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Muslims reflect on heightened surveillance post-9/11

Muslims hold a vigil in Royal Oak in response to attacks in Libya.
Mercedes Mejia
Michigan Radio

Abed Ayoub was preparing a presentation for a class at the University of Michigan-Dearborn when he first heard that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. He drove to campus, taking in the news. His initial feelings were ones of shock over the horrifying nature of the attack, sadness for the lives lost, and a sense of dread that another attack might unfold. 

But another worry soon crept into his mind: A feeling that Muslims across the country would be blamed for the actions of those who attacked the country and claimed to share their faith. That worry was realized the next day when he questioned someone who cut him off and took a parking spot he had been turning into. Ayoub questioned the driver, who he said walked over to him and spit in his face, telling him, “This isn’t your parking spot, this isn’t your country. Go back to where you came from.” 

That evening, Ayoub met with members of a local mosque youth group in the basement of a friend’s house, talking about how they could support members of their community and inform them of their rights. 

“It was just this sense of needing to protect our identity and protect our religion and not let anybody hijack it a second time,” he said. “It's been going nonstop since that day.” 

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 left nearly 3,000 people dead. They also changed the way many Muslims in America were seen by their friends, colleagues, neighbors, and their government. Hate crimes against Muslims skyrocketed on 9/11, and they still haven’t fallen back to levels seen prior to that day, according to a count by the FBI.

And, as the dust settled at Ground Zero, lawmakers developed policies that gave government agencies unprecedented powers of surveillance. The expansion of law enforcement surveillance efforts brought additional scrutiny to Muslim communities across the country. Dearborn, Michigan, which has long been home to a vibrant community of people of Middle Eastern descent, became a key site of investigation. 

Credit Courtesy of Abed Ayoub
Abed Ayoub, Legal and Policy Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says 9/11 changed the course of his life.

Expanding reach of surveillance

Passed just weeks after 9/11, The Patriot Act gave the FBI broad powers to investigate people in the U.S., including American citizens. In a speech supporting the measure, then Senator Joe Biden called the legislation “measured and prudent, and said it would “not upset the balance between strong law enforcement and protection of our valued civil liberties.” 

But members of the Arab American community in Dearborn were quick to register concerns about civil liberties, especially after the FBI announced a plan to interview 5,000 men primarily from Muslim majority countries in November 2001.

"We're concerned that this might lead, by incriminating many of these individuals, based on the principle of guilt by association, which we see as unfair and unjust," Imad Hamad of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee told CNN at the time. 

Nasser Beydoun, a Dearborn resident and business owner, was part of the Arab-American Chamber of Commerce at the time. He said the Chamber worked with other community organizations to convince federal law enforcement agencies to request interviews by mail instead of stopping into the houses and workplaces. 

“We tried to protect the rights of the community as this played out,” he said, but the policies that seemed to target Muslims in America kept coming. 

A newly created Department of Homeland Security launched the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, in 2002, which required people from mainly Muslim-majority countries to comply with special registration requirements, including providing fingerprints, photographs, and submitting themselves for questioning in order to remain in the country. 

"I have clearance to go to the White House, but I can't get on a plane."

In 2003, the FBI created a “watchlist” of  “those who are known or reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activities.” 

Nasser Beydoun, the former head of the Arab American Chamber of Commerce, believes he was on that list. Whenever he printed out his boarding pass before a flight, it would be marked SSSS for “Secondary Security Screening Selection.”

“Every time I was flying, I would be randomly selected,” he said. “So, you know, after a certain amount of time, you kind of realize that this is not random.” Beydoun petitioned to get himself off of the watchlist, but was unable to do so. 

Then, he was detained at the U.S.-Canada border, after leaving a visit with family in Windsor to bring his daughter, who was about 10 years old at the time, to a birthday party back home in Dearborn. “We were held for about five hours and interrogated and with no food, no water, and separated from my child. And I said, you know what, this is not going to happen anymore. As a U.S. citizen, we have certain rights, and sometimes the government overreacts and we need to fight for those rights.” 

