Supporting Muslims in America

hassan-shibly

Hassan Shibly

We all know this recent Muslim travel ban was just a shot over the bow.  Trump promised much worse during the campaign, and apparently he intends to deliver.  There has even been talk that we might soon have something resembling a Muslim registry. Some say, if it comes to that, they will register as Muslims.  Though I am sympathetic with this impulse, I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  I am not Muslim.  So, where can I sign now, to let my government know where I stand on religious freedom?

To find out, I visited the local mosque to attend a CAIR (Counsil on American-Islamic Relations) sponsored event: “Unapologetically Muslim and American”.   It featured Hassan Shibly,  Chief Executive Director of CAIR Florida, along with Karen Dabdoub, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Chapter.

The message of the presentation was clear.  Islamophobia is rampant throughout the country.  Incidents range from bullying in school through discrimination in the workplace or in housing all the way to hate crimes.   The presenters advised Muslims to stand up for their rights, to refuse to hide or simply hope that the situation would resolve itself, and to involve CAIR as soon as possible before things escalate.  CAIR is there to help.

They also noted the support Muslims have received from the majority community in America. They described incidents of Muslims praying in airports, for example, protected by Jews and Christians standing silently by to prevent any disruption of their prayers.  They mentioned Madeline Albright, who says she is ready to sign up if that Muslim registry comes to exist.  They also reminded us of the history of immigrant groups coming to America, groups which faced bigotry but eventually gained acceptance, at least from most Americans.

Shibly focused on relations with the government, especially US Customs and the FBI (“definitely not the Friendly Brotherhood of Islam”).

They spent quite a bit of time talking about what to expect on returning to this country from abroad.  Everyone is asked where they went and why they traveled.  Some will be pulled aside for secondary screening. Whereas this occurs for a typical American citizen about 1% percent of the time, Muslims were being pulled aside for this extra scrutiny about half the time, according to Shibly. Shibly’s advice was simple: as soon as they ask anything about your personal political or religious views, assert your rights.  As an American citizen, you have the right to ask for a lawyer to present during the questioning.  If you are a non-citizen,  with a green card for example, the prerogatives of the officials are less constrained, but you still have the right to call a lawyer.  Despite what the officials might say, you are likely to be detained just as long whether you call a lawyer or not, and without the protection of someone familiar with the intricacies of the law and normal procedures, you will be vulnerable.  Karen Dabdoub urged people to text the CAIR office when arriving, before getting off the plane, so that if CAIR does not hear from you within an hour or so, they can know to intervene with Customs to find out what has happened to you.  Thus, a Muslim entering the country can expect to be inconvenienced, but, with proper precautions and the help of CAIR, these inconveniences need not grow into anything more severe.  Nonetheless, foreign students are strongly encouraged to stay inside the country until their education is finished.

Shibly then went on to discuss the FBI, which he described as a government agency that is targeting Muslims, through entrapment and through intimidating people into becoming informants.

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Karen Dabdoub

Karen Dabdoub followed up with a hypothetical example of an person who thinks they have nothing to hide talking with the FBI.  The agent might ask a question, and then much later in conversation, ask the same question differently.  If there were inconsistencies in your answers, then they could charge you with lying to the FBI, a crime that can be punished with up to five years of jail time.  (Of course, it is perfectly legal for them to lie to you.) Now, they have something to hold over you, to intimidate you into becoming an informant.

Their advice was the same: ask for a lawyer to be present during questioning.  Whatever the motives of the people in power, the American government is constrained by the Constitution.  Muslims, like all Americans, need to assert their rights under this Constitution in order to maintain them.  If the government tries to intrude into your personal life in any way, don’t try to handle it yourself; call CAIR.  CAIR has a lawyer who will contact the FBI on your behalf.  Shibly recalled one incident where he felt the FBI had a legitimate reason to question his client, but in the others, he told the agent that he would advise his client to not answer any of his questions.  Usually, the FBI would then leave the person alone after that.

