Thursday, June 24, 2010

Vacationers Beware

You might want to think again if you were planning on traveling overseas this summer to visit family or enjoy a relaxing getaway.

Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile." And in article 13 we are guaranteed "the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, and the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." Increasingly though, American Muslims have found themselves trapped in foreign countries because, unbeknownst to them, their names appear on the "No Fly List" and are therefore unable to return home to the United States after traveling abroad.

Here are some things you might not know about the No Fly List. First of all, the list is not made public, nor are people on the list notified that their name has been added. There is no way of knowing if you've been put on the list until after your ticket has already been purchased and you're stopped at the airport. The list really is just a list; a list of names not linked with descriptors such as date of birth, ethnicity, height, weight or any other form of identification. So basically, if you have the same name as someone who may have legitimately earned their place on the list, tough luck. There is, however, an appeals process for individuals who believe they've been misidentified. The problem is, you're not notified as to whether or not your name has been removed. How do you find out if your appeal has been successful? You buy another ticket and cross your fingers hoping to make it through security next time around. One can be placed on the list if they "may" be a "risk" to civil aviation. What's the criteria for that? No one knows.

It also makes no difference whether you're an American born citizen or not. Recently, American citizens have found that traveling to foreign countries is easy enough, but when it's time to return, their names appear on the list.

The number of names on the No Fly List has sharply increased since last December when Umar Farouk Abdumutallab attempted to detonate an underwear bomb on a Detroit-bound plane. Though the No Fly List has been around since 2001 following the attacks on September 11, the would-be terrorist's name did not appear on the list. Even after beefing the list up since December, Faisal Shahzad was able to board a plane just 2 days after he attempted to explode a car bomb in Times Square. To me, these two instances would be indications that the list has no effectual use. But in lieu in innovative solutions to better protect our country, Homeland Security continues to add more and more names to a list that doesn't seem to work.

There are several examples of American citizens with no real link to terrorism who have been and who currently are trapped in foreign countries because they have funny sounding names. Raymond Earl Knaeble IV is a convert to Islam who studied Arabic in Yemen. When he tried returning to the U.S. from Bogota, Colombia he was notified about being on the No Fly List and had his passport confiscated. He was then taken to the U.S. embassy where he was questioned about his views on Jihad and whether or not he knew the underwear bomber or the Fort Hood shooter. Living in limbo in a hotel in Colombia with only the $500 given to him by the FBI, Knaeble lost his job which he was intending to start upon his return to the United States. The Muslim American Society (MAS) has noted a 50% increase in similar cases since last December, amounting to about 16 per month.

CAIR has also seen a rise in these types of cases and recently wrote a letter to Attorney General Holder to put an end to the practice of barring U.S. citizens from returning home. The letter also highlighted in particular the case of Yahya Weheli of Fairfax, Virginia. Wehelie is a Muslim of Somali descent who, like Knaeble, studied Arabic in Yemen for a year and half before attempting to board a plane back to the United States from Egypt. It was in Egypt that he learned his name was on the No Fly List and found he wouldn't be returning to Virginia again any time soon. Instead, his passport was promptly confiscated, and though he committed no crime, he was subject to over eight interrogations, polygraph tests, and was asked to spy on the American Muslim community in exchange for his freedom. He was eventually cleared to travel to the U.S., however, not by plane.

These are just two examples of this ugly new reality. Innocent people, innocent Americans none-the-less are being exiled from their country of birth and are in many cases being interrogated and intimdated under the banner of the American flag with the cooperation of officials from countries whom we often publicly condemn for their lack of freedom; this is hypocrisy. It seems that at least in these few instances, the U.S. has forgotten what it means to be a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This may seem harsh, and it kind of is. When I've talked to different people about these issues critically they say things to me like "well, it's a whole lot worse in countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia." And to that I say, "really?" Do we really want to compare ourselves to Egypt or Saudi Arabia? No, we're better than that... or at least we should be. This is precisely why our mothers and fathers moved here from those countries to begin with.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Grand Façade: How Islamophobia and Misinformation Thrive on the Right

