As the US government takes actions designed to root out terrorism that include personal surveillance, detentions and scrutiny of financial records, the American Muslim community has reacted with some foreboding. VOA's Brent Hurd recently visited one of the largest mosques in the United States and reports a mood of anxiety.
A young boy calls for the afternoon prayers at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, in Falls Church, northern Virginia. By the end of the day, thousands of Muslim will have bowed toward Mecca in this open, serene mosque located just off the busy highways of the metropolitan Washington area.
Imam Johari Abdul-Malik completes the prayer and poses a question to the worshipers: “How many of you know someone who has been negatively affected by the Patriot Act and the immigrant registration, anybody here? Raise your hand if you know someone who has been affected. Either you or someone that you know? Hmmm? You are looking at me as though this is like a test.”
A few men cautiously raise their hands… then a few more.
Imam Johari Abdul-Malik says a climate of trepidation pervades the community. Many are reluctant to talk. “The perception is larger than reality. There is a feeling of fear and intimidation. I sense that Muslims, both immigrants and citizens, feel that they have been stripped of their fundamental civil rights. There is a fear, and many people have stories of being visited by federal agents asking questions. They feel afraid to answer them. They feel afraid not to answer them.”
A few of the men agreed to speak, including Mohammed, an immigrant from Somalia. “The community has been affected,” he says. “About a year after September 11, I saw a red pick-up truck with a tag on it reading ‘kill them all.’ I was shocked. The immigrants in this country, some may come with the Mayflower, others on a PanAm flight. Yet we are taxpaying citizens and we follow the rules of this country. This Patriot Act is totally out of line of the American liberty and freedom.”
One of the first anti-terror tools forged by the US government after the September 11 attacks was the USA PATRIOT Act -- shorthand for its full name -- Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. The Bush administration considers the law the backbone of homeland security.
Clifford May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based research institute focusing on terrorism. “The Patriot Act attempts to do two things that I think are very important. It gives law enforcement and intelligence agencies the ability to speak with one another. It also gives law enforcement the same weapons to utilize when fighting terrorists it already has when fighting organized crime. It doesn't give them any more, just the same.”
Law enforcement officers now have a range of tools to use against suspected terrorists including phone and Internet eavesdropping, access to business and library records and increased powers of search and seizure.
Marshall Fitz of the American Immigration Lawyers Association -- a group dedicated to ensuring the rights of immigrants in the United States -- says that much of the Patriot Act is acceptable. “There is a lot in the Patriot Act. Many of the provisions I think everyone agrees were necessary. They were updating and reflecting what had been established in the case law. Many of the provisions are uncontroversial. However, there are a number of very controversial provisions, several of which relate to infringement on privacy rights for citizens and immigrants alike.”
Mr. Fitz says a key concern is how federal agents decide what constitutes a terrorist activity. Immigrants and US citizens can be detained if they in some way support the lawful activities of a group that may also have a terrorist arm, even if unknown to them. He adds that people often mistakenly include many of the unilateral actions taken by the Bush administration as part of the Patriot Act. For example, last year's controversial special registration program that led to the detention of tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants was not part of the act. Neither is the power the government has to detain and possibly deport an immigrant on a technicality, such as failing to file a change of address within ten days.
Such incidents have contributed to Muslim immigrants' fears, and fewer are coming to the United States. Debate over the Patriot Act and Bush administration anti-terror actions increases as the government attempts to strike a balance between fighting terror and maintaining civil liberties for both citizens and immigrants.