All this sounded pretty paranoid to me.  After, the event, I did a little research to find out whether the paranoia was justified.  Interestingly, I found a 2005 article where a freshman at the University of Buffalo named Hassan Shibly was detained at the border, apparently for no reason other than he was Muslim.  I suspect that experience had a role in shaping his career.

In a more comprehensive view, Human Rights Watch clearly supports their complaints:

In a lengthy examination of U.S. terrorism prosecutions, Human Rights Watch, working with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, said the FBI and the Justice Department have created a climate of fear in some Muslim communities through the use of surveillance and informants.

fbi-newburgh-four-james-c-007I found several accounts of the “Newburgh Four”, a group caught up in an FBI sting operation that Shibly had mentioned.  It appears sordid.  Yes, these guys, all black, all Muslim, all poor, did get caught up in a terrorist plot, but the plot was entirely concocted by the paid FBI informant.  Even the judge who sentenced the defendants was upset by the FBI’s conduct.

 Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope… I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.

Unfortunately, one of the men caught up in the scheme was mentally ill, possibly schizophrenic.   Shibly reported visiting him in jail, apparently out of his mind, on suicide watch in solitary confinement, cold, sad and hopeless.

It is hard to see how we are made any safer by such operations.

It doesn’t have to be like this. For example, in Dearborn, Michigan, which has a sizable Muslim population, the local chief of police runs an outreach and informant program that is considered a model by authorities on counterterrorism.  Informally, it appears to employ the same principles of “community policing” that have proven successful in Cincinnati.  You engage the community, treat people fairly, and they help you succeed because they want to live in safety.  It works.  The police chief in Dearborn can cite examples where Muslims have turned in fellow Muslims.

The FBI might pay lip service to building this kind of trust with the Muslim community, and in fact some within the bureau appear to be making a sincere attempt to do that.  However,  based on what I have learned, from Human Rights Watch, from CAIR, and from reliable news sources, that ship has sailed, and the Trump administration is unlikely to ask it to change course.

Following the presentation by Shibly and Dabdoub, there was a question and answer session.  I got to ask my question.  I referenced Madeline Albright’s willingness to sign up if there is ever a Muslim registry.  “But I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  So where can I sign up now to let my government know where I stand?”

My question got a round of spontaneous applause.  The answer was a little vague.  Go to the alerts on the CAIR website and write your Senators and Congressman about the issues that concern us all.

It looks like we will have lots of opportunities to do that.

Trump has expressed surprise that there was so much furor over his executive order.   After all, “We had 109 people out of hundreds of thousands of travelers and all we did was vet those people very, very carefully.”  Of course, he seems to enjoy the drama of it all.

We should not expect Trump’s assault on the Constitution to begin with a massive charge, but with a limited action such as this one.  Regardless of the number affected, we need to guard against anything that “target[s] individuals for discriminatory treatment based on their country of origin and/or religion, without lawful justification.” (item 64, page 13)  .   If we want to preserve our freedoms, we must preserve them for everybody.

 

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Not Conservative, Reactionary

The word “conservative” has become a kind of battle flag that politicians use to rally the troops.  George W. Bush described himself as a “compassionate conservative”;  Romney, as “severely conservative”.  However, neither of these guys is nearly conservative enough for today’s Republican primary voters, so the candidates try to outdo each other, staking out ever more extreme positions, using the word to mean whatever they want.  True, intellectuals try to give it definition in terms of principles or beliefs, but, inevitably, they disagree among themselves, and end up dividing into obscure groups: neo-conservatives, paleo-conservatives, etc.  So I propose to look at the term more simply, without the dogma.

Miriam-Webster gives us a pretty clear definition:  “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society”.   Understood this way, conservativism is an approach to life and politics.  Conservatives prefer change to come gradually, organically, rather than suddenly.  Conservatives respect established authority.  They see the best way forward is to make existing institutions work.  They are instinctively cautious, more concerned about the dangers and unintended consequences of a proposed change than enthralled with the new possibilities.  True conservatives are particularly skeptical of utopian dreams of the future based on ideological assertions about human nature, the grand arc of history, or the consequences of new technology.  Rather, they see themselves as grounded in the hard, verifiable realities of the present.  They want to preserve what we have, what works.

