Safeguarding Civil Liberties

In the days following the unprecedented terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, American newspapers were filled with images of people at prayer. Politicians, police, the military, professional athletes, corporate managers, and children were all kneeling with eyes closed, praying. Praying for what? Presumably for the deliverance of those souls so cruelly murdered in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and aboard the four high jacked aircraft. In their agitation and sudden vulnerability, it is probable that most of those praying included an appeal for national solidarity.

The question is to what extent did those prayers include the safeguarding of civil liberties both in the US and--in the likely event of a war--abroad?


To say that Muslims are law-abiding is not to deny that some--perhaps even many--are convinced that the US government has not addressed their needs and has in significant ways disrespected their faith.


US intelligence has identified the suicide terrorists as Arabs and has stated that many more Arabs and even Arab "host" countries are implicated. As a result, many Americans feel suspicious of all Muslims, or of people, like Sikhs, who seem to resemble Muslims. But we must remind ourselves that Islam is the most populous religion in the world, and that Arabs constitute only about twenty percent of Muslims world-wide. Of that number, no more than the most minuscule percentage is dedicated to inflicting grievous harm on the United States. The dread word jihad, commonly rendered as Muslim holy war against infidels, actually means contest or struggle in Arabic. Like crusade, a word that makes most historically-minded Muslims cringe, jihad's meaning is elastic and dependent on context.

Muslims, it need hardly be said, are fundamentally no less civic-minded and law-abiding than Christians, Jews, and Buddhists. Hence the United States must take special care in the wake of our national trauma to insure that there be no racial or religious profiling, that Muslim people's rights be fully protected. Many Californians remember with chagrin the internment of innocent Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. We must not repeat that cruelty, or anything resembling it, with regard to American Muslims

To say that Muslims are law-abiding is not to deny that some--perhaps even many--are convinced that the US government has not addressed their needs and has in significant ways disrespected their faith. That is a conviction, not a crime. But one must wonder how such convictions will be viewed officially. Under Attorney General Ashcroft's newly imposed powers, non-citizens may be kept in detention for an indefinite period. And the Los Angeles Times reports that "dozens of Middle Eastern nationals are already being held."

This next is a crucial point, which must be stated clearly. Every civilized human feels--or should feel--sympathy for the thousands of victims of the September 11 attacks. Nor does anyone have the right to cynically deny the individual acts of heroism, such as those performed by firefighters and police at the World Trade Center, or in the passenger jet above Pennsylvania. But that is only one half of the equation. The other half has to do with our disposition to the terrorists. Are we simply to demonize the terrorists and their sympathizers as haters of American-style affluence, freedom and human rights; or attempt to understand what it is about recent United States foreign policy that has engendered such rage?

The unhappy fact is that not only in the Middle East, but in Europe, Asia, South America, and indeed throughout the world, the US is commonly perceived as myopically self-righteous while actually committed, sometimes brutally, to, in the words of a British commentator, the "domineering pursuit of national self-interest, [to] punishing the crimes of its enemies while rewarding the crimes of its friends."

Specifically, critics, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have cited the US's opportunistic support for despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, along with the stationing of American troops and military hardware on the Arabian Peninsula; its continuing sanctions of Iraq which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and children; its (as reported in the UK daily, The Independent) deliberate introduction into both Libya and Iraq of the so-called screw-worm fly, a flesh-eating insect which, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, "attacks wounds, scars and cuts, the navels of newborn babies and tic bites of both warm-blooded animals and humans"; its aggressively one-sided role in the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict; its bombing in 1998 of one of Sudan's two pharmaceutical factories on the disputable premise that it was linked to Osama bin Laden; its flip-flop on Afghanistan, first supplying the Mujahedeen with arms and technical assistance in their war against the Soviets, now itself preparing to invade the country with the anticipated deaths and dislocation of thousands of innocent Afghan people.

How much of this litany of US evil-doing is actual and how much alleged cannot be readily sorted out. The reality is that those "crimes" and others have been persistently reported by newspapers and other media both in and outside the Middle East.

The attacks and mass murders of September 11 were vile, indefensible. And that single fateful day has instantly wrenched the American people out of their seemingly secure geographic isolation into the bloody world battlefield. Now, both the Bush government and the Taliban terrorists are appealing to God to justify their right to wreak war. It is tempting for a people in their wrath to confuse ideology with theology, to condone heartless terrorism or massive war never mind the "collateral" deaths and damage to the innocent. But it is our responsibility, not God's, to counsel understanding and even dialogue, and at the very least to insure the civil rights of innocent Muslims both in the US and abroad.


Harold Jaffe is an author, editor, and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State Unive,rsity. His tenth volum,e, a collection of writings called False Positive, will be published in Spring 2002.

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