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What does a world without civil liberties look like?

There are many examples of the steady dissolution of human rights in this post-9/11, “War on Terrorism” age in the United States. Racial profiling and the practice of preventive prosecution have disillusioned many who have traditionally seen the U.S. as a place where civil liberties thrive and the justice system is fair. Racial and religious profiling have become major causes for concern, and that is just one aspect of the web of increasingly stringent laws and security practices that have proliferated life in America since 9/11. The tragedy of that ill-fated day has translated into a continued state of paranoia, where basic values are ignored in the face of a potential or assumed threat.

One such story is that of Syed Fahad Hashmi, a U.S. citizen who has been through the worst of the American detention system after being accused of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. This “material support” involved letting an acquaintance stay with him, an acquaintance who later delivered winter clothing to Al Qaeda.

Hashmi’s story was recently retold in a compelling piece by his former Brooklyn College (CUNY) professor Jeanne Theoharis for The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the account, Hashmi was a devout Muslim and very politically active, regularly voicing his criticisms of American policies in the Muslim world. While pursuing his master’s in London, Hashmi hosted an acquaintance – Mohammed Junaid Babar – who had brought luggage that he later handed over to an Al Qaeda leader in South Waziristan, in Pakistan. Hashmi was arrested on June 6, 2006 and held in custody for 11 months until his extradition to the United States. Hashmi was then placed in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, at first with some facilities. However, five months later, he was put under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), a measure that severely restricts a prisoner’s contact with the outside world and removes all sense of privacy. Under SAMs, Hashmi’s detention was described as follows-

[Hashmi] was allowed no contact with anyone outside his lawyer and, in very limited fashion, his parents—no calls, letters, or talking through the walls, because his cell was electronically monitored. He had to shower and relieve himself within view of the camera. He was allowed to write only one letter a week to a single member of his family, using no more than three pieces of paper. One parent was allowed to visit every two weeks, but often would be turned away at the door for bureaucratic reasons. [Hashmi] was forbidden any contact—directly or through his lawyers—with the news media. He could read only portions of newspapers approved by his jailers—and not until 30 days after publication. Allowed only one hour out of his cell a day, he had no access to fresh air but was forced to exercise in a solitary cage.

The government cited Hashmi’s “proclivity for violence” as a justification for the measures, even though he did not have a criminal record, did not exhibit any signs of violence or have a demonstrated reach outside of the prison. Over the next three years, Hashmi’s lawyers appealed the SAMs over 30 times, being rejected each time for one implausible reason after another. On April 27, 2010, Hashmi agreed to a plea bargain, with the government, of one count of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison not just for luggage that someone else had brought into his apartment, but also because of his “anti-American jihadist ideology,” according to Judge Preska. Hashmi made his first public statement in four years, thanking everyone, both Muslims and non-Muslims, for their support. Hashmi was later transferred to the federal high-security prison in Florence, Colorado and in March this year moved into its Supermax ADX facility, the most draconian prison in the federal system. Meanwhile, his once acquaintance Babar, who was the one to physically deliver winter clothing to Al Qaeda, was sentenced to “time served” (four and a half years out of a possible 70) for his “exceptional” service and because he “began co-operating even before his arrest.

While Hashmi’s true intentions – i.e. whether he was aware of his acquaintance’s Al Qaeda connection or if he had ever considered that route himself – are unknown, the outcry against his detention is more about the authorities completely denying him his right to basic human rights and civil liberites. This becomes even more deplorable especially since he is a U.S. citizen imprisoned in his own country. Hashmi’s case echoes other stories of racial and religious profiling that received much media coverage in the aftermath of 9/11. One of the stories was of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, who went missing on 9/11. Widespread speculation labeled him as a terrorist and an accomplice to those who carried out the attacks. However, a few months later, his remains were found near the World Trade Center wreckage and it became clear that he had died while being part of the rescue efforts.

Institutionalized racial and religious profiling deeply impacts the community at large and influences the public perception of specific groups that have been targeted by government and national security. In the ten years since 9/11, Arab-Americans and South Asians have increasingly become the targets of hate crimes around the country. In a recent instance, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down in a suburb of Sacramento without any provocation. The police indicated that there was a high chance of hate motivation for the crime.

Representative Peter King (R-NY), who had recently triggered much uproar about his Congressional hearings targeting Islam in the United States, has now added ethnic profiling to his earlier agenda. In a public television appearance on April 5, King stated that “a person’s religious background or ethnicity can be a factor, one of the things to look at.” This blatant push for religious and racial profiling instead of behavioral profiling is a foreboding sign that the issue will not be going away anytime soon. Until there is a change in this position, unfortunate stories of extreme incarceration, wrongful accusations and hate crimes will continue.

Hashmi’s former professor, Theoharis, sums up her thoughts on America’s tenuous handling of the terrorism threat, stating-

…Seeing that humanity is at odds with the political zeitgeist, where endless searches and small bottles of shampoo and fear-mongering subway posters have become the currency of national security. Where a growing obsession with homegrown terrorism means that we are again willing to chisel away the Bill of Rights in the name of protecting America.

