Monday, December 27, 2010

TSA Policies: Threat to Our Liberty and Security

“Don’t touch my junk” is the whimsical response exclaimed by a man who refused the invasive pat-down of his genitals by a Transportation Security Administration officer. Humor aside, the new TSA policy regarding airport security is meant to “ensure the safety of you the traveling public….efficiently, courteously and professionally.” The method of achieving this rather serious goal of security is through x-ray imaging or pat-downs. There have been numerous blogs about the health risks involved with frequent body-scans, the notion that a pat-down is molestation, and the inefficiency of these procedures. These are superficial concerns that are “debated” about repeatedly in popular media outlets. The deeper issue is subverting the liberty and dignity of people who once claimed that they had been endowed by the Creator with, “…certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The new policies do not meet the stated goal of ensuring safety, but encroach upon one of our fundamental liberties, privacy. The Fourth Amendment in the Constitution makes it explicit that the right of privacy is necessary in a democratic society. It reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

It is evident that there are procedures to be followed whenever the government needs to intrude our “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” In the case of TSA policies, advocates will argue that there is probable cause since the previous security procedures were ineffective because of Abdulmutallab’s alleged Christmas attack. This is a point that TSA policy advocates and critics will agree on. However, the disagreement remains over the methods, which are “unreasonable.”

The British courts follow the “Wednesbury unreasonableness” test to decide whether a governmental policy is reasonable. It gives government expansive authority in implementing policies by asking if that policy is so unreasonable that no reasonable authority would decide on that policy. In regards to the TSA policies, it is impossible to meet this criterion of unreasonableness. By concluding that the procedures are “unreasonable”, we would inevitably be calling TSA an “unreasonable” or irrational authority. Before we tread to this extreme, we have to remember that we live in America, so the conclusion that the TSA policies are “unreasonable” is based on more generally accepted values.

The values of freedom and liberty that are often spoken of in this nation are precisely what the TSA policies are subverting in a climate of fear. Rather than basing a policy on the principles of freedom, TSA is basing it on extreme fear. For example, when we analyze the number of alleged cases of terrorism to the population, we see a great disparity. TSA, obviously, ignored the issue of proportionality when it comes to such stringent policies, so it is definitely “unreasonable.” Now, the other blatant fact is that we do not have a choice for a civilized method of search. We either have to be seen nude or molested. This is not much of a choice, unless of course, you believe a civilized society can be protected through uncivil procedures.

Above all, as citizens we have to be concerned about such violations of our freedoms by our government, because they are reminiscent of regimes such as the Taliban. Actually, even the Taliban, in their attempts at security were not nearly as violating as the TSA security measures. The TSA measures are dehumanizing not only because of the physical search, but because of the psychological damage that it leaves upon every traveler’s mind, including children. By allowing such policies to be normalized, we are normalizing fear since the basis of such policies is fear. Fear is effective for the short-run, but to ensure long-term security and stability within this nation, we need love. The renowned poet Rumi has said, Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.”

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reflections of a Novice

Being a young Muslim-American, the 2010 elections was the first time I voted. The Muslim community in America consists of a mosaic of people with ideological, ethnic, and cultural differences. According to the 2009 Gallup Poll on the Muslim American experience, 35 percent of Muslims are African-American, 28 percent White, 18 percent Asians, 18 percent other, and 1 percent Hispanic. These statistics stand in contrast to the stereotypical views of Muslim-Americans being of Arab descent with “antidemocratic” political views. In fact, during my experience with the local Muslim Get Out The Vote (GOTV) Campaign, Muslims were civically engaged and encouraged to volunteer by organizations like CAIR-Chicago. Nevertheless, there were a few instances when we were confronted with voter apathy, but that is a problem not particular to Muslim-Americans. The general mood of frustration is common among Americans due to the intricacies of the political process and the lethargic pace of a promised change.

