on the dramatic jump in incidents of anti-Muslim discrimination stemming from government agencies after the first Muslim ban executive order, I would expect another spike. I think it is safe to assume that federal law enforcement and immigration agencies will be emboldened by the recent decision, and we will likely see more anti-Muslim policies and incidents.”
Or, as Mun put it, “They’ve greenlighted depopulation efforts in Muslim communities.”