Arab and Muslim Civil Rights Issues in the Chicago Metropolitan Area Post-September 11

Chapter 1


It is fair to say that Americans awoke to an entirely different world on September 11, 2001. Amid the fear and confusion surrounding the terrorist attacks of that day, the United States and the world came together to mourn for the innocents who lost their lives and to gather strength to confront those responsible for the atrocities. The mood of the nation and the world was possibly best captured by Le Monde, the widely read daily newspaper in France, when it ran the headline “Nous sommes tous des Américains,” which translates to “We are all Americans.”

Unfortunately, the spirit of this headline was easier to print than to live. Many people in the Chicago metropolitan area who shared the same religion or physical characteristics of the September 11 terrorists had difficulties partaking in the atmosphere that we are all Americans. Instead, many felt that they were immediately placed under a scope of suspicion by their neighbors and their government.

The Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is composed of 15 members. It is bipartisan, including representation from both political parties, as well as the different geographic regions of the state. The Committee is also independent of any national, state, or local administration or policy group. In response to the Commission’s request that State Advisory Committees review and report on post-9/11 civil rights issues, the Committee held a briefing titled “Arab and Muslim Civil Rights Concerns Since September 11, 2001” on March 29, 2002. Committee members decided on that date that the topic deserved further inquiry through a two-day community forum. Members voted unanimously to undertake the study.

This report is a summary statement of the Illinois Advisory Committee’s review of “Arab and Muslim Civil Rights Issues in the Chicago Metropolitan Area Post-September 11” and includes observations. Much of the report is based on information received by the Committee at a community forum held in Chicago on June 17 and 18, 2002.

After a brief introductory chapter about the communities involved and some of their civil rights concerns, the report is divided into chapters, each of which covers a specific civil rights issue related to the topic at the forum. Because the scope of the initiative was limited to a solicitation of opinion, without analysis of those opinions, each chapter is composed primarily of the transcribed statements of presenters at the community forum. The Illinois Advisory Committee strove to achieve balance in the forum. Therefore, the chapters contain the testimonies of diverse individuals, including community leaders, academics, government and local officials, and other interested parties. The final chapter includes the overall observations of the Illinois Advisory Committee in light of all testimony received during the community forum.

Ethnic and Religious Clarification

The primary focus of this report is the Arab and Muslim communities of greater Chicago. Even before September 11, a substantial percentage of the American public misunderstood and stereotyped these communities. After the terrorist attacks, some of those misconceptions were revealed. Many innocent Muslims, Arab Americans, Southeast Asians, and other people of color became victims of hate crimes and discrimination because they shared a similar appearance or cultural and religious background with the accused terrorists. The Illinois Advisory Committee made it a priority to learn about and understand these communities.

Arab Americans

Most Arab Americans can trace their family heritage to one of the 22 Arab countries, which stretch from Morocco in Northwest Africa to Oman in the Persian Gulf.[1] Although independent states, these nations for the most part share common linguistic, cultural, and political traditions. Possibly as helpful as learning who Arabs are is learning who Arabs are not. People from the countries of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are usually not Arab, although these people are commonly mistaken as Arabs.

Although they trace their roots to these countries, it is believed that most Arab Americans were born in the United States. This is because Arabs have been in this country for many years. Two large waves brought Arab people to the United States. The first wave was between 1875 and 1920. The second wave began in the 1940s. Despite such a long presence in the country, the exact number of Arab Americans in the Chicago area and the United States is difficult to ascertain.[2] The U.S. Census Bureau does not currently track Arab Americans, and members of this group identify themselves in various ways. It has been estimated that 3 million Arab Americans live in the United States, but no “official” estimates appear to exist.[3]

Like European and African Americans, Arab Americans practice diverse religious faiths. Not all Arab Americans are Muslims. In fact, a minority of Arab Americans are Muslim. Although the statistics vary, the large majority of Arabs in the United States are Christians. It is estimated that 42 percent of Arab Americans are Catholic, 12 percent are Protestant, and 23 percent are Orthodox. The remaining 23 percent of Arab Americans are Muslim.[4]

As a group, Arab Americans have fared better than most Americans in terms of education and economic standing. Percentage-wise, Arab Americans are twice as likely as other Americans to have a degree beyond a bachelor’s. In addition, Arab American households have a higher than average median income. However, in some areas of the nation, Arab Americans’ income is below the average. So it should not be assumed that all Arab Americans are well educated and wealthy.


Muslims are believers in the religion of Islam. The term Muslim is comparable to the term Christian or Jew, and the term Islam is comparable to the term Christianity or Judaism. Similar in many ways to these other traditions, Islam is a monotheistic religion, which is to say that it is a religion that instructs its believers that there is only one God, whom Muslims call Allah.