Diana West seems to have given up on any sense of journalistic creditability and gone head first into hyperbolic conspiracy theories. In her article, “Islam and the Left share common aims” West interviews and praises author Andrew C. McCarthy. McCarthy’s new book The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America is, according to West, “excellent [and] ground-breaking.” Newsweek had this to say: “McCarthy marries a simplistic and unoriginal argument about Islam to a sloppy talking point that Barack Obama is a communist by way of shoddy history and dangerous misunderstandings of Islam.”
You may have heard of McCarthy and his first book detailing his time spent as a federal prosecutor against the perpetrators of the 1993 WTC bombing. He uses this fact to get his argument rolling and perhaps to establish some creditability. However, it quickly falls flat.
In his interview with West and throughout his book, McCarthy engages in logical leaps even the writers of Lost would find suspect. For McCarthy, violent and non-violent Muslims all have the same goal which is why he criticizes the government’s counterterrorism efforts, rejecting their claims that terrorist acts are not representative of Muslims as a whole. The goal of Muslims, he claims, is to implement Sharia law globally and that “Sharia-driven campaign can be waged, and is being waged, by non-violent means, and that the violent and non-violent methods are inextricably linked.” Essentially what McCarthy is alleging is that any individual Muslim or Muslim organization is trying to destroy American values. Now, I shouldn’t really be surprised by this since he is on record calling CAIR a radical Islamic organization.
McCarthy also supports a common movement seen amongst Islamophobes, ending Muslim immigration to the United States. A pretty baseless argument he tries to support by claiming that Islam is inherently “anti-Constitutional” and therefore any Muslim who enters the country must “demonstrate their acceptance of American constitutional principles.” I would be interested to see how any American, Muslim or not, could somehow prove that they accept constitutional principles. Especially when there are parts of the Constitution I think could use a little re-working.
But what do these convoluted, xenophobic arguments against Muslims have to do with the Left? Well, according to McCarthy, plenty.
He claims that Islam and the Left share similarities in that they are against America and the “culture of freedom” it provides. He writes “today’s left-leaning, Islamophilic Obamedia consciously ignores the convergence, but America’s 44th president and America’s enemies have a common dream.” Wow. “Islamophilic Obamedia?” Who has been giving the Right lessons in neologisms?
It is fitting that McCarthy shares his surname with the poster child for manipulative rhetoric and paranoid witch hunts. He is able to simultaneously attack the Left and Muslims, the scapegoats du-jour for the Right. However, he misses one imperative point: nothing he is writing is true. Are there leftist Muslims? Absolutely. However, there are also leftists of every other creed. To assert that one religion will somehow yield absolute political affiliations is not only baseless, it is downright stupid. Luckily for us, I doubt he will convince anyone with this book. It will merely reinforce the views of those who already are fervent critics of Muslims.
I will say that in my first four weeks at CAIR, I have been exposed to some shocking rhetoric I did not know existed. People like West, McCarthy, Pamela Gellar, and Robert Spencer all engage in fearsome attacks on Islam and Muslims. While I would hate to encourage anyone to seek them out, it is imperative to hear the arguments from these crazies in order to combat them.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Race, Identity, and Public Schools

Diana West’s recent editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times is a lot of things, surprising isn't one of them. Her other articles espouse the same inane, manipulative, accusatory rhetoric found within her straw man arguments.

In an article entitled, “Is there Anyone Left with America's Interest at Heart?” West discusses the media and government reactions to Faisal Shahzad’s attempted attack in Times Square. Over the course of two pages, West critiques “the fuzzy, cultural-relativism-based universalism that orders our society.” Essentially, West asserts that terror attacks happen because the United States (specifically democrats and the “liberal media-elite”) is too concerned with not offending anyone. Take for instance this excerpt:

If our leaders faced facts, you see, they might also have to act. They might have to consider such measures as halting Islamic immigration to stop the demographic spread of Sharia. Even a wartime immigration moratorium would help. Come to think of it, a simple ban on return travel from especially fertile jihad regions such as Pakistan -- a ban on return travel from the Northwest frontier alone -- would do wonders to shore up our vulnerabilities.

