Racializing Islam Before and After 9/11: From Melting Pot to Islamophobia

Author:Hilal Elver
Pages:119-174
 
FREE EXCERPT
Racializing Islam Before and After 9/11:
From Melting Pot to Islamophobia
Hilal Elver
I. POINT OF DEPARTURE .......................................................................... 119
II. PAVING THE ROAD FOR “RACIALIZING ISLAM”: PRE-9/11 ERA.............. 123
A. Muslim Community in the United States ...................................... 124
1. Immigrants ................................................................................. 125
2. Natives: African American Muslims ......................................... 128
B. Prejudices Against Muslims and Middle Easterners in the
Pre-9/11 Era ....................................... ............................................ 130
1. Discrimination Against Middle Easterners and Muslims in
the Process of Immigration ....................................................... 131
2. Anti-Arab Sentiment based on International Politics,
American Foreign Policy, and the role of Media ...................... 136
III. POST-9/11 ERA: “TERRORIZING MUSLIMS INSIDE-OUT....................... 137
A. Immigration Law ............................................................................ 139
B. USA PATRIOT Act ......................................................................... 141
C. Social Pressure and Racial Profiling ............................................ 143
D. Guantanomo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Interrogation
Techniques ...................................................................................... 145
E. Judicial Actions Against Government Policy ................................ 147
IV. 10 YEARS AFTER 9/11: ISLAMOPHOBIA AND RACIALIZING ISLAM ......... 150
A. Presidential Election: Is Obama a Muslim? .................................. 157
B. Islamophobia Emerges: Cordoba Project....................................... 159
C. Fear of Shariah Law in U.S. Courts? ............................................ 162
D. Freedom of Speech and Hate Speech ............................................. 166
E. Islamic Practices ............................................................................. 169
F. Surveillance ..................................................................................... 171
V. CONCLUSION: HOW TO LIVE WELL TOGETHER? ................................... 172
I. POINT OF DEPARTURE
American culture has a strong influence on foreign cultures. Nevertheless,
culture spreads through many channels and does not always bring truth.
Indeed, it almost never does. In my childhood, my first encounter with
American culture was reading comic books translated from English. The hero
was an “American ranger” against “bloody red-skins.” Turkish translators
named indigenous people, Native Americans, “red skins.” The comic books
described them as killing innocent settlers, setting fires, destroying the
environment, and peeling the skin off the skulls of their victims. “Heroic”
American rangers were fighting against American Indians and the colonial
British army, called “red jackets.” The stories always ended with glorious
victory for the American rangers. Many Turkish children grew up reading
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these politically incorrect comic books, learning American history from the
settlers’ perspective. Schools banned these books, but this made them even
more desirable. In the 1980s, TV dominated our popular culture, and
American TV series became our firsthand source to learn about the most
powerful country in the world. We learned the history of slavery watching
Roots and contemporary Texas culture watching Dallas.
Many years later, when I arrived in the United States as a Fulbright
scholar, I had the opportunity to learn more about the American legal system
and the legendary Supreme Court of the United States. My first encounter was
the vicious debate during the nomination process for a Supreme Court Justice:
Clarence Thomas’s hearing in the United States Senate and Anita Hill’s
testimony against him. It was a fascinating learning experience, showing how
the democratic system worked in the United States in such a transparent way.
Questioning the Supreme Court candidates, let alone broadcasting it live on
TV, was unimaginable in my country. No one was above the law in this
country, even those nominated to the Supreme Court! Of course, I did not
appreciate at the time the underlying racial tone, the importance of Justice
Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and his decidedly controversial
reputation in the African American community. I did not understand any of
the competing and contrasting interests shaping the whole debate. I just
admired the fact that people seemed to take sexual harassment seriously and
that the United States protected women’s rights in such a vigorous way. It was
a fascinating and impressive first encounter. In retrospect, I figured out that
half of the importance of such a case, the politics of race, had not registered in
my mind. I learned the side of the case that had been invisible for outsiders
many years later when I read Toni Morrison’s book on this famous trial.1
My first personal experience with race consciousness was in 1993 when my
13-year-old daughter started the 9th grade at a local public high school in
Ann Arbor. I received a warning from her German language teacher that she
was spending time with African American students, which she described as a
“potentially dangerous group.” She said I should be careful about my
daughter’s friends. However, I learned from my daughter that they were the
only kids in school friendly with her even though some of the African
American kids questioned her presence in the group as she was a “white girl.”
Soon someone explained that “she is not white, she is a Muslim!” This was the
first knowledge I received that being white or black is much more than one’s
skin color! Muslims were considered non-white in this country, yet not exactly
black, either. We entered our new lives with this new identity.
The same year, another important event filled TV screens: the hot pursuit
of O.J. Simpson. Police chased his white SUV and the whole country watched
this drama unfold. The trial of O.J. Simpson was even more odd and
1 TONI MORRISON, RACE-ING JUSTICE, EN-GENDERING POWER: ESSAYS ON ANITA HILL, CLARENCE
THOMAS, AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF SOCIAL REALITY (1992).
Spring 2012] RACIALIZING ISLAM BEFORE AND AFTER 9/11
121
confusing to me as a foreign lawyer. I had no deep knowledge of the workings
of the U.S. criminal justice system in the real world, not in law books or
Hollywood movies. Race politics had high-jacked the criminal justice system.
People took sides. O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence could not be separated
from his racial identity. I was also very surprised that while society and the
justice system were so preoccupied with race, law school curriculum seemed to
deal with race from the perspective of “color blindness,” instead of critically
evaluated one of the most important issues in American society. Racial
discrimination was a “white elephant” in law school classrooms. After many
years, I learned that the Michigan Law School was one of the important
venues in a famous Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.2
The new era of awakening arrived in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh
exploded a public building killing hundreds of innocent people in Oklahoma
City. I was at the airport, returning from an American Society of International
Law meeting in New York on my way to Malta. They kept me at the airport the
whole day without any explanation, and then sent me home on another flight.
I figured that by carrying a Turkish passport I became an instant suspect in
terror cases. On the morning of 9/11, as I watched the horror on TV, I hoped
that the names of terrorists were not similar to mine! Unfortunately they were.
Since then, my travel experiences have been difficult and humiliating. Visa
applications to Europe were nightmarish, if not humiliating. They involved
long investigations, background checks, visa officers accusing me of
fabricating my documents. Flying back and forth was a stigmatizing
experience as I was “randomly” searched because of my Turkish passport.
Sometimes, they stamped my boarding card with a red sign, which meant that
they searched me again and again each time I changed planes, until I reached
my final destination. After 9/11, every time I returned to the United States
immigration officers interviewed me in a back room, sometimes for hours,
after long trips from Europe. They asked what is wrong with me that I am still
a Turkish citizen, despite my green card, my profession, and my American
husband. I should be an American citizen. I became an American citizen!
My personal experience in the United States helped me gradually
understand the deep and complex relationship between racial politics,
various forms of discrimination, the very important role of the legal system,
and the complex relationship between race and law from the perspective of
critical race theory. Law can be read, interpreted, and implemented from
various angles depending on who reads or interprets it and, more
importantly, who is the subject of a particular law. Looking from a critical
race theory perspective, I learned that court decisions are not dead materials.
Their lifetime is much longer than their historical moment of decision. They
can be interpreted, reused, and abused depending on what current motives
prevail. Law also could be used as a political tool to protect the interests of
2 Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).

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