None of this even remotely describes the so-called conservatives who dominate the Republican Party today.  Far from respecting authority, they have shown unbridled contempt for the Presidency ever since an African American was elected, a contempt far beyond the usual vitriol of American politics, at times going to almost treasonous extremes to undermine whatever the President attempts to accomplish.  Rather than trying to make our institutions work, they threaten to shut the government down, often over what amount to relatively minor political battles.  They propose radical changes to our economic order, directed not at what actually seems to be broken, but based on some abstract notions about how they think economies should be run.  Rather than confronting the hard realities of today, they ignore data when it is doesn’t suit them, and go to great lengths to undermine the credibility of anybody who provides evidence that contradicts their ideological stance.  They seem to prefer willful ignorance over information, not only on climate change, but any number of economic and social issues. It is hard to name anything, other than white privilege, that they are trying to conserve, not the economy (which is working pretty well), not the government, certainly not the environment, not even the principle that all men are created equal.  Many will claim to espouse conservative, “Christian values”, but these values, whatever they are, seem to have little to do with the teachings of Jesus.

Basically, these people express serious dissatisfaction with American modern life and institutions.  Living in one of the most dynamic cultures in the history of man, they want to return to the world portrayed on TV in the 50s.  They are frightened by the influx of cultures from elsewhere, as if that was a new phenomenon in America.   They see the myth, the American dream, slipping away from them and their children.  Competition from far flung corners of the globe threatens their livelihood, and the emerging information age seems to be leaving them behind. So, they are angry.  They are antiestablishment conservatives, an oxymoron by my description.

Among the most oxymoronic of the so-called conservative proposals are changes to the very foundation of our democracy: the Constitution.  All of the leading candidates support some amendment to the Constitution.  It seems to be a requirement.

Most support the balanced budget amendment.  This is actually an excellent illustration of what passes for thinking among these people.  This amendment proposes to solve the problem of deficit spending, important according to some “conservative” notions, but not really a problem at all according to many economists. In any case, the United States of America has lived with debt almost continuously since its founding.  Businesses, which many conservatives hold up as models for how government should be run, routinely use debt to finance their operations, and many experience periods of loss, where income falls short of  expenses.  I admit, the deficits rung up during the recent recession were frightening, but our democracy provides a remedy for this: elect someone who will implement a better policy.  We did that, and the economy recovered. So, the evidence shows that our current framework is working.  The conservative approach would be not to change it.  However, the evidence doesn’t matter to these people: what maters is the notion  that governments should not go into debt, a notion that they have branded “conservative”, but is actually a radical departure from our historical practice.  Their solution, writing an inflexible fiscal policy into the the constitution, is simply a prescription for disaster.

Some of the candidates vying for the nomination have proposed an even more disastrous idea: returning our monetary system to the gold standard.  Talk a about a problem that doesn’t need fixing!  We are in a period of near zero per cent inflation and our currency is accepted as a standard around the world.  Most countries left the gold standard behind in the 1930s. Returning to it now seems to me to be a recipe for returning to that time of catastrophic economic collapse.

Though these radical economic proposals might be the intellectual core, they do not get at the heart of this so-called conservative movement.  This heart belongs to the hard working Americans, who, rather suddenly, have found themselves disposable in this world of intelligent machines and global competition.  Looking for someone to blame, inflamed by the anger of talk radio and the constant drumbeat of bitter invective directed both at Obama and at immigrants, they target the large influx of people from elsewhere, much as their forefathers did in years past.

Donald Trump at Jewish Coalition

The one who has recently captured the imagination of these people is Donald Trump, arguably the candidate with the least conservative credentials.  He is the heir to a long string of Tea-Party hopefuls who rose into the spotlight briefly in 2012 only to quickly wilt in their own obvious incompetence, ignorance, or racial bias.  Unlike any of them, Trump has remained at the top of the polls for months.  His pronouncements show the same level of ignorance and racial prejudice, but with more belligerence. It is precisely this unapologetic style, this belligerence, that is the basis of his appeal to a group who feels under attack in our rapidly changing culture.  Trump has even found support among evangelical Christians, a group whom you would expect to be appalled by his casino fueled life-style, his many marriages, his inconsistency on abortion, his profanity, and obvious lack of commitment to his professed faith.