The countries of the world where a majority of the inhabitants are Muslim stretch from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east. Islam has its roots in the Middle East, where it is still dominant in nearly all countries, but a majority of its practitioners now live in South Asia and Southeast Asia. The world’s largest Muslim country is Indonesia.

Muslims first came to America during the Atlantic slave trade in the 16th century. Today, there are an estimated 3.5 million Muslims in the United States.[5] However, it is difficult to tell the exact number of Muslims because of the diverse characteristics of the believers. Thus, others estimate that there may be 6 million to 8 million Muslims in the United States, approximately 30 percent of whom are African American Muslims.[6]

The word “Islam” means submission, and a “Muslim” is one who submits. A Muslim traditionally sees the self as submitting to the will of God, which is understood in two senses. First, the will of God is understood as a preordained force in history. In this understanding, God, or Allah, is the creator of all things. Second, the will of God is composed of a very complex set of rules that dictates how Muslims live virtually every phase of their life, from birth until death.

Islam is in the Abrahamic family of religions. It diverges from the other religions in this family in that most Muslims see themselves as descendants of Abraham’s son Ismail, not Isaac.[7] Muslims believe Allah revealed the Quran, the sacred text of Islam, to the prophet Muhammad between 610 and 632 C.E. The Quran is believed to be the final revelation from God that will guide the previous revelatory traditions of Judaism and Christianity back onto the path of righteousness. Thus, the God that Muslims refer to is seen as being the God of Abraham and the God of Moses and the God of Jesus (the latter being seen as prophet rather than as God), and many if not most American Muslims equate the God that they worship with the God of Judaism or Christianity.

Although traditionally Muslims believe that the Quran is the unerring word of God, the book itself does not deal fully with the way Muslims should live their lives in their dealings with others. According to Dr. Kevin Jaques of Indiana University’s Department of Religious Studies, of the Quran’s 6,000-plus verses, only about 500 deal with rules about how people are supposed to live in relation to each other. The Five Pillars of Islam that the Quran provides are primarily principles that regulate the private life of Muslims in their dealings with God.[8] These Five Pillars are the following: belief in the shehada, the statement that “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”; salat, prayer five times a day; zakat, the sharing of alms with they poor; fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; and the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Because of this lack of explicit social teachings in the Quran, Muslims came to believe that the prophet Muhammad himself was, in a sense, living revelation. His life example, or his sunna, becomes the second source of revelation and rules for Muslims. The third source of rules for Muslims evolved from cultural differences as the religion spread throughout the world. This disparity is still a major issue for Islam, as it is for many religions today. To alleviate the difficulty of how a Muslim in the United States, for example, lives a religious life with rules that were meant for first-century Mecca, most look to a class of Muslim intellectuals known as the fiqh, or the jurists, who developed methods of interpreting the Quran and the sunna so that these could be made applicable to changing cultural circumstances. Therefore, it is believed, no matter where a Muslim lives, the Quran and the sunna can provide guidance on how one should live.[9]

Because much of this is dependent on individual applications of reason and methods of interpretation, over time there developed great diversity in Muslims’ social ethics, or how Muslims are supposed to live and relate with others. Therefore, it is possible for some Muslims to believe that the terrorist acts of September 11 were justified in God’s eyes.[10] However, by far the large majority of Muslims in the United States and around the world have condemned the attacks and any other attacks on innocent individuals. This condemnation is illustrated by the fact that almost every major Muslim organization in the United States has publicly denounced the events of September 11.[11]

Demographics of Chicago

Chicago is the third largest city in the United States with an approximate population of 2,896,016. The approximate population of the Chicago metropolitan area is 8,008,507.[12] Because the U.S. Census Bureau does not track Arab Americans or Muslims, it is very difficult to know the size of these communities. However, reasonable estimates have the population of the Arab community in the Chicago area at 150,000.[13] Outside of the city itself, the largest concentration of Arab Americans is to be found in the southwest suburbs.

An estimated 400,000 Muslims live in the Chicago area, and there are about 90 mosques.[14] Historically, the city is a center for African American Muslims. It is the headquarters of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and the home of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, leader of the Muslim American Society. In addition to a large number of African American Muslims, there are a large number of Muslims from the continent of India and from Southeast Asia in the Chicago area. Arab Americans compose a relatively small portion of Chicago-area Muslims.