In Pakistan, after all, 79 percent of the people, according to a 2007 survey by, favor the "strict application of Sharia."

However, West fails to mention that in the same report that 82 percent believe that "people of any religion should be free to worship according to their own beliefs," that a majority of Muslims living in the Middle East support Democracy, greater international communication and trade. She also falls into the league of commentators who believe all Muslims seek to alter the societies within which they live, that “demographic spread” of Muslims is the same as “demographic spread of Sharia.”

It is this sort of one-sided, defensive approach that West wallows in during her recent editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times. She refers to our nation’s school system as “politically correct re-education camps” which I had to re-read a few times in disbelief. I honestly have no idea what she can mean by this. I wonder if Ms. West has been in a school recently. I never thought that I was being taught a “politically correct” version of anything. I did feel that some more sinister moments in this nation’s history were glossed over, but I never felt like I was receiving any sort of Maoist Cultural Revolution she alleges. What is interesting is that later in her article, West supports a new Arizona law that prohibits any public school from offering classes that “promote resentment toward another race or class of people” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Now, is this not the kind of political correctness she derides, where people are not allowed to embrace their own culture for fear of upsetting others? That a public school cannot provide a perspective and courses based on the needs of its students? Where the needs of an individual are outweighed by the interests of the collective?

In her article she writes, “It will be almost amusing to watch leftists try to slam a law against teaching racial resentment and hatred as ‘racist.’” Well, I’ll do my best to keep her doubled over. First, I seriously doubt that any African American Studies or La Raza course is teaching “racial resentment and hatred.” On the contrary, I believe that it gives students the opportunity to learn about their own culture as well as the culture of others. As much as she may disagree, there is not one definitive American history. We are a nation of immigrants and therefore our history is that of various interests and perspectives. To remove these classes is in effect removing a necessary perspective for students.

I’m sure West has some cultural or religious traditions based on her background. Did learning about the history of her ancestors create resentment against other races? I am sure she will claim that this argument is part of the “multicultural masquerade- the non-Western grievance industry pretending to be ‘education.’” While I love alliteration, I have to disagree with her. Please explain to me how a Hispanic Studies course or African American literature class is “non-Western?” I think West believes because some of these classes acknowledge some of the nastier moments in our nation’s past, that this will somehow raise resentment against whites or the rich, her bread and butter demographic. Now, please don’t attempt to retort to my argument with the tried and true defense, I am not calling West nor the reform in Arizona schools racist. I do not believe “it’s either ‘We are the world’ or you are racist.” What I am saying is that by removing these courses, students in Arizona public schools are not being provided with a well-rounded education. It is an action that harms many people but doesn’t seem to benefit anyone. Who were those classes hurting?

I think what may be at the crux of my disagreement with West is our perceived intentions of recent legislation in Arizona. She claims, “Arizona wants to protect American identity to ensure that all of its citizens, regardless of race or origin, have one.” Now, I agree, it is important for all citizens to feel as if they have an American identity. What I disagree with is that everyone has to have the same identity. Race, class, gender, religion and sexual orientation are all facets in one’s identity and to assert that we all must identify purely as Americans is unfair.

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Will a Change in Britain’s Leadership Lead to a Change in Foreign Policy?

On May 6th, elections were held throughout the United Kingdom. Historically, leadership in parliament has oscillated between two major political parties with other minority parties occupying only a small number of seats. This election, however, had three front-runners for prime minister from three different parties: incumbent Gordon Brown of the Labor party, Nick Clegg (pictured left) of the Liberal Democrats, and David Cameron (pictured right) of the Conservative party. After no clear majority was reached by a candidate on election night, five days of political maneuvering and negotiations ensued. Both Cameron and Brown desperately tried to get Clegg to form a majority coalition with them. In the hopes that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats would unite with Brown’s Labor party, Gordon Brown conceded defeat and resigned. After his resignation, Cameron and the Conservatives “immediately sweetened their offer to the Liberal Democrats, saying Clegg could have not only cabinet posts but also a referendum on electoral reform that could break Britain's traditional two-party dominance.” In spite of Gordon Brown’s attempt, a coalition was soon announced between Clegg and Cameron, where Cameron will serve as the new Prime Minister and Clegg will serve as the Deputy Prime Minister.