George Packer, in the New Yorker, explains Trump’s appeal this way:

Republicans today have given the country conservatism in the spirit of Sarah Palin, whose ignorance about the world, contempt for expertise, and raw appeals to white identity politics presaged Trump’s incendiary campaign. So did the spectacle, in 2009, of a Republican congressman calling the President a liar during a speech Obama gave to a joint session of Congress, and Party leaders comparing Obamacare to Nazism and slavery…. Once the restraints are lifted, they’re hard to restore. Trump may be the bastard spawn of the Republican Party, but his parentage can’t be denied.

Most appalling is what might be considered the cornerstone of Trump’s campaign: his response to illegal immigration, an issue this country has long struggled with.  Although it now appears to be under control, Trump has proposed solutions that are both impractical and draconian.  He wants to build a giant wall on our southern border and somehow make Mexico pay for it.  He wants a massive increase in the deportations, glossing over the massive expense and any inconvenient civil or human rights that such a program would end up violating. Finally, he wants to amend the Constitution (of course) — to end birth-right citizenship.

You wonder how a nation of immigrants, home of the free and the brave, comes to such a point. Ann Coulter, popular pundit and Trump supporter, offers this, which turns out to be a pretty good explanation:

We’re assimilating you, you’re here, and you’re going to be an American. There will be no celebration of Cinco de Mayo, there will be no Ramadan, in fact there won’t even be a Feast of the Immaculate Conception – we are an Anglo-Protestant country, and you will learn about the Battle of Valley Forge.

There was no actual battle at Valley Forge.  However, such mere facts don’t matter.  Coulter’s audience hears affirmation of the myth, and, by God, they are going to hold onto it.

For it is this myth of America, an America of small towns and farms, founded on hard work, self reliance, family, and church, that they long for.  They remember a time when wholesome Protestants could bring their religious rituals into government events without question, when people of color knew and apparently accepted their place, and when the future seemed secure.  They feel the world as they remember it slipping away for them and their children.

Along with this myth, is a cry for freedom, freedom from high taxes, freedom from regulation, freedom from big government intruding into their lives.  Here the libertarian businessman merges with the old Southern segregationist.  Corporate leaders dream of the time when corporations could dump their waste into the environment with impunity, when unions had not yet won decent conditions for workers, when taxes were low and government was weak.

A century ago, long before the Great Depression, before the Civil Rights Movement had had any success, the  attitudes and ideas of the current crop of leading Republican candidates might have been correctly called conservative.  It is as if the their mind crystalized in that long ago time, and does not recognize what has happened since: the American Century, during which American power, American culture, and American influence spread throughout the world.  Living in the most wealthy and dynamic country in the history of the world, these people want to turn the clock back.  Such a viewpoint can only be described as reactionary: trying to reestablish an order as it was long ago, in a time before they were born.

Citizen Know Nothing

Citizen Know Nothing

Calling them conservative grants them an intellectual currency, a heritage tracing back to Madison, that they neither value nor deserve.  Their immediate antecedents can be found in the John Birch Society and in the Dixiecrats of mid twentieth century.  They like to point to the founding fathers, but their ideas more closely resemble those of the Know Nothing Party,  an American anti (Catholic) immigrant party of the 1850s. Collectively, their backward looking focus, xenophobia, and willful ignorance pose a major threat to the future of our country.

Words matter.  Every time we misuse the word “conservative” to describe these extremists, we help raise their battle flag and undermine the standing of thoughtful conservatives whose voices are being drowned out in a deluge of ignorance and bigotry.  We need to stop using this word to describe the radical, reactionary policies being put forward by these candidates for the presidency. They are not reasoning, compromising conservatives; they are unthinking, willfully ignorant reactionaries.  We need to refer to them that way.

