The ‘war on terror’ and the disciplining of American Muslims

American Muslims have been subjected to a multibillion-dollar securitisation effort that has devastated the community.

People participate in a Philadelphia rally for Muslim rights following an appeal hearing seeking to overturn the dismissal of Hassan v City of New York, a case that challenged the NYPD's blanket surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey on January 13, 2015 [File: Charles Mostoller/Reuters]

Earlier this month, The New York Times Magazine published a feature article profiling a former FBI agent who was imprisoned by the US for exposing the rampant abuses in the government’s domestic war on terror. In the piece, Terry Albury recounted the FBI’s systematic harassment and intimidation of American Muslims, its spying on the community, and its prosecution of many of its members under the guise of combatting terrorism.

Upon joining the FBI shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Albury recalled, “It was made very clear from day one that the enemy was not just a tiny group of disaffected Muslims. Islam itself was the enemy.” Its uniquely candid and self-reflective tone notwithstanding, there was little in this account that would come as a surprise to most American Muslims.

Twenty years on from the launch of a war that would place an entire minority population under a cloud of suspicion, it is worth examining how the lives of American Muslims have been irrevocably transformed. As securitised subjects, they have existed on one of the many front lines in the global war on terror, forced to reassess their identity and core values in the name of belonging.

Securitising Islam

Although anti-Muslim discrimination in the US has roots that long predate 9/11, the global war on terror ushered in an unprecedented era of mass securitisation of American Muslims that manifested in untold ways. US law enforcement agencies quickly set about to uncover “sleeper cells” hiding within the community’s mosques and Islamic centres. By reducing the actions of the 9/11 perpetrators down to their religious beliefs, all Muslims were effectively pathologised as potential terrorists.

The domestic war on terror would operate as a dual-pronged assault on both Islam and Muslims. Led by an alarmist media and self-serving policymakers, the faith itself was repackaged as a dangerous ideology. Not unlike the depictions of communism at the height of the Cold War, Islam was portrayed as lurking behind every corner and posing a growing threat to the American way of life, if left unchecked.

Islamic traditions, beliefs and practices were sloppily anatomised by an emergent class of self-proclaimed “terrorism experts”, talking heads with questionable qualifications who coined flashy buzzwords like “Islamofascism” and warned that Sharia was little more than a pathway to Orwellian totalitarianism.

At the same time, Muslims became an increasingly racialised category subjected to forms of discrimination that parallelled the treatment of targeted minorities throughout US history. More than 80,000 Muslim immigrants were called in for questioning by federal agents and required to enrol in a national registry. Tens of thousands more were searched and interrogated at airports and prevented from travel through the use of no-fly lists. Simply wearing a headscarf or growing a beard made one suspect in the eyes of an ever-vigilant police force and a hypersensitive public.

Despite the fact that the sleeper cells never materialised, the domestic war on terror proceeded unchecked, due in part to the Patriot Act, a law passed overwhelmingly by Congress in October 2001 that greatly expanded the government’s investigative powers at the expense of civil liberties. Against the national backdrop of fear and suspicion, American Muslims were systematically targeted in several waves. In the initial phase authorities singled out prominent community leaders and institutions.

Shortly after 9/11, the government cast a wide net by spying on community leaders. As files leaked to the Intercept later revealed, in one instance the government targeted a lawyer, a political lobbyist, an academic, and the heads of two of the most prominent American Muslim civic organisations. Those targeted for surveillance faced the threat of criminal prosecution for exercising their constitutionally protected rights to free speech and association.

In 2004, the Department of Justice brought terrorism charges against the largest Muslim charity in the US, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), and arrested five members of its staff. Following a retrial in 2008 after prosecutors initially failed to convict the men, all of whom were Palestinian-American, the HLF officers and employees were sentenced to up to 65 years in prison, despite the government never providing any evidence that the charitable donations had any connection to violence.

The fallout from the HLF case continued well beyond the trial. In an unorthodox move, prosecutors released the names of 246 unindicted co-conspirators in the case, a list that would normally be kept anonymous due to the fact that uncharged entities have no means of defending themselves against serious accusations like supporting terrorism. The list included several of the most prominent American Muslim organisations, from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The intent behind the leak was clear: to cast a cloud of suspicion over all American Muslim institutions, thereby paralysing their ability to serve their communities and play any meaningful role in civic life.

Similarly, in 2005 the government targeted Ali al-Tamimi, a Virginia-based imam. He was charged with conspiring against the United States and was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly providing a fatwa to community members about “jihad” days after 9/11. These high-profile terrorism trials contributed greatly to the chilling effect among American Muslims, as imams and community leaders across the country feared their words could be used to put them in prison.

At a time when the US had launched large-scale military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while waging deadly covert operations in dozens of other Muslim-majority countries, the government was seemingly determined to neutralise political opposition and silence dissenting views at home.