This mold-breaking election is likely to inaugurate an era of genuine three-party politics in the U.K. that will more accurately represent the diversity of the population. In spite of the fact that Cameron and Clegg seem to have a good relationship, the coalition only forms a thin majority in parliament and could prove to be extremely fragile. Additionally, the Liberal Democrats are more philosophically in line with the Labor party, so it is difficult to predict just how productive this polarized coalition will be in fulfilling their promises.

David Cameron, who describes himself as a “moderate compassionate conservative” is Britain’s youngest prime minister in 200 years at the age of 43. In terms of the “War on Terror,” Cameron has stated that he believes in “spreading freedom and democracy, and supporting humanitarian intervention,” but he is “skeptical of grand schemes to remake the world.” As one of the first acts of the coalition, Cameron helped create a new US-style National Security Council to “coordinate the work of the foreign, defense, interior, energy and international development departments” in order to aid the nation in assessing national threats and dangers.When it comes to criticisms that the U.K. has received over its perceived unwavering submission to the plans and policies of Washington, Cameron chooses to take a more careful approach towards the U.S. He advocates that the UK should be “steadfast not slavish,” while also recognizing that the relationship is important. He further notes that it is not anti-American to question the U.S.

In terms of other foreign policy issues, Cameron has chosen to make Afghanistan a top priority. While he believes that Britain is on the right track in the Afghan War, he also says that it will take additional time and effort to succeed in removing the Taliban, build up Afghan forces, and fully transition to Afghan control. Additionally, Cameron has criticized Iran for supporting Hezbollah and encouraging further chaos in Iraq, which is a war he voted in favor of entering. In regards to Israel, Cameron is generally a supporter, but he has criticized them in the past for “disproportionate” use of force in the 2006 missile attack on Lebanon. He also advocates for the two-state solution in Israel.

Nick Clegg, the new Deputy Prime Minister, is the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, which is a relatively new party that has never before held such a high office. Clegg, who calls himself a “proud internationalist,” came into favor after appearing on Britain’s very first televised election debates. Although it is not yet known just how much power Clegg will wield in the coalition, it is clear he will bring a more liberal approach. When it comes to foreign policy, Clegg has been unclear on where he stands on a variety of international issues. Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have criticized Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, yet on a variety of other issues Clegg has only noted that the European nations should work together to solve international problems. Although it seems impossible under Conservative power, Clegg campaigned on a promise to bring Britain’s 10,000 troops home within 5 years.

This historic election also brought a new political enthusiasm to the Muslim community in the U.K. A record number of British Muslims demonstrated their commitment to political engagement by registering to vote for the very first time in the May 6th election. Although Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims have traditionally favored Gordon Brown’s Labor party, this time around they were looking for a change. A pre-election poll of Muslim constituents found that “74 per cent of respondents thought the Liberal Democrats offered the fairest foreign policy, compared to just 19 per cent for Labor and five per cent for the Conservatives.” The reason for this clear shift in allegiance likely has to do with frustration over 13 years of Labor rule that has brought the U.K. into two unpopular wars and launched an era of counter-terrorism policies that many Muslims believe unfairly discriminates against them. Clegg’s pre-election criticisms of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza likely won him much favor in the Muslim community given that the above mentioned poll also found that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was overwhelmingly cited as the most important foreign policy concern amongst the Muslim voters surveyed.” Given the uncertainty over how much leverage Clegg will have in the coalition in the coming years, it is difficult to determine what, if anything, will change in British foreign policy. What matters most here is that Muslim voters throughout the United Kingdom made their voices heard in record numbers.

As part of the coalition agreement, Cameron and Clegg have agreed never to condone torture,” and to further demonstrate this commitment the coalition government has launched an inquiry into the complicity of U.K. intelligence agencies in torture in past years. While this is a positive first step toward ending human rights abuses in the War on Terror, the process needs to be transparent and honest while also providing real solutions to stop these practices around the world. Only time will tell how successful the Cameron/Clegg coalition will be, but it is hoped that we have at the very least entered into a new era of greater accountability.

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