Civil rights of American Muslims under attack on pretext of fighting terrorism…

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Friday, October 26, 2001 has become an ominous date in the history of the United States and of Muslims living there. On that fateful day the US took steps that may eventually make it another Spain for its Muslims.

Shortly after noon, when President Bush signed the anti-terrorism bill H.R. 3162, he turned the tide of history. This bill was sponsored by Rep. Sensenbrenner, F. James, Jr. on October 23 and it became Public Law (No. 107-56) on October 26. Never in the history of a country like the US has any bill of such far-reaching implications gone through with so perfunctory a hearing.

On the day it was introduced in the House, it was simultaneously referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, as well as to the Committees on Intelligence (Permanent Select), Financial Services, International Relations, Energy and Commerce, Education and the Workforce, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Armed Services. On the same day (Oct. 23), at 7:15 pm, Mr. Sensenbrenner moved to suspend the rules and pass the bill. The bill was considered under suspension of the rules. That evening the Chair announced that further proceedings on the motion would be postponed.

The next day (Oct. 24, 2001), at 11:03 the motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill was agreed to by a vote of 357 to 66. A motion to reconsider the bill was laid on the table and agreed without objection. Then began a short hearing. On October 25 the bill was passed by the Senate; Senator Landrieu abstained and Senator Russ Feingold voted against. Within minutes the bill was cleared for the White House; it was presented to President Bush on October 26. He signed it, and within the next two days many Muslims had been arrested under Public Law No: 107-56.

The sole voice of reason in the Senate said that “the Administration’s proposed bill contains vast new powers for law-enforcement, some seemingly drafted in haste and others that came from the FBI’s wish list that Congress had rejected in the past …the attorney general announced his intention to introduce a bill shortly after the September 11 attacks. He provided the text of the bill the following Wednesday, and urged Congress to enact it by the end of the week…..the pressure to move on this bill quickly, without deliberation and debate, has been relentless ever since. It is one thing to shortcut the legislative process in order to get federal financial aid to the cities hit by terrorism….it is quite another to press for the enactment of sweeping new powers for law-enforcement that directly affect the civil liberties of the American people without due deliberation by the peoples’ elected representatives.”

However, even this voice of reason did not address the bill’s main flaw: its discriminatory nature. The new law only applies to residents of the US who are not yet citizens, for example J-1 visa-holders (the vast majority of whom are Muslims), students and immigrants with permanent status.

Senator Russ Feingold, however, said that “the bill contains some very significant changes in criminal procedure that will apply to every federal criminal investigation in this country, not just those involving terrorism. One provision would greatly expand the circumstances in which law enforcement agencies can search homes and offices without notifying the owner prior to the search. The longstanding practice…of serving a warrant prior to executing a search could be easily avoided in virtually every case, because the government would simply have to show that it has reasonable cause to believe that providing notice may seriously jeopardize an investigation. This is a significant infringement on personal liberty.”

The new law allows law-enforcement agencies to monitor computers, open e-mails and wire-tap telephones; it breaks down the distinction between intelligence and criminal investigation, and it enables the government to compel the production of records from any business regarding any person, if they are sought in connection with an investigation of terrorism or espionage. Senator Feingold found this very troubling because “under this bill [now law], the government can compel the disclosure of the personal records of anyone: perhaps someone who worked with, or lived next door to, or went to school with, or sat on an aeroplane with, or has been seen in the company of, or whose phone number was called by – the target of the investigation…the government can apparently…collect information on virtually anyone. All it has to allege in order to get an order for these records from the court is that the information is sought for an investigation of international terrorism or clandestine intelligence gathering… without showing even that the information is relevant to the investigation, the government can lawfully compel a doctor or hospital to release medical records, or a library to release circulation records. This is a truly breathtaking expansion of police power.”

According to the new law, the attorney general can detain immigrants, including legal permanent residents, for seven days merely on suspicion of being engaged in terrorism. The bill also denies detained persons a trial or hearing, where the government would be required to prove that the person is, in fact, engaged in terrorist activity. The bill also allows the detention and deportation of people engaging in innocent activities. It allows the detention and deportation of individuals who provide lawful assistance to groups that are not even designated by the Secretary of State as terrorist organizations, but instead have engaged in vaguely defined ‘terrorist activity’ sometime in the past. To avoid deportation, the immigrant is required to prove a negative: that he or she did not know, and should not have known, that the assistance would further terrorist activity.

A lawful permanent resident who makes a controversial speech that the government deems to be supportive of terrorism can be barred from returning after taking a trip abroad.

Senator Feingold asked in the Senate: “Who do we think is most likely to bear the brunt of this abuse? It won’t be immigrants from Ireland…it won’t be immigrants from El Salvador or Nicaragua…Haiti or Africa. It will be immigrants from Arab, Muslim, and South Asian countries..our government has been given vast new powers and they may fall most heavily on a minority of our population who already feel particularly acutely the pain of this disaster.”

A similar law is under discussion in Canada. It is likely to be passed with only slight changes. This really means the opening of a dark chapter in the history of Muslims in North America. Some of them have made millions in the new lands, but all of them remain millions without rights, without a defence against state-sponsored discrimination. They are also without popular public support and now without legal protection. This may well be the beginning of the making of another Spain for them.

The writer is the president of the Centre for Islam and Science (CIS), Canada.

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