The first step when it comes to voting is the registration process. It’s quite simple, but immigrant Muslims and young Muslims find it to be a rather arduous task. Immigrant Muslims have not been socialized into participating in politics and there are language barriers to become active in the process. We were able to overcome this barrier with voter registration at mosques and one-on-one attention to their concerns. The unfortunate situation is the passiveness of young Muslims who expect change without any effort on their part. Fifty-one percent of eligible Muslims between ages 18-29 are registered to vote and they overwhelmingly identify themselves as Democrats and Independents. The rampant culture of entitlement that our generation has grown in is an overarching explanation for the lack of participation. This is a critical issue that must be addressed, especially since the bulk of the Muslim-American population falls within this age group.

The next step is for the registered voters to educate themselves. This process of informing ourselves is a daunting task because it requires time and effort, both of which fall under self-discipline. Voters typically use party affiliation to cast their vote, but there were certain issues that American-Muslims were particular about, such as racial profiling, immigration and Islamophobia. For me, as a new voter, it was quite disappointing to see that front-runners took a lenient position in regards to those issues that affect Muslims. It became even more frustrating when some candidates either ignored to address the issues or blatantly supported distasteful agendas.

The final step, and the most crucial is to vote. Like many other first time voters, I was quite excited to go through the process. Fortunately, it was quick and straightforward, but it requires some degree of commitment on the part of the voter. We all have demanding lives juggling school, work, family and an endless number of other activities we have to manage. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon us as Muslim-Americans to prioritize voting on Election Day, because through this process we can gradually prepare for the auspicious future, that of cooperation, between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans.

In order to understand the importance of voting, we have to remember that what we take as a “right” is actually a privilege in most places around the world. We have come a long way from the days where only White elite men could vote or when poll taxes kept minorities away from political participation. Now, all adult citizens 18 years and older are eligible to vote, so it has become a matter of choice. Those Muslim-Americans who vote and those who do not are making a decision that has ramifications for Muslim-Americans at large. The choice to be active or passive is yours.

For statistical information, please see the 2009 GallupWorld Poll:

