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Do we want a future where our religious faith makes us a target?

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 also proved to be an unfortunate turning point in America’s socio-cultural dynamics. For a nation that’s built upon the principles of separating church and state, America’s multi-religious identity came to the forefront as specific groups, especially Muslims or Hindus and Sikhs (who were presumed to be Muslims), became the targets of mistrust and prejudice, both institutional and social. While Americans enjoy considerable religious freedom regardless of affiliation or faith, the increased polarization of the religious communities post-9/11 is a major cause for concern. This issue is addressed in Breakthrough’s multi-platform Facebook game America 2049 which, this week, takes players to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

The future that America 2049 presents, and asks players to save, shows a country torn apart by hate and mistrust. Yet the scenario of the future isn’t too far from us today. The Gainesville Times recently published a letter to the editor that exemplified the extremities of religious and ethnic hate that exists in certain parts of the country. A reader, responding to the May 6 story of a Delta Airlines pilot refusing to fly with two Islamic imams onboard, said-

“It is impossible to distinguish between Muslims who are anti-American and just waiting for a chance to do us harm, and those who are merely pursuing their religious beliefs in this country. The only way to be sure and safe is to exclude them all. Such action would not constitute bias or racism against a particular nationality just because they may be different from us, or the condemnation of a specific religion because it differs from our beliefs but the action is necessary to create conditions in which it is safe to live without a constant fear of terrorism.”

Such blatant justification of Islamophobia is alarming and begs us to work towards much more comprehensive multicultural education. Such views are further bolstered with several states, such as Tennessee, looking to pass a state bill which would essentially ban the practice of Sharia law in the state. The letter received much criticism and supports the statistic put forth by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that since 2000, the number of organized hate groups has increased by 50 percent.

America 2049 provides players with an interactive scenario where this situation — which is already all too real — gets worse in the near future. Players also learn about the strong Anti-Catholic sentiments that pervaded America in the mid-1800s. Such sentiments gave rise to a political party called The Know-Nothings – so called because members swore to deny any knowledge of the party when questioned by outsiders. The Know-Nothings exhibited an extreme disapproval of the wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants to the U.S in the mid-1800s, often engaging in violence and pushing for stricter immigration and naturalization laws to restrict Catholic presence in the country.

In a classic case of history repeating itself — a point America 2049 aims to make – we are now witness to similar sentiments against Muslim or Arabian/South Asian immigration to the U.S. The recent uproar around the proposed construction of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in New York City serves as an apt example of this prejudice. America 2049 aims to address such issues of mistrust and blind discrimination by challenging players to make their own choices on how to confront religious profiling by contextualizing the entire issue across history. The crucial question, therefore, is – in a country that prides itself on freedoms of many kinds, do we want a future where our faith makes us a target?

Photo courtesy of Crux Photography

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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

Join the week of actions to face the truth about racial profiling

Racial and religious profiling is a problem that affects many communities across the country. While traditionally thought of as targeting the African American community, profiling affects a broad range of communities, including Native American, African American, Latino, Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities. Not only is racial and religious profiling humiliating and degrading for the people subjected to it, it is unconstitutional, it is an ineffective law enforcement practice, and it damages community security.

This past summer, communities across America hosted hearings to raise their voices against racial and religious profiling by federal, state, and local law enforcement. The testimonies shared by people around the country illustrated the pervasiveness of the problem, and demonstrated how it impacts people from all walks of life. Out of the hearings came a resolve from communities to stop the ineffective and degrading practice of racial profiling.

In solidarity with Rights Working Group, we urge you to join the ‘Racial Profiling: Face the Truth’ campaign and participate in the ‘Face the Truth Week of Actions,’ taking place from September 26- October 2. Marking the one year anniversary of the launch of the campaign, the Rights Working Group will release a report highlighting testimonies from the hearings that told place over the summer. The report, entitled Faces of Racial Profiling: A Report from Communities Across America, will be released on Thursday, September 30th, at a Congressional briefing which will include a panel discussion involving advocates, police chiefs and community organizers from around the country.

Throughout the week, local partners around the country will be hosting events, echoing the campaign’s call for Federal legislation banning racial profiling. Join a local event near you and take a stand against racial profiling. If you cannot make it to one of these events, consider pulling together a few family members and friends for a conversation about the detrimental effects of racial profiling on your community, or start a letter writing campaign to your local newspaper editors and reporters about the problems with the merger of the criminal justice and immigration systems. You can find other great ideas to do individually or collectively here.

Do stay tuned for the release of “Face the Truth: Racial Profiling Across America,” a short documentary about racial profiling that we at Restore Fairness have produced in collaboration with the Rights Working Group. Also launching during the ‘Face the Truth Week of Actions,’ our powerful short film features stories told by individuals affected by racial profiling as well as educational interviews with notable law enforcement and  civil society leaders. The video includes interviews with Hilary O. Shelton (NAACP), Dr.Tracie Keesee (Division Chief, Denver Police Department) and Karen Narasaki (Asian American Justice Center). It also  contains the compelling personal stories of Karwan Abdul Kader, a U.S citizen driving in the “wrong part of town” who made to strip down, was interrogated and then let go without even a citation; Ronald Scott (Detroit Coalition Against Policy Brutality) who points out the numerous instances of innocent lives lost as law enforcement clashes with racial profiling; and Juana Villegas, a Latino immigrant detained for a traffic violation while 9 months pregnant. Watch for this at restorefairness.org

Photo courtesy of northbynorthwestern.com