Civil Rights Issues Since 9/11

Even before September 11, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans faced civil rights issues in Chicago. Following the atrocities that occurred on that date, they have claimed to face further discrimination. These issues continue despite that spokespersons for the local Arab and Muslim communities have condemned the attacks loudly and publicly. In addition, they have condemned the civil rights backlash that they feel has been unfairly targeted upon them. Those issues of civil rights and civil liberties have been the subject of much public discussion and of several reports.[15]

Hate Crimes

The Chicago region has been the site of an increase in hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims. Data reported in the community forum suggest that immediately after September 11 there was a significant increase in hate crimes against Arabs, Muslims, and those mistaken as members of these communities. The increase in hate crimes, which rose in the wake of 9/11, appeared to taper in the months that followed.

Muslim women have been particularly vulnerable to hate crimes because the traditional hajib many wear to cover their heads and faces makes them easily identifiable as Muslims. The crimes directed at Arabs and Muslims have also affected other communities in Chicago. In particular, Sikhs of Chicago, especially in the early days after 9/11, were often mistaken for Muslims because of the turbans many Sikhs wear as head covering. They became common targets, even though their head covering bore little relation to any Muslim dress. As it happens, Sikhs are religious believers who historically have been influenced more by Indian Hinduism than Islam.

Education, Employment, Housing, and Transportation Discrimination

In addition to hate crimes, some Arab and Muslim Americans have suffered further discrimination in their everyday lives. Community members have brought many cases of employment, education, and housing discrimination to the federal and state agencies that oversee these issues. In some cases, the complaints continued well beyond September 11 and into the next year, possibly because some of the fear of reporting discrimination in the heated environment immediately after the attacks lessened.

In addition, profiling at airports continues to be an issue for Arab and Muslim Americans. Even before September 11, members of these communities felt that they were profiled for extra security at airports. In response to these concerns, the airline industry implemented an automated profiling system, Computer Assisted Passenger Screening (CAPS), industrywide in 1998. This system was employed, in part, to prevent ethnic or racial profiling by airport security. CAPS involves the collection of data on passengers prior to their boarding a plane. The information is entered into a computer database that determines whether the passenger poses a potential security risk and should be subjected to heightened security procedures. The criteria for selection are secret, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) denies that its profiling procedures are discriminatory. The FAA insists that the CAPS system does not target any group based on race, national origin, or religion.[16]

Federal Legislation and Government Policies

On April 19, 1995, the Edward P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was the site of the worst terrorist attack the country had seen up until then. Afterward, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996[17] in an effort to strengthen the government’s ability to defend the nation against terrorism. Much of this law concerned immigration restrictions. Specifically, it empowered the federal government to hold secret hearings, using evidence that cannot be challenged, on legal immigrants for deportation proceedings. Despite that the terrorists in Oklahoma City were American citizens, the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act had the largest impact on Arab Muslims. Nearly all immigrants who were held in prison and had secret evidence used against them even prior to the September 11 attacks were Arab Muslims.[18] Many Arab and Muslim leaders, as well as civil liberties advocates, denounced the 1996 law as a discriminatory denial of due process.

Since September 11, 2001, Congress has passed and President Bush signed into law the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA Patriot Act).[19] This law has strengthened the 1996 antiterrorism law by expanding the government’s ability to conduct secret searches,[20] allowing for the indefinite detention of noncitizens who are not terrorists on minor visa violations if they cannot be deported,[21] minimizing judicial supervision over law enforcement’s surveillance of telephones and Internet,[22] providing the U.S. attorney general and the secretary of state the power to deport any noncitizen who belongs to an organization they designate as terrorist-affiliated,[23] and giving the FBI wide access to the business records of individuals without having to prove evidence of a crime.[24]

As with the 1996 antiterrorism act, the USA Patriot Act has been criticized by Arab and Muslim leaders. The law does reinforce the concept that the civil rights of Arab Americans must be protected, that acts of violence against any Americans must be condemned, and that the citizenship rights of all ethnicities, races, and religions must be recognized. However, many in the Arab and Muslim communities claim that the act still has unfairly targeted them and put them under a scope of suspicion by law enforcement and other U.S. citizens.

Islamic Charities

In Chicago, the new powers provided to law enforcement have been most clearly visible in press reportage of the seizure of some local Islamic charities’ assets and the prosecution of one charity’s official.[25] Two large charities that had their assets seized on December 14, 2001, are based in the Chicago metropolitan area: Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International Foundation. A third charity that had its assets frozen, Holy Land Foundation, has offices in the region.