Fake plots, real consequences

More than a decade after 9/11, the FBI had more than doubled the number of agents devoted to investigating terrorism, tripled its overall budget, with $3.3bn dedicated to combatting terrorism alone, and a permissive legal environment within which to operate. It was also turning up no actual terrorist cells.

In the next phase of the domestic war on terror, the FBI decided to take matters into its own hands and expanded a practice it had launched soon after 9/11. It stepped up sending paid informants into communities to entrap unsuspecting Muslim youth into terrorist conspiracies that FBI agents would then foil.

A 2015 study revealed that since 9/11, more than half of all terrorism prosecutions involved the use of paid informants who were usually responsible for concocting the plot in collusion with their FBI handlers.

Sensationalistic media coverage of the most high-profile cases rarely if ever made mention of the fact that these conspiracies were the work of FBI informants. Instead, stories of foiled terror plots like those of the Newburgh Four or the Fort Dix Five provided fodder for the continued stigmatisation of American Muslims.

The vacuum left by the assault on the community’s leadership, coupled with a steady rise in Islamophobic sentiments across the wider American society, created a pervasive sense of isolation, particularly among younger American Muslims who had come of age in the post-9/11 reality.

With at least 15,000 informants at its disposal, the FBI’s rampant infiltration of mosques and Islamic centres stripped Muslims of any sense of security or sanctity in their community spaces. As the entrapment cases unfolded with alarming regularity, it became painfully clear that the war on terror’s latest victims were often the community’s most vulnerable members, suffering from poverty, mental health issues, and other difficulties that made them easy prey for undercover agents.

Even those young American Muslims who avoided being ensnared by informants were nevertheless subjected to mass surveillance programmes, such as the one pursued by the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the CIA. Exposed by the Associated Press in 2011, the secret programme “mapped, monitored and analyzed American Muslim daily life”, going as far as to infiltrate Muslim student groups at various universities in the New York metropolitan area.

A community transformed

As the mass securitisation of American Muslims became a permanent fixture of daily life, one had to wonder how any faith community could continue to meet its basic needs under such conditions. In time, American Muslim communal identity became practically inseparable from the war on terror’s rhetorical machinery. In his 2005 book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Mahmood Mamdani argued that US imperial power distilled the entirety of the Islamic faith into these binary categories “to cultivate the former and target the latter”.

Consequently, an Islam redefined largely in response to systemic Islamophobia compelled some American Muslims to reframe their ethical commitments to suit the demands of formal acceptance. After having silenced its leadership, weakened its institutions, and targeted its most vulnerable, the domestic war on terror’s third phase was marked largely by enlisting the community’s help to police itself.

Years of demanding that American Muslims “do more” to condemn violence committed by any Muslim anywhere in the world had visibly reshaped the community’s priorities. Not only were American Muslim institutions pressed to remain silent in the face of abuses committed against their own community, but they were also constrained from offering critiques of an American imperial project that was devastating much of the world, for fear of being labelled terrorist sympathisers.

Instead, many community organisations refashioned their agendas to accommodate the government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme. Millions of dollars in funding went toward enlisting American Muslim groups in some of the domestic war on terror’s most egregious practices.

These CVE projects included surveillance and mapping of communities and counter-radicalisation initiatives that pathologised Muslims as predisposed to violence by labelling basic Muslim ritual practices as suspicious.

As more communities welcomed FBI agents into their spaces, an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011 revealed that federal agents used so-called “community outreach forums” to spy on American Muslims.

In the early days after 9/11, to suggest that the war on terror would actually serve as a pretext to demonise and target an entire faith and its adherents while pursuing US imperial aims would be met with derision and vociferous denials. Two decades later, the evidence in that regard is so overwhelming that to say so now would be to state the obvious.

Yet American Muslim institutions have hardly acknowledged the transformations within their community or the practices that brought them about. Such has been the disciplining effect that whatever critiques they offer are limited to societal Islamophobia or the excesses of the Trump presidency.

Few efforts have been made to identify and challenge structural Islamophobia and the imperial practices it supports. If anything, the community has witnessed an alarming rise of internalised Islamophobia, as indicated by a 2018 survey which revealed that American Muslims were more than twice as likely as any other faith community to express the belief that Muslims are “prone to negative behavior”.

What hope exists to challenge this prevailing narrative stems from a rising youth movement that has voiced poignant critiques of older generations of American Muslim professionals they view as complicit in their own securitisation. These young activists have drawn strength from forming linkages with broader struggles against structural racism and anti-immigrant hostility among communities of colour.

More recently, they have also latched onto the cause of Palestine solidarity within the broader progressive movement – ironically an issue that was historically at the core of American Muslim political mobilisation until it became one of the domestic war on terror’s numerous casualties.

As American Muslims reflect upon the pain and loss endured over the past 20 years, it is vital that the lessons of those experiences not be forgotten nor ignored. Indeed, their survival as a faith community depends on it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.