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

The U.S. Commitment to Human Rights, Apparently Only a Domestic Policy

We, as Americans, are incredibly fortunate. We live in a country where our civil liberties, political rights, and arguably the most important—our inherent human rights—are diligently and meticulously protected. The irony of this is that in the past few years, the American government has become loose with their morals on the matter. The paradox that the Clinton, Bush, and now the Obama regimes have created (and perpetuated) is that while our—by that, I mean us Americans—rights are defended and safeguarded, unlawful and inhumane interrogation techniques are used discreetly by government agencies and employees in violation of several human rights that are entitled to Americans and non-Americans alike. The United States of America is highly civilized, ranks fairly high in literacy rates, and for the most part is extremely just. Then how is it that a country such as ours justifies its use of torture with little to no shame and an inflated sense of what is necessary to protect national security?
Aside from the provisions against torture included in 1948’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also outlined the definitions of torture in 1975 in their Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment. Comprised of 12 articles, the declaration was adopted by the General Assembly and not only classifies what constitutes acts of torture but pronounces that each state within the UN should take “effective measures” to prevent the use of torture, in addition to ensuring that public officials who are responsible for people “deprived of their liberty” are properly trained in interrogation and general dealings with such people to prevent the use of torture or cruel punishment.
In 1984 the prevention of torture was taken even a step further with the passing of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which unlike the 1975 document, not only defines torture but initiates the Committee Against Torture—a body of human rights experts that monitors the actual implementation of prevention against torture of the Convention signatories.
As evident in the comprehensive history of the prevention against torture, the world has been aware of the need to stop cruel punishment and inhumane treatment for quite some time. As of 2010, for example, 146 nations are parties to the treaty. In fact, “[o]n February 4, 1985, the Convention was opened for signature at United Nations Headquarters in New York…representatives of the following countries signed it: Afghanistan, Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Uruguay. Subsequently, signatures were received from Venezuela on February 15, from Luxembourg and Panama on February 22, from Austria on March 14, and from the United Kingdom on March 15, 1985” What’s missing from this list is, quite plainly, The United States of America—who first signed in 1988 but didn’t ratify the treaty until 1994. Perhaps this hesitance in signing and then subsequently ratifying was a sign for things to come.
A simple historical recollection of the various treaties and declarations that make efforts to define torture is not enough to understand the relationship the United States has with the protection of human rights and its provisions on torture. Although the U.S. has taken part in all of the declarations of the prevention of torture that the United Nations has passed—however reluctantly—the United States appears to act in complete violation of the provisions outlined by such declarations. Although this trend is visible in the actions of presidents as early as Clinton—with his administration’s initiation of extraordinary rendition policy—the escalation of such behavior is especially noticeable in the post-9/11 days of the Bush administration. In 2002, the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department issued a memo saying that aggressive interrogations amount to torture only if they cause pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Although this memo was rescinded by the Bush administration in 2004, since then it is still unclear what interrogation techniques were permissible and which were actually put in use. According to the New York Times article on the topic of torture, the New York Times printed an article in 2007 that revealed that in February 2005 the Justice Department issued a secret memorandum that reportedly provides authorization to “barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics.” It is believed by many officials in the Bush administration that these types of interrogations prevented further terrorist attacks.
This opinion—that these types of interrogations prevent future terrorist attacks—is expressed effortlessly but in fact it has many appalling implications. It is frightening to hear that officials who work for the government favor a means that is immoral in nature in order to protect the U.S. It is plain to understand that the horrific acts of September 11th were indeed inhumane and immoral. However, instead of combating these acts with justice and handling the terrorists with methods deemed constitutional by our standards and permissible by the standards of the international community, the administration’s use of torture exemplifies that we too chose a method that is depraved. The number of detainees that have been affected by harsh interrogation techniques may not be equitable to those affected by the 9/11 attacks but both are immoral and cowardly nonetheless. As a beacon for democracy, freedom, and advanced rights, the United States should combat situations that compromise their security with methods that at least uphold these values that the U.S. stands for. Also overlooked it seems, is that with the use of techniques that are illegal and inhumane, it makes it impossible for the United States to actually try these detainees in a court of law. So although interrogators may obtain incriminating evidence from such interrogations, a punishment may not be legally ordained.
The case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen charged for the murder of Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer and attempted murder for helping to make and plant improvised explosive devices, acts as an example of the uncertain treatment of trial procedures of Guantanamo detainees. Khadr was 15 at the time of his arrest and although understanding the complexities of his case and where it stands today is difficult, it is possible to understand certain incongruities with his treatment while in Guantanamo.
Although there is no doubt about Khadr’s involvement with al Qaeda—it is even reported that Khadr played alongside Osama bin Laden’s children as a child—how the United States chose to deal with him is questionable. The problem with Khadr’s case is centered on the issue of his youth. As 60 Minutes reported: “Omar Khadr is the only person in modern history to be tried for war crimes that he allegedly committed as a minor.” Khadr was incarcerated as a minor among adult detainees, and was also interrogated for two years before having access to lawyers. Currently, eight years after being first incarcerated, Khadr has spent a third of his life detained in Guantanamo. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, regarding children in armed conflict, signatory states are obliged to provide separate legal representation—in addition to many other provisions such as having the matter determined without delay and “a variety of dispositions” like counseling and education. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, also states that "the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities," and requires its signatories to promote "the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict." The United States, a signatory of the Convention and the Optional Protocol, has seemingly withheld these provisions in dealing with Khadr’s case—once again highlighting the United States’ tendency to violate provisions it is required to uphold as a signatory of a treaty.
In addition to violating the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Child, the United States is also ignoring certain laws of war and war crimes. Trying Khadr for war crimes may not even be lawful. According to Article 4 of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention, an unprivileged belligerent—in that he or she is not wearing a uniform of carrying arms openly—is still a member of an organized militia and therefore must follow the laws of war. If the unprivileged belligerent complies to the laws of war by attacking a lawful military target with a lawful weapon, the he or she is to be tried by the domestic criminal court. In the case of Khadr—he complied with the laws of war and therefore should not have been detained in Guantanamo or tried for war crimes.
Also disturbing about Khadr’s case is that an interrogator, Sergeant Joshua Claus —whose name was initially withheld by journalists at the order of the Department of Defense—had testified to telling the detainee Khadr a fictional story about another Afghan prisoner who was gang-raped in American custody. Sgt. Claus was later sentenced to five months in prison for the mistreatment of prisoners.
As evident with the Omar Khadr case, as well as U.S. actions during interrogations and military commissions in general, it is apparent that the United States is guilty of many contradictions. In attempts to protect national security and fight a war on terror, the United States is willfully ignoring all the provisions it is obliged to as a signatory of various vital treaties and protocols protecting the human rights of individuals and safeguarding people against torture. Although the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution also reflects a commitment to preserving human rights, while heralding fair treatment by the federal government, this paradox continues to vex the nation. And although some steps are being taken towards ending this behavior, there is still not enough transparency in such situations.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"International Burn a Qur'an Day" Highlights Scary Trend

