For Many American Muslims, The Legacy Of 9/11 Lies In The Battle For Civil Rights
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
After Sept. 11, grief quickly turned to fear for Muslims in America who worried they would be associated with the 19 hijackers. What followed were two decades of policies that civil rights advocates say add up to abuses of power and the religious profiling of Muslims in the U.S. under a broad banner of national security. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Ali Malik is 37 years old. He's got two little boys, Laith (ph) and Benyamin (ph).
ALI MALIK: Where's your other sock?
LAITH MALIK: Yeah, Benyamin, where's your other sock?
BENYAMIN MALIK: It's in the car.
MALIK: Did you bring your shoes?
FADEL: The Sept. 11 attacks happened well before their lives began, so they don't know how it changed so much for this country. They also don't know how it changed their dad. He was 17, a popular high school football player when he got the news.
MALIK: My eldest brother, he woke up. He came into my room, and he's like, Ali, Ali, get up. Get up. Some terrorists hit the World Trade Center.
FADEL: In the weeks that followed, over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were rounded up, some for months without charge, many eventually deported on minor immigration violations. And Malik was getting questions from friends about his faith.
MALIK: And now they're asking me, and I'm like, crap, are we terrorists? Like, does the Quran say this? And to deal with it, I used alcohol, to be honest. I'm just going to party. I'm going to have a good time. I'm going to hang out with my friends, and I'm not going to deal with it.
FADEL: Then he met the religious leader, or imam, at the Islamic Center of Irvine in Orange County, Calif.
MALIK: It was the imam in the community at the Islamic Center Irvine that really turned the page for me and made me realize, no, we do have an articulate voice. No, this isn't our tradition. I stopped partying, and I started studying. I got my life together.
FADEL: He enrolled in UC Irvine, was active on campus. He started to travel, to learn and to share his knowledge. One of the trips was to Yemen to study at a respected seminary for about six weeks. And in Irvine, he was at the mosque every chance he got.
MALIK: It was a happening place. You know, like, the youth were involved, and we finally had, you know, a mosque that we could go to that was, like, super-fun, just feel like we're part of a safe community.
FADEL: But all that changed in 2006, when a man named Craig Monteilh came into the mosque and converted in front of the congregation. Monteilh took the name Farouk al-Aziz. The community welcomed him, inviting him into their homes, helping him with questions, all while Monteilh, as it turned out, was secretly gathering information and recruiting informants for the FBI. Monteilh pretty quickly started to ask Malik some frightening questions about violent jihad. Malik chalked it up to stuff he might have heard on TV.
MALIK: I was like, you know, jihad is a fight against your own ego. It's a fight against yourself. The desires that might guide you to being a bad person, you need to fight against those carnal appetites. And he's like, well, what about the fighting jihad? Which imam would - around here would be more supportive of that and talk about it? And I was like, none. I've never met any.
FADEL: Malik continued to try to help him in his new faith. He gave Monteilh a commonly used book on basic Islamic practices. Later, Monteilh said they needed to talk.
MALIK: And again, he just jumped straight to jihad. He knew all the pages from the book that mentioned jihad, you know, really trying to get me to say something about it. Like, OK, OK, I was lying the whole time. We do believe in jihad. We're going to - you know, we have a plan, you know? We're going to do something bad. Are you in? I was like, no. Like, no. He just wouldn't get off of that. And that's when the alarm bells started ringing.
FADEL: Malik told the imam at the mosque and the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He was afraid the guy was big and possibly violent.
MALIK: I would see him, literally - I remember hiding in the parking lot behind cars because, one, he's physically intimidating. He's massive. And so - and I was a young kid.
FADEL: The community turned Monteilh into the FBI as a possible threat. But the FBI didn't do anything, so they got a restraining order to keep him away. Malik stopped going to the mosque.
MALIK: That religious sanctuary, that spiritual sanctuary became a place of complete discontent, complete chaos. It was a scary place.
FADEL: Monteilh later revealed himself to be a convicted con man and paid informant for the FBI in media interviews and court documents. For 14 months, he took pictures of license plates, recorded hundreds of hours of conversation, had a video button camera on his shirt to record people's homes and religious spaces. He collected hundreds of cell numbers, thousands of emails, mapped out mosques in Southern California for his FBI handlers, according to his own statements. And he says in those statements that his handlers said Islam was a threat to national security. The more devout a Muslim, the more suspicious. The secret surveillance didn't lead to any convictions. Today, some 15 years later, it brings Malik to tears knowing Monteilh was spying on him and other innocent people.
MALIK: Like, I introduced him to my mom at the mosque, and she was so happy. And she was like, come over for food. Like, my mom loved to feed converts. Now I'm like, crap, I put my mom through that. (Crying) You know, it's like, what if he did something to her?
FADEL: Malik and two other Muslims who were surveilled are suing the FBI for religious discrimination and violations of surveillance laws in a class-action lawsuit. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment. Malik says the lawsuit - it's the most important decision he's made in his life.
MALIK: I have to do this. And not just for me, not just for the Muslim community, but for everyone, for all Americans, which isn't easy. Like, it was scary, and my wife and I went through a lot. I remember sleep - literally sleepless nights, literally nightmares - FBI coming - right? - and, like, my wife having nightmares.
FADEL: In witness statements, Monteilh said he was told to surveil Malik because he studied in Yemen and had become more devout and that his beard length indicated he was radical. This sort of surveillance was happening in places across the country, and the policies that allowed it haven't changed. Monteilh tells NPR he provided that statement and others in this case to help curb unlawful surveillance of American citizens by law enforcement.
CRAIG MONTEILH: There's no oversight. So the abuses aren't known, and they can do whatever they want. And I think that needs to have some boundaries.
FADEL: He says he doesn't regret the work he did, helping the FBI build a vast database on Muslims in Southern California, but he doesn't feel good about the innocent people who live with the trauma he caused.
MONTEILH: I will have to bear that burden for the rest of my life because there were hundreds of people that - I was in their homes, in their businesses, in their mosque, right? They left the country out of fear.
FADEL: Mohammad Tajsar is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU working on the case.
MOHAMMAD TAJSAR: Now we're coming up on a decade of litigation in this case where the government has resisted even the idea of being held into court to be accountable to what it did.
FADEL: In November, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether the government has the right to invoke state secrets privilege, which says it can withhold evidence if it poses reasonable danger to national security, meaning the accusation of religious discrimination could be dismissed entirely and accusers won't have their day in court. If the Supreme Court allows the use of state secrets privileges, Tajsar says...
TAJSAR: Then what we have essentially done is destroyed checks and balances and any kind of accountability for unlawful government conduct by giving the executive the full power to unilaterally declare what is permissible for you to bring in courts. 9/11 created a permanent state of exception in emergency within the United States that allowed for the suspension of even the most minimal legal protections and rights that people have struggled, fought and died for.
FADEL: Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right against unreasonable search and seizures, the overuse of secret evidence - that is the legacy of 9/11, he says, a period where American Muslims didn't have time to grieve an attack on their country because they were made into the imagined enemy of the state. And 20 years later, Muslims are still pushing back against that idea. Leila Fadel, NPR News.
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