The freezing of Islamic charities is a major concern of Muslims. As stated previously, one of the Five Pillars of Islam that the Quran set out for Muslims to follow is giving to charity, or zakat. Organizations like Global Relief and Benevolence International were popular organizations to which American Muslims gave because these groups were believed to do a great deal of work with orphans and poor people throughout the world. Many Muslims are now concerned that their money may have helped terrorist activities or that they may be considered suspects for having given financial support to these charities.


Fear may not be a “legal” civil rights issue, but the fear that many in the Arab and Muslim communities experience as a result of hate crimes, discrimination, and government actions must be discussed in any thorough study of these communities post-September 11. Throughout the two days of the community forum, nearly all community leaders and government officials who testified before the Illinois Advisory Committee mentioned that fear was rampant in these groups. It may not be possible to establish the extent to which the reasons for these fears are justifiable, but there is little question that these feelings do exist, and they are presumably exacerbated by the fear of the effect of future terrorist attacks on the United States. The Illinois Advisory Committee believes that understanding the nature of these fears and the reasons for them is relevant to its civil rights examination.

[1] For a map of the Arab world, see Arab American Institute, <>.

[2] For more information on migration and Arab Americans in Chicago, see appendix A.

[3] Detroit Free Press, “100 Questions and Answers About Arab Americans: A Journalist’s Guide,” n.d., <http://www.freep. com/jobspage/arabs.htm> (Jan. 15, 2003).

[4] Arab American Institute, “Demographics,” n.d., <http://> (June 10, 2002).

[5] Mohamed Nimer, The North American Muslim Resource Guide: Muslim Community Life in the United States and Canada (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 5.

[6] Don Terry, “A Leap of Faith,” Chicago Tribune Magazine, Oct. 20, 2002, p. 14.

[7] Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 223.

[8] Kevin Jaques, statement before the Indiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, “Civil Rights Issues Facing Muslims and Arab Americans in Indiana Post-September 11,” Indianapolis, IN, May 30, 2002.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Council on American-Islamic Relations, American Muslims: One Year After 9-11, 2002, pp. 3–5.

[12] U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census.

[13] Ray Hanania, “Chicago’s Arab American Community: An Introduction,” 2000, <> (May 3, 2002).

[14] Chicago Sun Times, “U.S. Seeing Big Growth in Muslim Population,” n.d., < 02.html> (June 15, 2002).

[15] Many groups have completed reports on the large issue of civil rights and liberties after September 11, 2001. These include “American Backlash: Terrorists Bring War Home in More Ways Than One,” South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, <>, 2001; “We Are Not the Enemy: Hate Crimes Against Arabs, Muslims, and Those Perceived to Be Arab or Muslim after September 11,” Human Rights Watch, <>, 2001; and Stephen Schulhofer, “The Enemy Within: Intelligence Gathering, Law Enforcement, and Civil Liberties in the Wake of September 11,” the Century Foundation, <>, 2002.

[16] Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Civil Rights Issues Facing Arab Americans in Michigan, 2001, p. 11.

[17] Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (1996).

[18] Michigan Advisory Committee, Civil Rights Issues Facing Arab Americans, p. 2.

[19] Pub. L. No. 107-56, 115 Stat. 272 (2001).

[20] 50 U.S.C. § 1861 (2003) (prohibits persons from disclosing that they have any knowledge of seizure of business records and other tangible items, and the court issuing the subpoena from disclosing the purpose of the order).

[21] 8 U.S.C. § 1226a (2003) (provides for detention of suspected terrorists by the U.S. attorney general).

[22] 50 U.S.C. § 1842 (2003) (expands the pen register and trap and trace authority to include any investigations to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person, or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities); 50 U.S.C. § 3123(a) (2003) (orders are based on “certification” that the information sought is related to a professed law enforcement purpose, done without notice to the subject of the surveillance, anywhere in the United States, and can be against unspecified persons, rather than specific communications providers).

[23] Designation of 39 “Terrorist Organizations” under the “PATRIOT Act,” 66 Fed. Reg. 63,620 (2001) (classifying 39 groups as “terrorist organizations” as of December 5, 2001).

[24] 15 U.S.C. § 1861 (2003).

[25] United States v. Enaam M. Arnaout, No. 02 CR 892, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1635 (D. Ill. Feb. 4, 2003); United States v. Enaam M. Arnaout, 236 F. Supp. 2d 916 (D. Ill. 2003); United States v. Enaam M. Arnaout, No. 02 CR 892, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24262 (D. Ill. Dec. 18, 2002); United States v. Enaam M. Arnaout, 231 F. Supp. 2d 797 (D. Ill. 2002); United States of America v. Benevolence Int’l Found., Inc. and Enaam M. Arnaout, No. 02 CR 414, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17223 (D. Ill. Sept. 13, 2002).