Reports out of Florida this past week are that the Dove World Outreach Center, a non-denominational Christian house of worship in Gainesville, plans to hold “International Burn a Qur’an Day” on 11 September. The church’s pastor, Dr. Terry Jones, went on a publicity tour to promote the three-hour “remembrance” in the past week.

Last Thursday, Mr. Jones appeared on CNN speaking with anchor Rick Sanchez about the upcoming day. In the interview, the pastor claimed, “We believe that Islam is of the devil. It is causing billions of people to go to hell. It is a deceptive religion; it is a violent religion… There are moderate Muslims, but there is no such thing as a moderate Islam.” As is far too often the case, Terry Jones’ inflammatory rhetoric serves only to exacerbate the tensions between Islam and Christianity. By speaking from a position of Christian religious authority, Jones risks speaking for all Christians, something that other evangelical Christian organizations made sure he did not do.

The same day as the above interview, the National Association of Evangelicals issued a press release urging the Dove World Outreach Center to reconsider hosting the event. The release pointed out that “the plans recently announced by a Florida group to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11 show disrespect for our Muslim neighbors.” The press release goes on to quote the Bible, saying, “’make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.’” (1 Thessalonians 5:15) The NAE statement attempts to disassociate the actions of Jones’ church from those of the larger American Christian community as a whole.

The man interviewing the pastor, CNN’s Rick Sanchez, himself a practicing Christian, ended the interview by telling Mr. Jones, “You do Christians in this country a disservice by sounding as hateful as you do and saying that you’re going to perform hateful acts as you say you are for people who may not necessarily believe the things you say they do.” Sanchez’ counter here is spot-on. Jones is trying to speak as a spokesman of the Christian American community – a position no one bestowed upon him, but which the media is promoting by constantly hosting his hateful rhetoric on its airwaves.

One of the remarks Jones made during this interview made significantly less sense and was more troubling to me as a viewer than the rest of his talking points. About halfway through the interview, the pastor says, “There are moderate Muslims, but there is no such thing as a moderate Islam.” First of all, this point is mystifying. What exactly is Jones trying to say with this comment? If there is no such thing as a moderate Islam, how can there possibly moderate Muslims, who are followers of Islam? Is he casting these so-called “moderate Muslims” as simply less-believing than their radical, Islam-following brothers and sisters? Do true, non-moderate, supposedly violent Muslims instead espouse the real beliefs of a religion that has been so often called “a religion of peace?” He can’t possibly believe this… can he?

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this quote is that I honestly think that Mr. Jones was trying to come off as understanding and tolerant by allowing that, yes, he thought there were “moderate Muslims.” But the attempt totally backfires when you look deeper at just how inflammatory this statement is. This is but one example of Jones’ confusing, rambling rant against Islam during the interview. He contradicts himself again when saying “We are saying ‘stop’ to Islam,” which is followed up with, “We have nothing against Muslims, they are welcome in our country.” How can we possibly say “stop” to something while simultaneously welcoming it?