Beydoun was a member of an organization called Building Respect In Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity, or BRIDGES that was created to bolster the relationship between the Arab Americans and federal law enforcement agencies after 9/11. BRIDGES “meets on a regular basis to provide a forum to address issues of mutual concern and to foster better understanding,” according to the Justice Department, and “addresses issues such as border crossings, no-fly lists, [...] law enforcement policies and procedures, and immigration.” 

Despite Beydoun’s involvement in an organization that connected him with the head of the Customs and Border Protection Agency, he wasn’t able to get himself off the list. “I used to joke that I have clearance to go to the White House, but I can't get on a plane.” 

So, along with a co-plaintiff, he sued the government. Judges from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them in 2017, ultimately deciding that additional screening at an airport or detention at the border was not a violation of civil liberties. 

Trading civil liberties for national security

For Rana Elmir, the acting executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, the impact of these kinds of policies is hardly a laughing matter. “As communities, and as Americans, as well as humans, we can't see all of this, we can't endure the degradation of suspicion and discrimination and not be affected in deep ways,” she said. “Our mosques are infiltrated by informants. We were, and are, and continue to be religiously and racially profiled by law enforcement. We're watch listed and many of our charities that we supported at the time have been shut down again through discriminatory policies and practices.”

Credit Courtesy of Rana Elmir
Rana Elmir, Acting Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan, speaks at a rally against the so-called Muslim Ban outside of the U.S. Supreme Court.

All of those efforts took place in the interest of national security. When asked if she believes the heightened scrutiny of individuals and enhanced surveillance of communities were justified as part of an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks, Elmir said it’s impossible to know the full scale of these operations or their outcomes because of the confidentiality around the policies. But, she pointed to one example of surveillance which has been well documented to explain why she believes the loss of civil liberties for Muslims in America has not been justified: a large scale surveillance campaign by the New York Police Department. 

In 2002, the NYPD launched a massive surveillance program which stretched 100 miles from the city, which deployed informants in area mosques, local businesses, and Muslim student organizations in addition to surveilling individuals. The program was first laid bare by an AP investigation. The NYPD admitted that the surveillance effort failed to produce a single intelligence, and the Inspector General for the NYPD found that the program largely fell afoul of internal policies. The police department settled a lawsuit brought by Muslim community members in 2012.

Elmir draws a throughline from policies that began to put additional scrutiny on Muslims in America before 9/11 to the Patriot Act and on to the so-called “Muslim Ban” put in place by former President Trump. 

“The post 9/11 life for Muslims is not past tense,” she said. “Sure, there are some policies and some programs that no longer exist. But when Trump was campaigning on launching a Muslim registry, on infiltrating our mosques, on the Muslim Ban, I think it surprised everyone to know that many of these programs were already in place under under a Bush presidency, under an Obama presidency.” 

Changed how a community sees itself

Rana Elmir was a college student interested in pursuing a career in journalism before the attacks. Soon after, she shifted her focus towards a different pursuit. 

“After 9/11, I realized while there's a critical and important role for journalism, that my role needed to be different, that I couldn't just simply tell the stories of my community, my family, my parents and exact change; that I wanted to exact change through activism, through challenging the status quo, and to using a soapbox for a different purpose,” she said. 

A similar shift towards more activism occurred for Nasser Beydoun, who joined BRIDGES and is now the chair of the Arab-American Civil Rights League, a Dearborn-based nonprofit organization that advocates against negative stereotypes and unfair policies for people of Middle Eastern descent. 

Abed Ayoub had been studying marketing and communications at the time of the terrorist attacks, but after a series of community engagement events, he found a new calling. Ayoub went to law school and is now the director of legal and policy affairs for the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committtee, based in Washington, D.C. 

He said that he noticed a similar shift among Arab Americans and Muslims from a once mostly silent minority group, to one that has taken notable strides in civil rights advocacy, community engagement, and public service.

“We're seeing community members run for state Legislature offices, Congressional offices, governors; on a local level, [running for] city councils, school board members, and even getting involved with something as low-level as their homeowner association,” he said. “So there's a lot more engagement and governance on all levels.” 

The atrocity of 9/11 changed the way Muslims in America were seen, but it also changed how many of them came to see themselves as part of the broader fabric of this country. 

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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