No Chill on 9/11

By Basim Usmani Sep 11, 2015

If a random brown guy in a public space asked me, “How has your life changed since 9/11,” my first reaction would be, “Hey rhetorical brown guy, how has your life changed since you became an informant?”

See, many Muslim-Americans are afraid of having this conversation, not just because of anti-Muslim sentiment outside of us, but the anti-Muslim sentiment we’ve internalized. There is no such thing as an unsuspicious brown guy.

Making Adjustments

Encouragingly, this conversation has been taking place on Reddit. A question—"Muslims of Reddit, how much did your life change after 9/11?"—posted by user El-Aalun two weeks ago has resulted in pages of testimony from American Muslims who have had to change their names, move, stop wearing hijabs and endure the silent treatment from white neighbors. In short, everyone has had to make adjustments in this post-9/11 era of mass surveillance, informants and paranoid politicians.  

Even people in the Sikh community have had their lives changed. They’ve endured hate crimes in the name of 9/11 including forcible haircuts, arson, shootings, stabbings, beatings and the horrific gurdwara massacre in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Just this past Tuesday, in the run-up to yet another 9/11 anniversary, Inderjit Singh Mukker, a Chicago Sikh in his 50s, was beaten during a routine trip to the grocery store. According to a Sikh Coalition report, another driver cut Mukker off repeatedly. When Mukker pulled over to the side of the road to let him pass, the man allegedly boxed him in, got out of his car and punched him repeatedly while calling him "Bin Laden" and a "terrorist" and telling him to go back to his country.

Threats and Fake Free Speech

In addition to physical attacks, violent threats against Muslims—which are often illegal and would be taken more seriously by the FBI if they were made by people who practice Islam—seem to be made every week.

For example, over Labor Day weekend Jon Ritzheimer, a white self-described freedom of speech activist, posted a rant on Facebook about New Jersey Muslims going on an annual visit to Six Flags. (The trip is called “Muslim Adventure Day” and it first established by a community member who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.) Ritzheimer supporters, who are almost all white, responded with thinly veiled messages about bombing the event. 

The national conversation about freedom of speech has also been a thorn in our side. It’s been dominated by people who would have you believe that refraining from using slurs against women and immigrants (often from Muslim countries) is censorship. But these people ignore those communities whose First Amendment rights are most at stake. 

Many Muslim Americans can pinpoint the time they first felt too inhibited to express themselves. For me, it was late at night on October 21, 2009 and I was half-asleep on the interstate that wraps around Boston. My father, who had dragged me on an errand, told me to turn on the radio.

“It’s going to be about Tarek Mehanna,” he said.

I had trouble placing the name until the reporter detailed how a promising pharmacy student from Sudbury, Massachusetts—one I used to go to Sunday school with—had been arrested for material support of terrorists.

I was in shock. As I listened to the report, I remembered meeting Tarek’s younger brother, Tamer, at the mosque when I first moved to Boston. I am Pakistani, and they are Egyptians, but Tamer and I would take turns sharing a Discman, bonding over old Ministry, KMFDM and Skinny Puppy. When a few boys at at the masjid were looking to form a band, we tried to talk Tarek into letting us borrow his drum machine. What I was hearing on the radio that night was difficult to reconcile with the reality I knew. And now, after years of hindsight, it’s even harder for me to reconcile how I felt the next day.

My first response was to lay low. The media did a good job of irresponsibly speculating about what Tarek was capable of. I could have said something on social media, but I avoided it. There were more questions than answers, but I did not want to associate myself with Tarek. I felt this way even though I had a lot of publicly available writing from the time I worked as a reporter in Pakistan, a job that had me associating with dangerous people. Tarek could have done nothing wrong, but he was a little too close to home.

When the case finally went to trial, some of the initial charges against him—which stated that he conspired to commit a violent attack in a public setting—were whittled away to the offense of translating Arabic articles online. This, the prosecution argued, was a form of providing material support for terrorists. 

Tarek was sentenced to 17 and a half years, with 23 hours a day of solitary confinement in a closet-sized cell at the Marion penitentiary in Illinois. My brain turns to mush just thinking about it.

The Chilling Effect

Throughout the ordeal I decided to keep my head under a pillow despite numerous attempts by Tamer and my own cousins to reach out to me; they wanted me to take part in demonstrations happening on Tarek’s behalf. Now I had been to many other protests with my family, often via busses chartered from our very own Islamic Center of Boston (ICB), but I declined. After learning that an informant factored into Tarek’s proceedings, I didn’t just want to avoid protests. I didn’t want to go to the mosque.  