Setting aside the ridiculous implicit assumption that all Muslims must be foreign, the worst part about all of this, of course, is that Mr. Jones is only one of many conservative speakers who are becoming part of a broad and evolving offensive against Islam in all of its forms, not just the radicals who pervert the religion. Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and others are speaking up against the “deceptive [and] violent” religion they claim Muslims adhere to. They are spurred on by news stories like the proposed mosques in New York City, Murfreesboro (TN), Temecula (CA), and Sheboygan (WI), and preemptive city council proposals in Oklahoma and Virginia which are aimed to stop the supposed “invasion” of Islamic law into the United States.

These talkers who constantly drone on about the “threat” that Islam poses to America are truly missing the point. Their reasons for spewing such hateful rhetoric usually flows from one of two possible places: either they are up for election in the coming months and feel that such rhetoric will appeal to some segment of the masses, or they gain a loyal following from being sensationalistic and causing public controversy.

The latter seems to be the source of Pastor Jones’ vile words and actions. His Dove World Outreach Center’s main sources of notoriety are their infamous protests mocking the sexual orientation of the mayor of Gainesville, Florida and their distribution of “Islam is of the Devil” shirts in local schools. Whatever his illogical reasoning behind “Burn a Qur’an Day,” I can’t possibly see what good Mr. Jones could possibly think will come out of such a demonstration. I read recently that he is welcoming local Muslims to join him in the “remembrance” on 11 September (which, by the way, may fall on Eid-al-Fitr, the second largest holiday on the Islamic calendar and which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan). If Terry Jones has any true desire to promote interfaith respect – or even if he just has any common sense – he would listen to the complaints by numerous religious authorities from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hindu backgrounds and cancel the inflammatory event.

But, then again, when was the last time someone like Pastor Terry Jones showed any common sense? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Leaving Iraq

The Iraq War began on a Wednesday in March of 2003. I was a high school student at the time, and although the media was as excited about the story as a kid with a new toy, all I remember feeling that day was absolute dread. I had listened to all the arguments as to why we were going to war, but the fact that so much of the international community was against the war, made me wonder what was really going on behind the scenes.

Now a college graduate and many, many news reports, interview, memoirs, and documentaries later, I still feel that same sense of dread when talking about the war. Over the years, I have seen almost the entire argument for war fall to pieces. The WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) were never found. Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, who surrendered after the fall of Baghdad, continues to claim, as Saddam Hussein did before his execution, that they only said they had weapons in order to deter their Iranian neighbors to the east. Hussein was not posturing to the West, but to Iran, whom Iraq had been at war with from 1980-1988. But despite this fact, America went to war without any real evidence that Iraq was working to build WMDs.

Once the war began, much of the information and news coming out of the country was from journalists who were imbedded with American armed forces. They lived, ate, and slept next to each other. While it made sense that these journalists were imbedded for their own safety, it also created an atmosphere of stories that were constantly pro-American and pro-war. No journalist in their right mind would write a story that painted those soldiers responsible for his/her life in a negative light. This led to a compromised environment where the truth was not always told. Pure, unadulterated journalism became contaminated by the hand that fed it.

I’m not sure that we will ever know if the Bush Administration knew what they were doing in the lead up to the Iraq War. Did they actually believe Saddam Hussein was the threat they made him out to be, or did they want this war so badly that they took whatever questionable intelligence they could get their hands on and ran with it regardless of the gaps in information? Before the war began, the American intelligence community was feverishly searching for connections between Saddam Hussein and terrorism, but with little to no information to make this connection, the Bush Administration decided to move ahead anyway.

No one will argue against the fact that Hussein was a terrible dictator responsible for many atrocities and crimes against humanity, but if that is to be America’s reason for entering war, then why are we currently not fighting in North Korea or Sudan? War should always be the last resort after all other options have been exhausted. First deciding to go to war and then looking for evidence is a terrible precedent to set for the future of the international community.

