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9/11's Legacy of Religious Discrimination

Heather L. Weaver,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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September 15, 2011

It’s no secret that, after 9/11, a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry washed over the country. The intensity of that prejudice has sustained it for a decade, and, in many ways, anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of Islam seem even stronger and more deeply rooted today than in the months and years after the attack. In the last few years, for instance, a number Muslims or people perceived to be Muslims have been violently assaulted; and scores of mosques and Islamic Centers have been vandalized, with attacks ranging from racist and anti-Muslim graffiti to arson and firebombing.

When the public succumbs to this type of hysteria, we — more than ever — need our government to push back against the tide of intolerance and to redouble its efforts to protect members of the targeted group and preserve their civil rights and liberties. As the ACLU detailed last week, however, in our report, A Call to Courage: Reclaiming Civil Liberties Ten Years After 9/11, our government has failed to live up to this responsibility. Instead, federal, state, and local governmental bodies have exploited the events of 9/11 and the resulting fear of Islam to systematically target Muslims for unfair scrutiny.

“By allowing—and in some cases actively encouraging—the fear of terrorism to divide Americans by religion, race, and belief, our political leaders are fracturing this nation’s greatest strength: its ability to integrate diverse strands into a unified whole on the basis of shared, pluralistic, democratic values. “

Read the Report »

For example, both the Bush and Obama administrations have given the FBI the authority to engage in racial and religious profiling — which disproportionately impacts Muslims — in national security investigations and to protect “border integrity.” What does this profiling look like in practice? Yesterday, Wired reported that FBI counterterrorism trainings have instructed agents that ‘”main stream’ [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a ‘cult leader’; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a ‘funding mechanism for combat.'” But as our report explains, this approach is wildly inappropriate and harmful to our national security: Terrorism is not a “Muslim” phenomenon. Extremist violence comes from myriad sources. By profiling Muslims in the national security context, the government risks missing threats from those who do not fit within the profile and it alienates and stigmatizes millions of law-abiding American citizens who happen to be Muslim.

No more convincing are claims by state legislators that a recent flood of bills aimed at prohibiting the courts from considering so-called “Sharia law” are necessary to prevent Islam from taking over the judicial system. “Sharia law” does not pose a threat to our legal system; and the courts have treated cases involving Islam, such as prisoners’ free exercise lawsuits, in the same way they dispense of claims involving any other faith. Rather than addressing any legitimate concerns, these fear-mongering anti-Sharia measures serve as unconstitutional vehicles for expressing official condemnation of an entire faith.

Even local government officials have gotten in on the anti-Muslim action. In an effort to block the construction or expansion of mosques, local zoning boards have resorted to various technicalities to deny routine permits. For example, in Mayfield, Kentucky, the zoning board unanimously granted a Muslim man a permit to open an Islamic prayer space in the downtown district, where a number of houses of worship already operated. After some citizens objected to the opening of a mosque in Mayfield, the Board revoked the permit, claiming that there was inadequate parking to support the proposed use. The board only reinstated the permit after the ACLU got involved and pointed out that there was more-than-sufficient parking, and in any event, municipal regulations prohibited the board from denying a permit in that zone due to lack of parking.

In these situations and others, the ACLU has repeatedly proved that the arguments for treating Muslims differently than people of other faiths do not withstand scrutiny; they are, rather, pretexts to justify unconscionable and unconstitutional religious discrimination. In this regard, for all the patriotic emotion surrounding 9/11’s tenth anniversary, the legacy of that tragic day could not be more un-American.

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