Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Ideological Exclusion" Still A Problem

CAIR-Chicago is honored to have Tariq Ramadan as the keynote speaker at our 6th Annual Banquet on April, 10th. Having him speak will be a monumental occasion not only because of his decades of scholarly work, but also because this will be Tariq Ramadan's first time in the United States since being unjustly banned from in 2004 under the Bush Administration.

Despite Mr. Ramadan's outspoken, consistent, and firm condemnation of all forms of terrorism and extremism, his extensive work on the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and his critiques of less-than-democratic systems such as in Egypt, his visa was suddenly and inexplicably revoked in August of 2004. He was just days away from beginning his tenured teaching position at Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Since the revocation of his visa, Mr. Ramadan was appointed to work on the U.K.'s government task force to examine the roots of extremism in Great Britain, was named one of Time Magazine's "Top 100 Innovators," and was in 2009 ranked one of Foreign Policy Magazine's "Top Global Thinkers" all of which demonstrate his broad-reaching respectability.

Although Mr. Ramadan was initially offered no explanation as to why his visa was revoked, it was later revealed that he was banned under the "ideological exclusions" provision (section 411) of the U.S. Patriot Act which states that any alien who "used their position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity, or to persuade others to support terrorist activity or a terrorist organization, in a way that the Secretary of State has determined undermines United States efforts to reduce or eliminate terrorist activities."

What this means in that the Secretary of State can decide who is allowed over the border and who isn't based on his or her threat perception, which the actions of individuals have no real bearing, but instead their rhetoric does. Apparently Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice perceived Mr. Ramadan's critical views on the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to somehow threaten American national security. This was allowed to happen, the ACLU asserts, because "the [U.S.] government is using the [ideological exclusions] provision more broadly to deny entry to people whose political views it disfavors" and that "the government's use of the statute to exclude Professor Ramadan is illustrative of the statute's malleability and reach."

With this broad interpretation being used, not only Tariq Ramadan, but dozens of other foreign scholars have been denied access into the U.S. In light of this border censorship, in 2006 the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging this particular section of the Patriot Act charging the provision was "being used to prevent United States citizens and residents from hearing speech that is protected by the First Amendment." Also, in March of 2009 a coalition of 75 civil rights and professional organizations including the ACLU, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, the Muslim Bar Association of New York, and Feminists for Free Expression wrote to then newly-appointed Secretary of State Clinton stressing their concerns and urging action in regards to "ideological exclusion." Ms. Clinton was asked to re-examine the cases of several prominent scholars whose visas were revoked, and to end the practice of censorship by banning scholars who are critical of U.S. policy.

This January, Secretary of State Clinton signed orders lifting the ban on Tariq Ramadan, as well as University of Johannesburg professor, Adam Habib, allowing them to reapply for visas. Since January, both have successfully obtained 10-year visas and can once again freely travel to the U.S.

Yes, this should be seen as a major success and the Obama administration must be commended for their efforts in commencing the beginning of the end of a dark era of censorship. But we must also remember that this is just the beginning of a process. Though Mr. Ramadan, and Mr. Habib were fortunate enough to be allowed back into the country, many still have not. And even if the bans are lifted on every single scholar, there is no true victory until this section of the Patriot Act is reformed or repealed altogether.

In Tariq Ramadan's own words "although the exclusions are carried out in the name of security and stability, they actually threaten both by closing off the open, critical, and constructive dialogue that once defined this country." Indeed, freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and vivacious debate are all what set this country apart and make it so great. Just as we got through the embarrassing era McCarthyism during the cold war when scholars and artists with dissenting viewpoints had their visas revoked, Secretary of State Clinton has signaled that perhaps the end is near for this new wave of "ideological exclusion" and will thereby make the past several years a mere blemish on the nation's greater history.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Body Scanners Coming to an Airport Near You

O’Hare International Airport recently added full-body scanners to its security system in the hopes of preventing any future attacks on airlines. It is believed that the scanners will improve security because of their ability to show hidden objects on the body like plastic or chemical explosives and non-metallic weapons. Paid for with money from President Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan, each scanner costs between $130,000 and $190,000. So far, over 20 U.S. airports have received these scanners and many, many more are on their way to airports across the nation. While these body scanners have been available for years, deployment has been slowed because of privacy objections which center on the fact that the scanners use low dose X-rays that can see through passenger’s clothing and reveal the size and shape of the entirety of one’s body with clarity. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has denounced the machines as a “virtual strip search.”

Usage of the scanners varies at different airports. Some airports are using the scanners as their primary form of security, while others are using them as a secondary search mechanism, e.g. if someone fails a metal detector test or is randomly selected for the scan. Most airports with scanners, however, are moving toward using them as their primary form of security.

