Many American Muslims continue to feel abused, harassed and discriminated against in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. In Miami, a group of local Muslim leaders recently voiced their concerns and frustrations to representatives of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Altaf Ali directs the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He says many Muslims, in Florida and across the nation, have lived in fear since September 11.
"You have probably never seen a hateful look [as I have]. You have probably never seen the look that is given to you because of your features, or how you appear to be," he said. "That [look] can be very demoralizing, and more hurtful than if you take a stick and hit us."
But Muslim-Americans say the problems they face go beyond nasty looks from strangers. Many complain of heavy-handed tactics employed by the FBI, which has interrogated countless Muslims while searching for leads in the war on terrorism. Some Muslims have been detained for weeks without charges ever being filed against them.
Muhammad Shkir, a coordinator of Miami-Dade County's Human Relations Board, says law-abiding, patriotic American Muslims have been made to feel like suspects. He told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that the FBI's tactics have been unfair and counterproductive.
"Nine-eleven, of all the people who were involved in that horrendous crime, none of them were U.S. citizens. Not one," he said. "And here we are subjecting U.S. citizens [to unfair treatment]. Instead of forging alliances with them to weed out the wrong element, we are creating an adversarial relationship and pushing them away."
Muslim-American attorney Khurrum Wahid says most harassment and discrimination goes unreported. He said, in the current climate, many Muslims are afraid to confide in authorities.
"We will really never know the scope of the discriminatory practices that have been going on since September 11," he said. "Most of the people do not want to come forward because they do not want to rock the boat; they do not want to be in the spotlight; they do not want to be the center of attention. They do not want to be questioned about how long they have been in the country, what country they came from."
But Mr. Wahid adds that a cultural factor is also at play. As a group, he says Muslims have never sought to draw attention to themselves in the political arena. He says many are unaccustomed to speaking out publicly, much less mounting public protests, even when they have legitimate complaints.
That comment caught the attention of an observer at the commission hearing. African-American Bobby Ingram, a civil rights activist from Jacksonville, Florida, expressed frustration with Muslims who were silent on civil rights issues before September 11. He says the Muslim community has long failed to reach out to the broader American public and create the kind of alliances that would be benefit them today.
"If they want to create allies, they must be willing to try to forge some brotherhood and some relationships in that arena," he said. "I mean, they have to start developing some activities that will allow people to get to know them. We don't know them, and if they do not start to do it, they will find themselves paddling in the boat alone."
The Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for the southeast region, Bobby Doctor, says he believes discrimination and abuse against Muslims post-September 11 is real and that the U.S. Government is not without blame. He says the commission has limited powers, but will not be silent on the issue.
"This agency does not have enforcement authority, but we do monitor those agencies that do have enforcement authority," he said. "And it is very clear that the Justice Department has some role to play in ensuring that there is not discrimination directed on a wholesale basis against the Muslim community."
Mr. Doctor says the actions of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service toward non-American Muslims also will be examined.