With the exception of 50,000 troops who will remain “with a mission limited to stability operations and advising and assisting Iraqi security forces,” all U.S. combat forces will have left Iraq by the end of this August. This has left many Iraqis with a great sense of trepidation. With the economy in shambles, violence rising, and a government that is still in flux months after elections, many are worried that their government is not ready to run the country without American assistance. Even the chief of staff for the Iraqi army, Gen. Babakir Zebari has publically said that the Iraqi military will not be ready to operate on its own for another ten years.

Only future generations will be able to decide whether or not the Iraq War was ultimately worth it, but as it stands today, far too many Iraqis long for the days of the past where electricity and jobs were abundant and the future didn’t look so uncertain. In the years ahead, the world will be watching the development of Iraq. Iraqis must work together to secure a peaceful and prosperous future free from the ills and problems of the past, while also making sure to learn from their experiences.

Many mistakes were made in this war. Although, the consequences of making preemptive strikes, discarding the intelligence community, and oppressing journalism have become very clear for the United States, we do have a history of repeating our wrongs. It is difficult to truly understand how many lives have been affected and destroyed by this war, but we all owe it to those who have suffered to make the future of Iraq the best it can be. It is one thing to identify where the U.S. went wrong in Iraq, but the true measure of growth and success will come from not making the same mistakes again.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Birthright-Citizenship: An Endangered Right?

As the battle over immigration legislation wages on, a group of United States Senators have decided to combat the issue with constitutional reform, rather than implementing policies of immigration reform. The group of senators, comprised of Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Sessions and Jon Kyl, has proposed to re-examine and revise the 14th amendment as means to decrease the amount of illegal immigrants entering the United States. The 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, took the 13th amendment—which abolished slavery—even further to ensure blacks with more rights by granting all blacks citizenship. It established birthright-citizenship and Sen. Graham—who spear-headed the movement to subject the 14th amendment to hearings—believes that scores of illegal immigrants come to the United States illegally and try to obtain citizenship by giving birth to a child in the U.S.: “They come here to drop a child. It’s called drop and leave.”

Sen. Graham looked into the subject after being unable to answer a question posed at a city hall meeting, the person was inquiring about why children of illegal immigrants are allowed to be American citizens. Graham believes that the amendment, as it currently stands, acts as an incentive for people to come to America illegally for the sole purpose of using an “anchor baby” to gain citizenship. Graham and other critics of the 14th amendment consider that this “drop and leave” technique is a gross abuse and perversion of the U.S. Constitution as intended by the Founding Fathers.

As troubling as the terms “anchor baby” or “drop and leave” sound, the unfortunate imagery of these phrases is the least of our worries. The proposed call to hearing for repealing the 14th amendment is troublesome on many levels.

Many commentators on immigration reform are part of groups dedicated to lowering the amount of immigrants in America—such as NumbersUSA—but ironically overlook the fact that by repealing the 14th amendment and denying citizenship to children born of illegal immigrant parents, they would be increasing the actual numbers of undocumented people in the United States, according to many immigration lawyers. Also ignored is the fact that children must wait until they are 21 years of age before they can even apply for legal residency for their parents—which makes the “drop and leave” technique impractical. In fact, the repealing of the amendment and the creation of new rules would be met with a need for each parent to prove their own and their child’s statuses, inflating the government’s role in the everyday lives of even more people—something conservatives may have trouble facing.

Moreover, repealing the 14th amendment does not combat the specific issue but attempts to instill a blanket solution rather than a nuanced strategy that targets the problem directly. The effects of retracting the 14th amendments can go beyond the scope of immigration issues. As Roland S. Martin puts it: “It's clear that overall Congress is choosing to apply a Band-Aid to the illegal immigration problem instead of dealing with it head-on.”

Politically, this initiative is also particularly problematic. Sen. Lindsey Graham has been known to stray from his party alliance to not only find a bipartisan solution but sometimes siding with the opposite party; Graham has supportedthe bailout for financial institutions, and comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.” Graham’s new proposal to amend the constitution to restrict birthright-citizenship has troubled immigration groups who thought of Graham as a vital ally beforehand. Although Graham is gaining support from some conservatives over this matter, he is also creating a party split—especially from those Republicans who are staunch constitutionalists and believe that the 14th amendment is one of the Constitution’s most important legacies.