According to the
TSA (Transportation Security Administration), once scanned, images are sent to a remote location where a technician, who cannot see the passenger, examines the image and communicates, via wireless headset, with the officer assisting the passenger. To protect passenger privacy, millimeter wave technology blurs all facial features and deletes images from the system after the passenger has been cleared. Additionally, officers evaluating the scanner images are not allowed to have cameras, cell phones, or other photo-enabled devices in the resolution room that could be used to create a copy of the scan. If a passenger chooses not to go through the body scanner for whatever reason, they will “receive an equal level of screening, including a physical pat-down”. If this is the case, the TSA is equating a physical pat-down with a piece of equipment costing the equivalent of a house. This phrase alone exposes the TSA's blatantly irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars for the sake of a little more efficiency in airport security lines.

Despite these precautions, many are still weary that the scanners violate their rights. Numerous Muslim groups along with members of other Jewish and Christian faiths have expressed concern over whether or not the scanners violate their beliefs on modesty. In a Fox News
interview, CAIR-Chicago Executive Director Ahmad Rehab reiterated this idea by noting that the scanners “violate religious and privacy rights of Americans.”

One such incident of a privacy violation took place at London’s Heathrow Airport. There, a male security employee made lewd comments to a female colleague after she passed through a body scanner. This incident highlights some of the moral and ethical concerns over the scanners expressed by opponents. Although a harassment warning has been issued to the perpetrator, he retains his job despite a clear abuse of his position and overt disregard for the privacy of another human being.

Additionally, concerns over the safety of these machines have been stifled by scanner manufacturers, who insist that the machines are safe. However, a study conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory found that the energy particles used to generate the nude image of the body can have a negative effect on intricate molecular processes involved in gene expression and DNA replication in the body. Without any clinical trials performed by a third party or FDA approval on these machines, there is currently no way to demonstrate that the scanners are safe for multiple use over time.

At a time when Muslims are already under so much scrutiny, they don’t want to have to make a choice between their religion and national security. Especially since there is doubt among experts, including the British Government, as to whether or not the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, or others like him carrying low-density items would have been stopped by one of these scanners, it is important to really understand their effectiveness in preventing another attack before using it as a primary means of security. Already, a Muslim woman was banned from a flight to Pakistan after refusing to undergo a full-body scan at Manchester Airport in the U.K.

If history tells us anything, it is that terrorists have no problem adapting to new security measures, especially when they know what security officials are looking for. What if the next bomber with concealed explosives opts for a pat-down and is let through security? What will the next step be?
Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office says it best when she notes that “There is no one measure or magic solution to keeping us safe, and while our government should strive for the best security possible, it must adhere to respect Americans’ civil liberties." That being said, should we as Americans in a time of heightened economic and national security tension, rely so heavily on such a financially extravagant and easily avoidable means of keeping our skies safe?

For a full list of airports that are currently using full-body scanners and for more information on the scanners, please visit the
TSA website.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

100,000 Voices for Change

When the topic of illegal immigration comes up in mainstream media, it too often includes images of Mexicans crossing over the border into U.S. territory. Reality, however, presents a very different story of individual struggles from all around the world. In many cases, immigration, especially illegal immigration without proper paperwork, is not a matter of choice but of survival. Asylum and refugee cases, in particular, involve people who have been forced out of their homes and their country. Those who get through our borders often live in fear of deportation back to a country without hope.

On March 21, 2010, thousands of people from all across the nation will come together on the National Mall in Washington, DC to march for immigration reform. Organizers hope to have at least 100,000 marchers from diverse backgrounds so that their message of change will be heard loud and clear throughout the halls of Congress and the White House. Marchers are demanding comprehensive immigration reform, which includes a path to citizenship, worker’s rights, due process, family unification, and equal education and opportunities for immigrants.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), a partner of CAIR-Chicago, has been instrumental in putting together the March 21st event. Beginning with a training session last January that brought together advocates of immigration reform from all over the Chicagoland area, ICIRR has helped various communities coordinate buses that will help marchers get to Washington on the 21st.

Thousands of individuals have already pledged their support for the immigration march along with members of a variety of faith-based and secular organizations including World Relief, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, AFL-CIO, and the Interfaith Immigration Coalition. Members of Bridgeview’s Mosque Foundation are also organizing a bus to travel to Washington to have their voices counted among those looking for reform.

