Civil rights groups have long suspected security agencies of keeping what they call a “Muslim registry”, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack. The tide of anti-Muslim hostility that has spread across the US, and subsequently throughout Europe- with little resistance it should be said- they argue has created a climate in which civil rights and legal protection guaranteed under the American constitution were denied, in the so called “war on terrorism”.
In the two decades since the terrorist attack, attitudes towards Muslims have hardened, Islamophobia has been normalised, and most worrying of all, political groups that were discarded to the underbelly of western societies as enemies of free society (following the defeat of the Nazi’s during the Second World War), are once again being embraced on both sides of the Atlantic.
As this menacing tide of right-wing populism grows, many will have met with rare delight and re-assurance of the legal victory secured this week against a security agency that civil rights groups claim to have been one of the main enablers of hostility towards Muslims since the 9/11 attack. On Wednesday, a US federal judge ruled that the FBI’s terrorism watch list violated the constitutional rights of American citizens. The case not only highlighted some of the sinister practices of the US intelligence community, but it now also raises serious questions about the source of hostility generated against Muslims in wider society.
In his decision over the lawsuit filed by 23 Muslim-Americans against their inclusion in the Terrorist Screening Database, US District Judge Anthony J. Trenga challenged the FBI’s practice of keeping a database of mainly Muslim individuals, containing the records of nearly 1.2 million people. Inclusion in the FBI database, ominously named “known or suspected terrorists,” had serious and adverse consequences. The judge noted that the list restricted the ability to fly and engage in everyday activities. He also supported the plaintiffs’ concern that they had been flagged secretly, and without a clear methodology.
“There is no evidence, or contention, that any of these plaintiffs satisfy the definition of a ‘known terrorist’, ” Trenga is reported stating by the Washington Post. Expressing concerns over the methodology, he claimed that “an individual’s placement into the [watch list] does not require any evidence that the person engaged in criminal activity, committed a crime, or will commit a crime in the future.” Furthermore, he elaborated that “individuals who have been acquitted of a terrorism-related crime may still be listed.”
Civil rights groups have long denounced the database as a “Muslim registry”- a term which evokes memories of a Jewish registry kept by the Nazis. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has been at the forefront of defending the civil rights of Muslims in the US and provided the attorney in this case, asserted that “the watchlist’s arbitrary criteria has long enabled the government to target Muslims based on their faith and then build a secretive network map of their associations.” Hailing the judge’s decision as a “complete victory”, CAIR declared “today, the government’s unlawful surveillance of the Muslim community has begun to be curtailed.”
The legal battle between CAIR and the FBI has been in the making for many years. The US intelligence agencies record of fuelling anti-Muslim bigotry, has long been a concern. CAIR has been at the forefront of challenging its discriminatory practices, even to the extent of making itself a target for rogue Arab states like the UAE, and far-right conspiracy theorists that view Muslim citizens and civil society groups in the West as “fronts” for the Muslim Brotherhood.
In one such case in 2014, the UAE took the unusual step of designating CAIR as a terrorist group along with the Muslim American Society (MAS), and 83 other Muslim groups. Far-right groups no doubt received this hostile move with extreme delight. Groups like the Gatestone Institute, the Center for Security Policy, JihadWatch ( belonging to notorious Islamophobe Robert Spencer), Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum and the Clarion Project- to name just a few- have been waging a war against Muslim groups in the West, accusing them of belonging to a network of extremist organisations conspiring to conquer the European countries by stealth. Many of their central ideologies now hold key positions under the right-wing administration of US President, Donald Trump.
While direct influence of far-right figures within the White House may be a recent occurrence coinciding with the election of Trump, their views and ideas have long been suspected of having infiltrated the intelligence community. The FBI’s database of 1.2 million (of mainly Muslims), is one of many examples that points to the agency’s conspiratorial attitudes towards the Muslim community.
The net of suspicion, according to civil liberties groups, was cast over virtually the entire American-Muslim community. This was largely as a result of the FBI subscribing to racist tropes and stereotypes, fuelling the far-right. A detailed review of the agencies practice, revealed that its training manuals taught agents that mainstream Muslims were likely terrorist sympathisers, that the Prophet Mohammed was a “cult leader” and that Muslims were a “fifth column” seeking to overthrow the state. The operating ideas of the FBI were indistinguishable from that of cult-like figures in the far-right movement. Hateful and grossly inaccurate books written by the likes of Spencer, were amongst the recommended reading list for FBI agents.
In this vilification campaign against Muslims, a number of Arab leaders have been on the wrong side. Like Israel, they view Europe and the West to be too soft on their Muslim citizens. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, for example, even ridiculed the values of a free society during a bizarre rant, repeating the exact sentiments of the far-right by suggesting that Muslim citizens of the West would one day turn against their country.
Al-Nahyan warned the West that it had become “incubators of terrorism” during a speech in 2017. “There will come a day when we see far more radicals, extremists and terrorists coming from Europe because of (a) lack of decision-making, and trying to be politically correct, or assuming they know the Middle East or they know Islam, or they know the others far better than we do,” asserted the UAE foreign Minister, while switching from Arabic to English to ensure that his controversial point was not lost in translation. His comments, like the FBI, placed entire Muslim communities in the West under a blanket of suspicion.
Far-right terrorism has outpaced all other forms of terrorism by a significant margin. Their rise has been fuelled by the vilification of Muslims and a deeply racist conspiratorial narrative about their presence in the West. Let us hope that this week’s legal victory is the start of a comprehensive review of mistakes made during the “war on terror”.
Opinion: Is Trump helping or harming Israel?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.