Abolishing Capital Punishment

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Time was, executions were prime entertainment in America: large crowds would gather to watch a court sanctioned hanging — or a well publicized lynching.  Eventually, the barbarity of this public spectacle upset the voting public, so now, the execution takes place in a private ceremony, in front of invited witnesses.   Replacing the quick, rough, and often racist judgements of the that bygone era, we now have a nearly endless series of appeals, stretching on for decades, as the court system tries in vain to assure that it has removed every possibility of a flaw in its procedures.  Instead of the old fashioned rope, we attempt to render death quickly and humanely by applying new fangled technology: formerly, the electric chair or the gas chamber, and now, a complex cocktail of intravenous drugs.  This approach is difficult to administer: competent medical professionals won’t cooperate because of a code of ethics that clearly states that they “should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution,” and pharmacies are unwilling to have their brand associated with drugs used to kill people.  However, executioners muddle through somehow, though occasionally they thoroughly botch the job.

Supreme Court

Thus, we come to the Supreme Court case, Glossip v Gross, which challenges the constitutionality of this absurd parody of a medical procedure.  The court decided, “Because capital punishment is constitutional, there must be a constitutional means of carrying it out.”  So even if the foes of capital punishment had won this battle and the court had decided that the method Oklahoma currently uses didn’t meet the requirements of the Constitution, it would have been at most a temporary glitch.  Another method would be found that was acceptable to the court,  perhaps the firing squad employed by Utah.

I oppose the death penalty, not on constitutional, but on religious grounds. Quakers often say there is that of God in every person, and nothing denies the divinity of another more than putting him to death. Capital punishment is simply contrary to the message of forgiveness, redemption, and love that is at the heart of the teachings of Jesus. However, as important to our society and culture as these teaching are, it would be inappropriate for the Supreme Court to apply them to the law of the land.

My second objection to the death penalty, though also religious at its core, is one that the justices could more appropriately consider: humans, being less than perfect, make mistakes.  Despite everything that we have done to insure that the courts are fair and just, we convict people who are innocent of the crime. In capital cases, these flaws are fatal.

In an ideal society, we would not have to sit in judgement of our fellow man.  However, in this world, we must.  But our judgement should not be a matter of life and death.  The American court system may be among the finest of human institutions, but it is not divine.  We should not invest the courts with the authority to take a human life: such judgements are not ours to make.

The essential problem is that human affairs are complex by nature and complicated by circumstance.  Prosecutors become over zealous, excited more by the prospect of a major victory than by revealing the truth.  Defense attorneys, especially those for the indigent, are often underpaid, overworked, and sometimes unable to provide the vigorous defense that our system of justice depends on.  Witnesses have imperfect memories and their own motivations.  They sometimes make honest mistakes, identifying people incorrectly, and sometimes they lie.  Scientific evidence is subject to misinterpretation and contamination, and even our most respected institutions have given evidence that was later determined to be unreliable.  Even confessions are unreliable: sometimes they have been coerced.  Out of this morass, jurors are asked to put their own prejudices aside and decide what is true beyond a reasonable doubt.  It is not surprising that they get it wrong occasionally.

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This argument is the one that is carrying the day.  The Innocence Project has identified hundreds of cases where they were able to prove people innocent of the crime for which they had been convicted.  Faced with a system that had wrongly convicted so many, Governor Pat Quinn concluded that the system could not be fixed: he led the charge to abolish the death penalty in his state.  Illinois  became the nineteenth state to abolish capital punishment, the fourth to do so in the last couple of years.

Capital punishment was accepted by the framers of the Constitution, including those who wrote the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment, and it has been reaffirmed by the court.  Despite what Justice Stephen G. Breyer says in his dissent in Glossip v Gross, despite the fact that no other modern Western democracy still executes people, capital punishment is allowable under our constitutional for now, and probably in the foreseeable future.

However, that does not mean that capital punishment is here to stay.  Our culture is changing rapidly.  We should focus our energy on making sure this change is for the better. One way to do this is to support the Innocence Project: not only does it right the wrongs of our imperfect court system, but it keeps reminding the public that these flaws exist.  As public opinion comes around, we need to elect legislators who will abolish the death penalty, not because the Constitution requires it, but because it is the right thing to do for our society.  Only then will we rid our government of this barbaric practice.