As the March 21st event gets closer, the immigration debate is steadily returning to the headlines. New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham have been working together to create a blueprint for bipartisan immigration reform. The blueprint includes tougher border security, a program to admit temporary immigrant workers, and a biometric Social Security card that would prevent illegal immigrants from getting jobs. Sadly, the bipartisan stalemate on healthcare legislation threatens to affect the Schumer/Graham proposal. Graham is quick to point out that Republicans will halt immigration reform for the year if President Obama passes health care legislation by a method known as reconciliation, which would only require a majority of 51 senators instead of the usual 60- effectively nullifying the Republican vote.

While the Schumer/Graham blueprint is a start toward real immigration reform, it leaves much to be desired and creates many more questions than it answers. Other existing pieces of legislation like the Dream Act, which would allow immigrant children access to higher education, and CIR ASAP, which addresses a variety of issues from visa backlogs to border enforcement, are vital to consider when proposing comprehensive immigration reform.

In a recent meeting with the President, leaders from national and grassroots immigrant advocacy organizations asked the President to present a framework for comprehensive immigration reform prior to March 21st. Although he agreed to “work actively” on getting bipartisan support and announcing an outline for an immigration bill before the march, he expressed serious concern that there would not be enough Republican support.

While some may argue that immigrants abuse “the system” and don’t deserve basic services such as healthcare, they fail to consider what they might do if faced with a similar situation. Given the perplexities and diversity within the immigrant population, it is important not to make assumptions or generalizations. America must treat all immigrants, illegal or not, with respect and compassion. It is only through reform that problems with the system can be eliminated so families are not caught between morality and legality. America was founded by immigrants and it will continue to grow because of them. It will be a shame if immigration reform fails this time around and millions of people remain in limbo because of political posturing.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

U.S. Census Reaches Out to Muslims

While attending Friday prayers at the Downtown Islamic Center this past week, I was greeted by an over-sized Census poster and 2010 Census volunteers handing out bags of goodies to the throngs of faithful entering the mosque. When I received my bag, I prompted one of the volunteers, Kacia Rivera, about the work she was doing. She explained that she was a part of the “2010 Islamic and Arab Voices Complete Count Committee” of the U.S. Census Bureau. Ms. Rivera as part of this specific team helps educate Muslims by traveling to different mosques every Friday distributing Census information and by responding to the specific concerns that Muslims and Arabs might have regarding the Census.

Confidentiality, language barriers, and confusion surrounding the racial identity of Arabs are among the Muslim community’s greatest concerns with participating in the Census. Most of these concerns were addressed in the over-packed folder. The folder contained basic information about the Census in both Arabic and English, reassurance of confidentiality also in Arabic and English, as well as sample questionnaires in Arabic, English, and Urdu. Rivera said that there is still confusion as to whether Arabs should mark “white” or “other” on the questionnaire but said that this confusion should not be reason to neglect the Census altogether.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the Census care package so to speak was the Census poster which read “Paint a New Portrait of America,” underneath which was a collage of Americans forming the shape of the United States including a Muslim woman donning the hijab or headscarf. The Muslim community is being actively sought out to participate in the American political process and as Muslim-Americans we should recognize the importance in participating in this tradition that reaches almost as far back as the birth of the nation itself.

The US Census was conducted for the first time in our country's history in 1790, and has been conducted every ten years since then as prescribed in Article 1, Section 2 of our constitution. The Census basically takes account of the number of people residing within the borders of the U.S. and its territories, regardless of legal status (the legal status of residents, or any other information acquired by the Census for that matter cannot be shared with any other agency), in order for the national government to respond to the needs of the governed.

What that means is, the number of people residing within a state determine how many Members of Congress will be representing them in the House of Representatives. If the population in a certain area has increased, then they may be due for another seat in the House, however if the population has decreased since 2000, a seat may be lost. This is not the only way the Census helps our government respond to our needs. There is also about $400 billion in federal funding that is up for grabs that the Census data helps allocate. This money is used to build hospitals, highways, schools, and other public services.

Participating in the U.S. Census is important for Muslims not only for all of the reasons mentioned above, but also because faith-based organizations, such as CAIR-Chicago who advocate for Muslims' rights, rely on Census data to communicate needs to elected officials and apply for federal grants. And for the record, Muslim organizations have been responding to the call of the U.S. Census Bureau including CAIR-Chicago and Islamic Relief USA by disseminating educational information throughout the Muslim Community. Additionally, CAIR-Chicago will host a Census worker in the coming weeks as part of a Questionnaire Assistance Center that will be stationed within the CAIR-Chicago office.

Individual Muslims must also take heed and fill out their Census questionnaires by the appointed time, April 1, to showcase the willingness of the Muslim community to participate in the American political process, and to show a strong, active, and proud presence in this country.

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