Today, legal advocates theorize that a chilling effect similar to the one I had experienced could disenfranchise the 70,000 or so Muslims living in the Boston area. Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director of the Boston ACLU, has observed three major impacts during the intake of cases involving Muslims: Fear of informants, fear of reporting concerns to the government and self-censorship.

“In the past we’ve had people afraid to go the mosque because they feel there are secret spies there,” says Wunsch, who explains that informants are often pushed into the role by U.S. law enforcement. “We’ve seen people get coerced in Muslim communities. [Officials] offer carrots like, ‘I’ll get your wife a green card to come this summer if you cooperate’ or ‘Your mother or father or sister wants to come here. Don’t you want help?’”

The chilling effect has also made Muslims reticent to report concerns about community members to the government. "They’ve seen people who report questionable activities being slammed,” Wunsch says.

The third impact is that the community has become so concerned about appearing controversial that they withdraw socially or refuse to express themselves in ways that could be construed as critical of the U.S. government. Wunsch calls this "ideological exclusion" and says the federal Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program being tested in Boston, L.A. and Minneapolis is ripe for silence.

Although the government maintains that the CVE is not going to target Muslims specifically, a 36-page program guide obtained by the Intercept explicitly lists Saudi, French and British programs targeting Islamic radicalization as inspiration.

“Some of the so-called signs of radicalization include growing a beard, which denotes religiosity, or shaving one’s beard, which they say could be an attempt to blend in before committing an act of terrorism,” says Kade Crockford, a colleague of Wunsch’s. “It really doesn’t matter what you do if you’re a Muslim man."

"We are seeing the creation of two separate First Amendments,” adds Crockford. “One for Muslims and one for non-Muslims.”

And yet, bigots such as Ritzheimer, a former Marine, have gotten away with threatening Muslims and plotting violence scot free.

In addition to making half a dozen violent threats in his videos and Facebook posts, Ritzheimer has gone as far as attempting to crowd-fund $11,000 to buy guns. Ritzheimer is also organizing “Freedom of Speech” rallies around the country, to bring armed bikers, militias and bigots to protest Islam outside American mosques. Meanwhile, Tarek Mehanna rots in a cell for translating Arabic documents. I’m not saying every terrorism case is bunk, but due process and basic constitutional rights don’t seem to apply to Muslim Americans.

They All Look the Same

In June, The Boston Globe, considered to be a liberal newspaper, ran a story titled “Are Boston terrorism cases a trend?” The piece features alarmist quotes from “terrorism experts” about the danger of 18- to 34-year-old millennial Muslims being "radicalized" on social media. The visual accompanying the story is four mugshots—of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Rezwan Ferdaus and Tarek—lined up like a jihadi Brady Bunch. The layout suggests that Ferdaus, who was convicted of plotting terrorism, and the brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon, and Tarek who translated text, are comparable to one another or part of the same family.

Missing from the story is a single quote from a Muslim millennial. Instead, the piece concludes that Boston is vulnerable to terrorism because it is such an international city. Such language can easily be decoded: Terrorism happens in Boston because there are many immigrants here. In other words, blame the immigrants.

Silence Won’t Save Us

On August 6, I went to the front steps of Boston’s City Hall for a demonstration against the CVE organized by civil liberties and legal advocates from the Muslim Justice League and the ACLU. I showed up because Usaama Rahim, a young Muslim man, was gunned down in a CVS parking lot by plainclothes Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) officers without so much as a warrant. Prominent individuals such as Said Ahmed, the founder of United Somali Youth, and Cambridge City councilman Nadeem Mazen were also there.

Mazen and I were classmates at the Islamic Center of Boston’s Sunday school many years ago, when the mosque played a pivotal role in keeping us civically engaged. Along with other Boston Islamic centers, ICB used to charter buses to get us to protests. But there were no young Muslims in the audience at that August demonstration at City Hall.

Instead, the audience consisted of a dozen or so journalists, and the protest was marked by the near absence of mosque leadership and Muslim community participation. “I thought there would be a few hundred people here today,” lamented Said during his speech.

I also saw a few out-of-place white men in the audience and I wondered if they were sympathetic activists drawn in by the national conversations on police transparency and informants—or government agents. 

It’s hard for me to tell who’s more paranoid, Muslim Americans being watched or the U.S. government that watches them. Yes suspicion of us has been pretty high since 9/11, but we won’t make it any better for ourselves if we keep our heads under the pillow.

Basim Usmani is a journalist whose work has appeared in Vice, The Guardian and The Boston Globe. He is also a member of The Kominas, a rock-and-roll band that recently released a video for their latest single, "If You See Something Say Something." Follow his hijinks on Twitter at @BasiRoti and @therealkominas.