Rather than trying to amend the Constitution—it has been proposed by many lawmakers that they create a statute instead. Fortunately, the Constitution is pretty hard to change; the last amendment was made 40 years ago to change the voting age to 18 and the last ratification of an amendment was made in 1992 to set the rules for congressional salaries. Hopefully, the movement to repeal the 14th amendment will be replaced with a solution that will prove to be less indirect and more refined.

The most problematic implication of changing the 14th amendment is what it means about this nation's departure from its initial intentions and the distinctions that set it apart from all other countries. The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, people seeking freedom and opportunity, and a place where citizenship has long been granted indiscriminately. However, with this move to appeal the 14th amendment, the United States is abandoning all of these values. Unlike many other countries that can, and actively do, grant and deny citizenship based on very specific ethnicities and religions, America has had one very important criterion: birthright. Everyone who comes to this country has been able to enjoy the rights instilled by the Founding Fathers; and although people who enter the country unlawfully should be dealt with, changing the rights outlined by the Constitution is not the most effective or admirable method of repairing the situation.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Silver Lining

“The social cancer of Islamophobia must be recognized as unacceptable as anti-Semitism. It is a threat to the very fabric of our democratic pluralistic way of life…Political and religious leaders, commentators and experts must do more to counter hate speech; they must lead in safeguarding and strengthening religious pluralism and mutual respect.”

-John Esposito, Founding director, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University

When it comes to the political uproar surrounding the construction of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” responses such as this are regrettably overpowered by the bigoted responses of the likes of Newt Gingrich, Michael Savage, or Rush Limbaugh. The egregious opposition to the Cordoba House—the name of the proposed Muslim center—underscores a framework of an anti-Islamic, Islamophobic movement that fuels the blocking of this building. Even organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, a non-governmental organization whose main focus is fighting not only defamation of the Jewish people, but of members of any sect, are betraying their objective by opposing the construction of the Muslim center.

Many blog responses—including that of the Mobilizer blog—and news reports focus on the negative reactions (although, rightfully so) and act as a reprimanding force. However, it may be, not only important, but necessary to take a moment to understand those who have done good things for the cause. Not all is lost in this debate, and there are important figures that are helping to further the progress of the Cordoba House, which will hopefully stand as a center for religious and ethnic tolerance.

An example of these political and religious figures that support the Cordoba House is Arthur Waskow, a rabbi and founder/director of The Shalom Center. Waskow, and more generally The Shalom Center, have started a movement in response to the Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to the building of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” An initiative of over 30 rabbis from various Jewish backgrounds have signed a statement, and request more signatures, for the ADL to reverse their decision. Waskow and The Shalom Center also organized a vigil for August 5, 2010 at the site of the planned mosque to voice their opinions on the matter, in addition to encouraging supporters to actually call the ADL to request a reverse of their conclusion.

Arthur Waskow, and his supporters in and beyond The Shalom Center, act as an exemplar of inter-religious tolerance and support that is needed during situations of bigotry, such as that which surrounds the creation of the Cordoba House. Waskow at the rally stated that, "I want to catch us, us Jews, us Muslims, us Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, meditating, praying, not in the same identical ways with each other, but with each other toward the One who is beyond us all."

In addition to the support of religious leaders, perhaps the most absolute and forthright support can be found in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his speech delivered on Governor’s Island, in regards to the Landmarks Preservation Commission vote.

Mayor Bloomberg gave an inspiring speech, one that portrayed New York City as the foremost open and inviting city, a city that was built and sustained by immigrants, and a city that continues to be the freest city in the world. He explained that “[o]f all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a City that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years.” Mayor Bloomberg explained that although the mosque was not granted ‘landmark’ status by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, there are no legal reasons for denying the mosque, and doing so would be untrue to American ideals. Bloomberg also states that this mosque acts as the biggest test America will face in regards to the complete separation of church and state, and how we—as Americans—respond to this test is vital.

