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Arab and Muslim Communities Fear Increased Surveillance


I am proud to be an American citizen, but this former land of refuge is increasingly unrecognizable. Ethnic profiling, unchecked surveillance, secret detentions and psychological intimidation of Arab and Muslim Americans already have reached levels that many of us only knew previously under repressive Middle Eastern regimes.

During World War II, the United States government isolated tens of thousands of Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Today, Americans reflect on that part of history with shame.

True, Muslims are not being herded into concentration camps. Instead, we are being placed into an information-age corollary -- a system of digital surveillance that amounts to psychological apartheid.

The fact that Iraqi immigrants will be under surveillance by intelligence agencies is making headlines around the world. But this is nothing new. Immigrants from various Middle Eastern countries already have been subjected to repeated FBI visits, wire-tapping and interrogations.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim and Arab communities have lived in fear. Our freedom of speech, assembly and worship are under attack. Thousands of Muslims and Arabs have been interrogated, at least 1,200 detained and hundreds deported after secret court hearings for minor visa irregularities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Muslims are refraining from visiting mosques and praying in public.

One friend, a 20-year-old Muslim student, ended his once daily trips to the mosque for fear that his steadfast observance would be misinterpreted. He now attends only on Fridays.

It's clear to Muslims that their mosques and community centers are under surveillance and that pictures of people and license plates are being recorded in digital dossiers. When I helped to organize a "know your rights" forum in the Muslim community this summer, many attendees cited surveillance as a reason they preferred to stay home rather than circulate in public.

Muslims and Arabs also refrain from expressing political views for fear of being reported. They know it's likely that many of their actions and words are scrutinized by the FBI. I know that every time I pick up the phone or type an e-mail, there is the likelihood of having a third person eavesdropping. For one of my acquaintances, a 38-year-old college professor, clicks and static on his phone line make him suspect he's being watched.

People invent roundabout ways to refer to their own children or relatives if they happen to be called Osama or Saddam. A friend of mine, a young Yemeni immigrant calling his family, asked, "How is my brother?" When his mother asked him which brother, he did not want to say the name: "The one who's just finished taking the exams." The clueless mother yelled, "OSAMA! Osama is fine."

My friend's heart skipped a beat and he quickly hung up.

What if his conversation was being monitored? How would FBI agents interpret it? And that $500 wired to relatives in Yemen -- would that be construed as terrorist sponsorship or money laundering?

While most Americans can freely contribute to charities of their choosing, Muslims and Arabs hesitate, wondering if their generosity to causes such as a Palestinian aid group will come back to haunt them.

It is a cruel irony that Arab Americans and Muslims sought freedom in America from security agencies that monitored them, detained them and censored them, only to relive those conditions under the American flag.

This shameful chapter is being written in fine print within a flurry of U.S. Justice Department directives and legislation creating a new, powerful, domestic security apparatus. But the message is clear for the Muslim American and Arab American community. The fine print says our liberties are suspended.

Many Americans don't seem concerned. Perhaps they have been deafened by the noise of fear emanating from their TVs and radios, the color-coded terror threats and unspecified, possible attacks.

There is a need for intelligence and law-enforcement to track and fight the real terrorists who seek to kill and sow fear. Despite what is occurring, I still have faith in this nation, as do other Americans who disagree with the rights abuses. But America must begin to fight the war against terrorism without racism and with real justice.

When I return from travel overseas, I always gaze with anticipation out of the airplane's window at my hometown, New York. Like most Americans, I am relieved when the plane touches down safely. "Home, sweet home," I think.

I am proud of being a citizen, not because of the country's power, but because of what America has symbolized for millions like me who sought refuge and renewal in this great land. No bigot, no Ashcroft and certainly no Bush will be able to take that pride away from me.

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