Arab and Muslim Civil Rights Issues in the Chicago Metropolitan Area Post-September 11
The Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights conducted a two-day community forum in Chicago in response to concerns Committee members had regarding testimony heard at a briefing held March 29, 2002. A community forum is an activity of a State Advisory Committee designed to elicit opinions and perspectives about civil rights matters in a local area. This report intends to be a useful gauge to monitor the attitudes and conditions regarding the Arab and Muslim communities in the Chicago metropolitan area.
In the two-day community forum held June 17–18, 2002, the Illinois Advisory Committee observed the following:
It is currently difficult to ascertain the number of Arabs and Muslims in the Chicago metropolitan area because the U.S. Census Bureau does not formally track these groups in its official census.
It is also difficult to track changes in hate crimes directed against Arab Americans or Muslims or against those who have come from Arab countries because, in the past, crime record keeping, whether dealing with victims of hate crimes or otherwise, has not attempted to separate out Arab Americans or Muslims or those of Arab nationality. At least for the foreseeable future, that kind of categorization in record keeping would appear to be useful in order to track changes in discrimination and in the incidence of hate crimes affecting these communities.
Nevertheless, data that have been released by government agencies and community groups reveal that hate crimes against Arabs, Muslims, and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim have increased dramatically since September 11, 2001, in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Governmental action taken in advance of potential outbreaks of hate crimes can help mitigate the harm these crimes perpetrate on communities. These actions include identifying high-risk communities and areas as well as fostering strong relationships between communities and government officials.
Government officials in the Chicago region, including but not limited to the mayor, U.S. attorney, FBI special agent in charge, INS regional director, Cook County state’s attorney, and superintendent of police, should be recognized for their outreach to the Arab, Muslim, and Sikh communities. Numerous conferences, community forums, and informal discussions have taken place between these officials and community leaders. Press conferences have also been held to warn potential perpetrators of hate crimes that such actions would not be tolerated. The Committee commends the efforts of these officials and the community leaders. Further and deeper outreach will need to continue.
The number of cases of alleged discrimination in the workplace, at school, in housing, and at airports since September 11 is alarming and indicative of wide-reaching societal bias, or at least misunderstanding, of the Arab and Muslim communities. The Committee does not deem racial or ethnic profiling by any sector of society to be justified.
Arab and Muslim community leaders clearly expressed concern about government policies. Despite the increase in hate crimes against their community members, most leaders who testified to the Committee were far more disturbed by the government’s national interview project of young Arab and Muslim men, the use of secret evidence, and the closure of Islamic charities. Many spokespeople for the Arab and Muslim communities saw these actions as profiling their communities and not as effective policing measures.
The interviews of young, male Arabs in the aftermath of September 11 were largely viewed by the community as adversarial and, therefore, may have lessened, or even been counter-functional, to the government’s desired effect of obtaining information about possible terrorist activities in the country.
The Illinois Advisory Committee and the general public cannot evaluate the veracity of claims regarding Muslim and Arab detainees and deportees, as well as some claims regarding Islamic charities, since September 11 without further disclosure by the government.
In regard to secret detention as a law enforcement practice, both the local U.S. attorney and the INS regional director made it clear that they themselves were not involved in secret detention, and apparently saw no need for it in their circumstances. However, they could not state that their superiors were not practicing such procedures. As the U.S. attorney pointed out, there may be circumstances in which a detainee may not wish public disclosure of his or her detainment, and protection of that wish is appropriate. But in the absence of such, detainment must not be kept secret.
Denial of right to counsel, in addition to being antithetical to the American concept of liberty, could possibly be of greater harm in terms of garnering community trust and cooperation than anything that could be gained from it.
The establishment of a watch list, although not made public, is potentially one of the most problematic weapons in the present antiterrorist arsenal. If only the names of suspected terrorists appear on the watch list, it poses a threat to the general structure of our liberties. Because of the commonality of names throughout the world, more specific information about an individual should be included on any watch list.
Fear pervades the Arab and Muslim communities. In addition to being afraid of the possibility of further terrorist attacks as most Americans are, many people in these communities are afraid of discriminatory actions by their fellow Americans and their government. Seemingly innocuous acts like giving to charity are now done with trepidation at the uncertain ramifications for such acts. If a community is overwhelmed with fear, it is less likely to cooperate with law enforcement.
The Committee is also concerned about fear adversely affecting victim communities through rejection of essential government services. It was reported that some Muslim mothers kept their children out of school in the aftermath of local violence because of fear, and some have apparently hesitated to sign up for KidCare (a state of Illinois health plan for children). State and local governments should be encouraged to reach out to the Arab and Muslim communities to make certain that neither they nor their children are penalized by their own fears.
As noted below, various religious communities have established meaningful relations with Muslim centers since September 11. Such activities should be encouraged and commended. However, the general public appears to still know little about these communities and rely heavily on stereotypes for their knowledge.
In conclusion, the Illinois Advisory Committee heard numerous concerns from members and representatives of the Arab and Muslim communities, as well as from government officials. As many participants discussed, the balancing act between national security and civil rights is delicate. In post-September 11 America, we too infrequently hear from the innocent people who many Americans have instinctively come to fear. The community forum attempted to lend an outlet for some of these voices to be heard.
Although the subject of the report dealt with the pressing civil rights issues facing the Arab and Muslim communities and the mandate of the Committee is to reveal these issues, another tale arose. Many Americans began to learn much more about Islam and their Arab neighbors after September 11. A July 2002 poll by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that 79 percent of the 945 Muslim Americans polled experienced an act of kindness or support from friends or colleagues of other faiths since the terrorist attacks. This statistic does not negate the fact that 57 percent of those same people said they experienced an act of bias or discrimination since that date. Yet this former statistic, which appeared to be consistent with the testimony presented in the forum, provides hope. Likewise, it seems clear that local government officials are making genuine efforts to listen to the concerns voiced in the many forums that have been held since September 11.
Throughout the two-day forum, the Committee observed this contradiction between the Muslim and Arab communities experiencing discrimination and support. One uplifting issue was the strong interfaith community that began to develop in the aftermath of September 11. One panel included Azam Nizamuddin, representing the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago; Jonathan Levine, director of the American Jewish Committee in Chicago; and Rev. Dirk Ficca of the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions. Working together, these three men of different faiths had begun to tackle the difficult challenge of supporting, cooperating, and living peacefully together in a community. Their work on the local level sets a precedent the larger society can emulate.
 Council on American-Islamic Relations “Poll: Majority of U.S. Muslims Suffered Post September 11 Bias,” Aug. 21, 2002, <http://cair-net.org/asp/article.asp?articleid=895&article type=3>.