Bloomberg eloquently reminds the public of what is actually in question when it comes to this deliberation: “Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question – should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.” As such an important political figurehead in this particular debate, it is refreshing to know that not everyone is on the side of short-sighted intolerance and that as the politically symbolic personage for New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has not forgotten the ideals on which this nation and its constitution has been built.

The criticism of the “Ground Zero Mosque” is not simply a manifestation of religious intolerance but also a strategy or talking point employed by certain politicians to bolster their political stances, and thereby their support. John Esposito (quoted above) believes that Republican candidates are appealing to racist sentiments towards Islam as a way to polarize politics to gain electoral votes in upcoming elections. Many Democrats, on the other hand, are choosing their words carefully or, like Congressman Anthony Weiners, are refusing to answer completely—perhaps for fear of losing support as well.

Although few and far removed, the examples of vocal, active support for the construction of the Cordoba House acts as the silver lining for this dark and dismal political debate and it is important that they are recognized.

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Friday, August 06, 2010

Things May Not Always Be What They Seem

Walking out of a downtown Chicago restaurant recently, I couldn’t help but notice the advertisement atop a parked taxi. After reading the text of the ad (pictured above), I was torn. On the one hand, I was happy to see that the ad was taking a stand against gender-based violence, but on the other hand, I was disappointed that the overall message of the ad was that a Muslim woman facing danger should leave her religion in order to find safety. This overt connection between the Islamic faith and violence is not only incorrect and offensive, but short-sighted in that it fails to acknowledge the wider problem of violence against women in America.

The Honor Killing Awareness Campaign responsible for the taxi advertisement is powered by the anti-Muslim group Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), which was created by Islamophobe bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. SIOA’s declared mission is to educate Americans about the threat that the Islamic doctrine and those who support it present to America. While Geller refers to the honor killing campaign as an “awareness and aid campaign,” a visit to the site listed on the advertisement,, is likely to leave visitors disappointed. The site offers little to no information on honor killings and the only real resources provided are links to other anti-Muslim sites. SIOA offers no options or alternatives for Muslim women who need help, but do not want to leave their religion. It seems that SIOA is more concerned with defaming the religion of Islam and getting people to leave Islam than actually creating a real resource for women in potential danger.

An issue also not addressed is what exactly constitutes an honor killing. The media often uses the term anytime a Muslim or other non-Western male kills a member of his family. Only using the term in this manner parallels the Orientalist perspective of vilifying and degrading non-Western people, making them out to be barbaric. While murder is murder regardless of who commits it, the media often labels cases of domestic crimes differently based on the ethnicity or religion of the murderer. Take, for example, the story of a father who kills his daughter over a text-message with a boy versus a father who kills his daughter over her lifestyle choice of living with a boyfriend outside of marriage. The media only labeled the latter as an “honor killing” given that the family was Iraqi.

To solely focus on Muslims in an honor killing awareness campaign is not only misleading and wrong, but completely devoid of facts and reality. This is particularly so given that Islamic leaders continuously condemn the practice and prove that it has no religious basis in Islam. SIOA’s ad seeks to further marginalize Islam and Muslims and create an inaccurate picture of what it means to be a Muslim woman growing up in America. In another expression of these sentiments, Geller goes so far as to call Muslim households “homemade concentration camps” in her blog.

Violence against women, regardless of race, age, class, or religion, pervades our world and comes in many forms. The UN estimates that up to 70% of women will experience some form of physical or sexual violence from men at some point in their life. In the United States alone, a woman is beaten every nine seconds and an average of three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends each day.

Violence is not, nor has it ever been, exclusive to Muslims, and the idea of tearing a woman away from her religion and her entire support system is not the solution. If Geller and Spencer really want to make a dent in tackling issues surrounding violence against women, they need to reevaluate their campaign. This one isn’t working.

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