It took the United States government nearly 10 years to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden in retribution for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Over that same period, Muslims struggled to overcome guilt by association for the criminal acts of bin Laden. Meanwhile, all Americans were forced to give up civil liberties in a purported exchange for more security.
As part of its concerted war on terror, the U.S. government under both presidents Bush and Obama directed most national security resources toward terrorism committed by Muslims, while the likes of Jared Lee Loughner and Joseph Stack attacked undetected. Frightening images of Muslim terrorists persuaded the American public that spending billions of dollars on occupying Iraq and Afghanistan was necessary despite burgeoning economic ills at home.
Compromising our civil liberties also became an acceptable sacrifice to protect us from Osama bin Laden’s murderous gang. Body scan machines electronically strip search us at nearly every airport. Fusion centers across the country gather intelligence on average Americans to deposit into massive databases monitored by the government. Tens of thousands of warrantless national security letters are issued every year to obtain information about our financial and political lives absent evidence of criminal activity. And police departments have shifted resources from necessary crime-fighting to mapping communities based on their religious faiths and ethnic origins under the auspices of protecting national security.
There remain many questions about whether such infringements on our civil liberties at home led to the weakening of al-Qaida abroad and the eventual elimination of Osama bin Laden. But one thing is clear. The war on terror was a remarkable success in vilifying more than 6 million people in America of various ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently reported a disproportionately high incidence of religious discrimination against Muslim employees compared to their percentage of the population. Some Muslim women donning head scarves are not only excluded from employment but also physically assaulted on account of their faith. Within a three-month period at the end of 2010, five Muslim women in Staten Island, N.Y., Seattle, Wash., and Columbus, Ohio, were physically attacked while called terrorists. Even constructing a house of worship is perceived by a significant number of Americans as an illicit and anti-American activity that should be prohibited by law.
School bullying against Muslim students is also on the rise, with the most recent occurring the day after Osama bin Laden was killed when a teacher at Clear Brook High School in Friendswood humiliated a Muslim female student by stating, “I bet you are grieving … about your uncle’s death.” A few days later three Muslim men were kicked off of commercial flights because the pilot felt uncomfortable with their Islamic garb and beards. Ironically, the men were headed to a conference in North Carolina addressing the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry in America.
While one hopes the death of Osama bin Laden and the significant weakening of al-Qaida will reverse these trends, the plane evictions and verbal assault of the Houston-area student show otherwise. It will likely take a concerted effort by all Americans to dismantle the deeply entrenched stereotypes and turn a new page. One where we no longer impute the criminality of Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, onto the majority of law-abiding Muslims in America. When civil liberties of all Americans are not so easily abandoned based on fear of a few terrorists holed up somewhere across the world.
Dismantling these stereotypes is more than simply pursuing a politically correct post-racial agenda. Nor are the benefits limited to Muslims in America. Debunking these stereotypes denies those seeking to take away Americans’ civil liberties an important tool. No longer can they rely on false stereotypes of Muslims to reauthorize the Patriot Act, build more spy centers and eviscerate our privacy.
Now that Osama bin Laden lies dead at the bottom of the sea, hopefully we can finally put to rest the stereotypes and get to work on taking back our rights.
Sahar Aziz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, where she teaches national security and Middle East law. She is also a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. This article was initially published by the Houston Chronicle on May 21, 2011.