At the Brookings’ U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough was asked whether President Obama would implement his Cairo speech commitment to stop government discrimination against American Muslims. Because Bush’s counterterrorism practices had stigmatized Muslims as the most distrusted minority in America, Obama’s pledge was particularly salient.
But instead of vowing to stop Obama’s continuation of Bush’s policies, McDonough pointed to American Muslims’ success in business and the professions. Rather than address the merits of legitimate grievances, McDonough diverted attention with a generic talking point that disregards the impediments to Muslims’ success as a result of profiling, selective prosecution, and discrimination in the post-9/11 era.
He blithely dismissed objections to the NYPD’s federally funded surveillance of Muslim students, Muslim businesses, and mosques. He feigned ignorance about the numerous cases wherein young, mentally troubled Muslim males are exploited by highly paid informants in sophisticated, informant lead terrorist plots. And McDonough conveniently failed to mention the military and law enforcement’s dissemination of stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists through hate filled training programs.
The Obama administration is clearly tone deaf to the stigmatization of its counterterrorism policies — which threaten the very successes McDonough highlighted. Only after decades of investment in education and entrepreneurship have some Muslims achieved success. Like other immigrants, many Muslims toiled long hours at work and in school to take advantage of opportunities unavailable to them in their countries of origin. African American Muslims overcame both the legacy of slavery and challenges faced by religious minorities.
Their hard-earned success is now in jeopardy due to invidious counterterrorism practices developed by President Bush and continued by President Obama. Doctors, engineers, and business people are subjected to humiliating groping and interviews at airports because their names are on secret watch lists teeming with false positives. Border agents ask them how often they pray, what mosques they attend, and whether they donate to Muslim charities. FBI agents visit their workplaces seeking voluntary interviews, sending a chilling message to co-workers that their Muslim co-workers are disloyal and suspect. Dubious informants prey upon their children attending Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, and other universities across the East Coast as they search for easy targets to pull into fake terrorist plots. Meanwhile, intelligence dossiers are created for each student, mosque congregant, and professional who comes into contact with law enforcement.
McDonough’s talking point clearly disregards the fragility of American Muslims’ success. What was earned over decades of hard work and investment in their education can be swiftly annihilated in one swoop with a mere accusation of terrorism. Government suspicion cast on a Muslim, no matter how successful, has ruined careers and devastated families.
Take, for instance, the case of Jesse Maali, a successful businessman who was prosecuted for employing undocumented workers. Notwithstanding the case’s irrelevance to terrorism, the prosecutor accused Maali of financial ties with terrorist groups simply because he was a wealthy Muslim American. As a result, his case was labeled as a terrorism case in the media, causing the business he built from scratch to collapse under a false cloud of suspicion.
Similarly, a Saudi doctoral student, Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, made the fatal mistake of managing a website he did not know had dubious ties to terrorists abroad. In a classic case of guilt by association, prosecutors used Al-Hussayen’s religiosity as evidence of support for terrorism. After a seven week trial, Al-Hussayen was acquitted. He was then deported to Saudi Arabia before he could finish his doctoral degree, which he had worked towards for nine years. Al-Hussayen’s case is significant because many successful Muslim American families originated from highly qualified immigrants who obtained doctoral degrees in the United States and set the foundation of success for future generations. But since 9/11, this path to success has been significantly stunted.
An often overlooked stigmatizing effect of Obama’s counterterrorism practices is the inability of persons with Muslim names to obtain employment commensurate with their qualifications. In 2004, the Discrimination Research Center conducted a study in which 6,000 fictitious resumes of similarly qualified applicants were submitted to employers but under different names. Resumes with identifiably Muslim names received the lowest response rate for an interview. Meanwhile, those employed face job losses because of stereotypes, propagated by invidious government profiling and selective counterterrorism enforcement, that Muslims are suspect.
But rather than acknowledge the government’s legitimizing effect on anti-Muslim bias and commit to stopping invidious practices, McDonough’s new talking point implies that Muslim American should be grateful they are not like their counterparts in Europe relegated to ghettos.
In a country that prides itself in offering social mobility to those who work hard, his response shows he is out of touch with the experiences of American Muslims in the post-9/11 era.
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 Huffington Post on June 15, 2012.