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American Muslim

Civil liberties violations in ethnic communities

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

New California Media a
nd the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sponsored a forum on May 20th in Los Angeles. The theme of the forum was “civil liberties violations in ethnic communities.” Other topics of discussion were “civil liberties watch and media collaboration,”  “importance of media in post 9/11” and “the impact of the PATRIOT Act.” Sandip Roy of New California Media was the panel moderator.(Picture shows from left: Cora Pastrana, Balita News; Ellen Endo, Rafu Shimpo and  Samina Faheem, American Muslim Alliance.)

 Julian Do, Co Director of New California Media, in his welcome remarks stressed that since 9/11 many communities have suffered. He added that there is a lot of confusion about the homeland security laws and Patriot Act.

 Romana Ripston, Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California, expressed the hope that the forum will help the community journalists to strengthen news coverage of civil liberties violations, immigration policies and the Patriot Act enforcement. She said the forum will also explore strategies on coordinating public education efforts among the ethnic press and community based organizations in Southern California.

 Hossein Hadjazi, host of LA Radio Iran, shared his experience about the mass of arrests of Iranians in December last year during the first phase of Special INS Registration. Radio Iran called on the Iranians to protest the unjust arrests. About 15,000 people gathered outside the FederalBuilding in LA, on Dec. 17, to protest the arbitrary arrests.

 Gabriel Lerner, from La Opinion, revealed that the INS (now called Bureau of Customs and Border Patrol of the Department of Homeland Security)has launched a campaign against the fast food employees at airports. He said that despite the government efforts, illegal immigration to US continues and now it has become a corporate business. He added that people buy travel packages to US and then disappear.

 Ellen Endo, from Rafu Shimpo Japanese daily, recalled the experience of the Japanese community  during the second World War. Her paper, which is now 100 years old, gave a voice to the community about their political views. “The FBI started arresting the community leaders. The paper publisher escaped to Mexico and returned only after four year. The community in the beginning thought that their leaders might have committed a crime for which they are arrested. However, when all the Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps, it realized that the arrests were unjust and without probable cause. Japanese lost all their assets and businesses at that time.”

 Cora Pastrana, from Balita (Filipino Weekly News), said that her community did not face any problems since 9/11. However, she revealed that a Filipino American civil right activist who participated in a peace rally and made some sympathetic remarks on the plight of the Muslims, was visited by the FBI. He was  asked: Is he a Muslim? Does he belong to Mindanao (region of the Philippines with Muslim population)?

 Gary Williams, President, ACLU Southern California, said that after 9/11 this nation was afraid. “We  had never experienced this kind of terror. Our government took advantage of that fear and introduced Patriot Act within a week.” He said that the bill has been sitting on shelf for a long time since the FBI  always wanted more freedom to spy on foreign and US citizens. They just seized the opportunity and now we all know the effects of the Patriot Act, he said.

 Samina Faheem, National Coordinator, American Muslim Alliance, shared her experience about the plight of Muslims in the United States. She said that the Justice Department says that the INS Registration is introduced to catch terrorists, however over 133,000 people were registered at the port of  entry and according to official statements, only 11 people may be considered terrorists. No statistics are available for those who registered at the INS offices nationwide.

 Speaking about the adverse affects of the FBI and INS raids on the Muslim community members and  institutions, Ms. Samina Faheem said that the community has been demoralized and the Muslim community activists are shy to take a firm stand on civil rights issues. “If there were 10 Muslim activists before 9/11, now we might have only 3.”

 “People are now seriously thinking of going back to their birth countries. The sad part is that while the  first generation has that choice our children do not have that choice. They are Americans by birth but now they are not treated equally. This situation is worst for them,” Ms. Samina Faheem said. She was of the view that the Patriot Act has created a culture of anxiety, anger, fear and despair. “We need to replace it - in the words of Dr Agha Saeed, Chairman of American Muslim Alliance - with a culture of hope and faith, we can achieve it by understanding each other, mutual respect, acceptance and building friendships.”

 She went on to say that since 9/11, she feels that Muslims and Arab American have lost almost all civil liberties. Our government has taken advantage of the fear and anger and stripped away our freedoms and paint many respectable Arab and Muslim organizations, leaders and individuals with the brush of  terrorism. In this context she referred to the case of Dr. Sami Al Arian, a prominent Muslimacademician and civil rights activist who is accused of financing the terrorist organizations overseas. Apparently, the government is using the case of Dr. Al-Arian, a former computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida, as a precedent to pass new legislation Patriotic II Act, which will further strip away our rights and constitutional freedoms. This case is clearly political in nature, stemming from the current climate of hysteria and xenophobia. She appealed the ethnic media to give wide coverage to Dr. Sami Al Arian’s case.

At the end, Ms. Samina Faheem thanked the ACLU and the New California Media for hosting such forums and educating media and public about the erosion of civil liberties. She suggested that since everybody talks about building alliances and collaborating with each other and learn from the experience  of the civil rights struggle of other communities, can we take the first step towards forming a coalition today. Moderator Sundip Roy seconded the proposal and everybody agreed to contact all members of  the panel to form such a coalition.

 Daniel Munoz, La Prensa de San Diego; Ramin Moshiri, Iranian journalist and Ben Winzer, Staff  Attorney, ACLU of Southern California, also addressed the forum. They also emphasized that we must all fight for civil liberties and equal justice for all and form a coalition.

 INS (now called Bureau of Customs and Border Patrol of the Department of Homeland Security) 

[Ms. Samina Faheem,  the former National Coordinator of the American Muslim Alliance and Coordinator of the AMA/PADF Hotline is now the Executive Director of the American Muslim Voice.]