This disintegration of the Bill of Rights for the sake of “national security” points to a future where the state of paranoia may quite likely run every facet of our lives. Such a dystopic future, where basic American values and human rights have been compromised, is the subject of Breakthrough’s ground-breaking new Facebook game, America 2049. In this alternate reality game, the player is tasked with the capture of a presumed terrorist and pushed to ask the question- What if? How close have we already come to America 2049? How can we work together—in real life—to build a better future? The game addresses issues such as racial profiling, religious intolerance, and sexual discrimination by presenting a scenario where wrong choices made today will adversely affect our future. And if the widespread cases of racial profiling and complete removal of civil liberties continue, as with the case of Hashmi, the virtual world of the future in America 2049 might come upon us much sooner than we think.

Photo courtesy of racism.conocimientos.com.ve

How ‘Un-American’ are Peter King’s Congressional hearings?

On Friday, March 4, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down without provocation while they were out for a casual stroll in a suburb of Sacramento. One of them, Surinder Singh (67), died immediately while his friend Gurmej Atwal (78), who was shot twice in the chest, is said to be in critical condition. The police who are investigating the attack have called on any witnessed to come forward and said that while they are still searching for evidence, there is a high probability that the there was a “hate or bias motivation for the crime.” This unfortunate attack took place just days before Rep. Peter King (R-NY) began his controversial House Homeland Security Committee hearings on the “The Extent of Radicalization” among American Muslims. With the upcoming 10th year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the endless spate of hate crimes against minority groups, it is difficult to ignore the implications that this Congressional hearing will have on the future of this country.

In the aftermath of 9/11,  heightened national security measures and increased suspicion of immigrant communities have placed a harsh spotlight on Muslim Americans as well as the wider South Asian and Arab American communities, deeply impacting the ways in which these communities are perceived and damaging their sense of national identity.

The first of the King hearings took place in Washington D.C. yesterday. Rep. Peter King said that he initiated these hearings in response to a string of arrests in 2010 concerning Muslim Americans who were connected to intercepted plots against American targets. In an interview with the Associated Press, King stated-

There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.

The committee yesterday heard from a panel of witnesses that argued for and against the premise of the hearings. Those who argued that the country needs to be more vigilant about the “radicalization” of the Muslim community included Dr. M Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor and Navy veteran who called on his fellow Muslims to be more outspoken against radical Islam, and Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American activist whose nephew joined a militant group in Somalia and was subsequently killed in 2009. During the hearing, the most pointed questions against the premise came from Representatives who raised concerns over why other extremist groups – affiliated with various religions – were not even being considered by King and his committee. Speaking to the press after the hearing yesterday, King called it a success, emphasizing that the purpose was to “inform, not to inflame.”

The run-up to the hearings saw a very polarized response, with groups like Fox News expressing substantial support for them, while human rights advocates consistently condemned them. The greatest criticism of the hearings was not that extremist acts of terror pose a threat to national security and need to be investigated, but that King’s approach is biased and isolationist. The criticism holds that by scapegoating a community based on their religious affiliation, the King hearings will have widespread repercussions on how American Muslims will be perceived by the wider public. For a community that is already the subject of suspicion and profiling, the Congressional hearings, by calling for greater accountability for American Muslims above any other group, has very real implications for community identity, public perception, integration and collective healing.

One of the most vocal opponents of the hearings is the country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that Peter King has accused of conspiring with radical Islamist groups. In addition to asserting their identity as a peaceful organization, CAIR said that they would have supported the hearings if they were “balanced and fair.” Also opposing King’s approach to the issue is the civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), that stated in their 2010 annual report on “hate and extremism” that the “radical right in America expanded explosively in 2010,” as the number of hate groups topped 1,000.

A number of critics also held that this kind of focalized criticism of a specific community could result in the loss of trust these groups have towards law enforcement agencies and the government, impeding the work of law enforcement and thus work against ensuring the safety of all communities. At the hearing, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim member of Congress, gave an emotional testimony about Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a NYPD cadet who was under suspicion for being involved with the attacks even as died trying to help victims on September 11, 2001. Breaking into tears, Ellison described -

After the tragedy…some people tried to smear his character … solely because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed. Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.

This anecdote, from an event still fresh in public memory, highlights the deeply damaging impact that continued demonization of an entire religious group can and does have on people’s lives. Moreover, by coming from an institutionalized source such as the House of Representatives (despite a marked distance by the Obama administration), the hearings put out a very strong message to the American public, and need to be understood for the authority that they wield. Even after Rep. King diluted his more aggressive original agenda, the hearings signal and amplify a deep sense of suspicion towards one group of Americans. Especially when ratified by the political leaders of the country, such trends pose a threat to the fundamental American principles of dignity and respect towards everyone. And that, perhaps, is a bigger threat to national security, especially in these testing times.

For a lighter, yet insightful take on King’s track record and alleged hypocrisy in this issue, watch Jon Stewart’s analysis of the hearings here:

Photo courtesy of www.upi.com

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