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20 Years After Patriot Act, Surveillance of Arabs and Muslims Is Relentless

New forms of solidarity have emerged in response to the overreach and unconstitutional nature of the Patriot Act.

Former President George W. Bush gestures as he speaks on Homeland Security and the Patriot Act at the Port of Baltimore, in Maryland, on July 20, 2005.

The U.S. is now more than 20 years beyond the Patriot Act of October 2001. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 brought a heavy U.S. state focus on Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., rationalizing an expansion of policing and surveillance activities against them. It also inspired the convergence of shared struggles for liberation out of a growing consensus that we cannot abolish policing without abolishing U.S. militarism and empire building.

The “anything goes” context of 9/11 opened up possibilities for expanded forms of policing and surveillance that are unconstitutional. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), also known as “special registration,” put in place by the Department of Justice in 2002, targeted Arabs and Muslims as well as those from the Middle East and South Asia. Overly broad interpretations of “material support” laws denied people — generally Arabs and Muslims — their freedom and even threatened some forms of humanitarian aid.

But none of this was entirely new. All this was preceded by President Richard Nixon’s “Operation Boulder,” which law professor Susan M. Akram has described as “perhaps the first concerted US government effort to target Arabs in the US for special investigation with the specific purpose of intimidation, harassment, and to discourage their activism on issues relating to the Middle East.”

Ironically, Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City attack opened the door to the Clinton administration pushing forward a legislative effort allowing the government “to use evidence from secret sources in deportation proceedings for aliens suspected of terrorist involvement. Under the measure, the government would not have to disclose the source of the damaging information to the person whom it is seeking to deport,” The New York Times reported. A white extremist, then, had carried out a deadly bombing, but it was Arabs and Muslims (including Black Arabs and Black Muslims) who faced the prospect of deportation without ever being able to confront their accuser — or even know the identity of those accusing them.

According to the ACLU:

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act established a new court charged only with hearing cases in which the government seeks to deport aliens accused of engaging in terrorist activity based on secret evidence submitted in the form of classified information. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act expanded the secret evidence court so that secret evidence could be more easily used to deport even lawful permanent residents as terrorists.

As Arab and Muslim communities were subjected to institutionalized racial profiling, this too frequently encouraged individual anti-Arab and Islamophobic actors who further intimidated and committed acts of violence against Arab and Muslim individuals in everyday life. Between 2000-2009, these violent incidents increased by over 500 percent; since 2016, 484 incidents of hate-motivated violence have been reported and many continue to remain unreported. In the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian regions, of course, the U.S. military killed people en masse while engaging in torture. The U.S. government also supported authoritarian dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who would further the U.S. imperialist agenda and simultaneously collaborate in the ongoing colonization of Palestine and siege of Gaza.

According to the Project on Government Oversight’s Jake Laperruque, the U.S., in its rush to crack down on these domestic communities, swept up international communications on an enormous and unprecedented scale. Laperruque also notes that internal U.S. communications were surveilled, as were internet metadata.

When eventually disclosed, this surveillance troubled and infuriated people across the political spectrum, some who cared about ending racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims, and some who generally had spent years inflaming such hatred. Many strands of society were incensed that their communications were being monitored by the government. Yet those with history in U.S.-based Global South liberation movements who were targeted by programs like Nixon’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) or those whose ancestors were killed via collaborations between the KKK and the FBI knew all too well that the Constitution was meant to protect white supremacy rather than protecting us all. At the same time, the Patriot Act truly alarmed liberals and radicals alike in its potential to perpetrate a massive expansion in policing, surveillance and repression.

The George W. Bush administration had effectively circumvented the Fourth Amendment with its protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Attempts to override the entirely bankrupt legislative action of the USA Freedom Act of 2015, was a consequence less out of concern over targeting Muslims and Arabs than anger over the widespread sweeping up of so much information about U.S. citizens — read: white people.

I lived through these past 20 years between communities in California, Illinois and Michigan. The fear was real. While working-class Arab Muslim immigrant men over the age of 16 were forced to register at their local Immigration and Naturalization Service office as part of the NSEERS program, their loved ones stood outside wondering if they would ever see them again.

The reports of violence against Arabs and Muslims — and those perceived to belong to those categories — were terrifyingly routine. Some stories reached the mainstream media; most circulated simply through word of mouth.

Now, in 2021, following the defeat of former President Donald Trump and his open promotion of anti-Muslim policies, we are witnessing the culmination of efforts led by Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. to build community-based power beyond the psychological and emotional incarceration endured between the Bush and Trump years.

The Arab Resource & Organizing Center in California’s Bay Area along with the Arab American Action Network in Chicago have for years fought back in coalition to support anti-imperialist and abolitionist principles. Left-leaning Arab and Muslim movements are affirming that just because Trump is out doesn’t mean these efforts will relent under President Joe Biden, especially not with his interventionist history and long years of support for Israeli’s colonial policies that have been killing, containing and displacing Palestinians with U.S. weaponry.

These organizations recognize that U.S. empire-building connects movements fighting anti-Black police violence, those pressing back against anti-Arab U.S. militarism and the “war on terror,” as well as groups resisting the militarization of the border and the ongoing colonization of Native land.

The recent news out of Virginia Beach of an ongoing racist attack on a Black family’s home with “music blaring racial slurs and monkey sounds as strobe lights flashed” at the house while authorities dithered sounded all-too-familiar to me. It reminded me of my own research in 2021 with the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy in the Chicago area on the status of racial justice for Arab Americans.

I had been connected to a Muslim woman who was harassed by her neighbors for three years, notwithstanding a restraining order. She told me she felt like a hostage in her own home and police were unwilling to stop the ugly attacks from neighbors coming up to the window and shouting, “F–k Arabs, f–k Muslims.” This would be followed by calls for the family to get out of the U.S.

The animosity both families have faced is painful and traumatic and stems from the same root cause — U.S. racial capitalism and empire building. But younger generations of Black people, Arabs and/or Muslims have also in the last decade recognized more than ever the necessity of conjoining our struggles against racist police violence.

This was seen most visibly in Ferguson, Missouri, but is also witnessed, for instance, in Palestinian-Black solidarity efforts across the country as young Palestinian Arab activists organize against police violence disproportionately targeting Black people, while Black activists align with the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

As the Palestinian Youth Movement said in its 2014 statement of solidarity with Ferguson: “Whether the PATRIOT ACT or COINTELPRO, the targeting and criminalization of our communities must end now.” These efforts have extended through defund the police and abolition efforts uniting both communities.

Shortly after 9/11, I remember the national coalitions like Racial Justice 9/11 that grew overnight when tens of social movements affirmed their unity in the face of the expanding powers of the U.S. nation-state. Today, similar coalitions are inspired by the shared concern over the ways U.S. counterinsurgency tactics that repress movements have expanded, violently justifying the repression of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC)-led groups like the Movement for Black Lives.

When the Bush administration consolidated its internal war on Arabs and Muslims with the Patriot Act, it helped show Trump the power to move a portion of the U.S. public toward increasingly outward-facing white supremacy. Yet it also set in motion new coalitions. These coalitions have urgently grown out of the imperialist and racist policies implemented first by President George W. Bush, and then even more openly by Trump.

I wouldn’t wish those first traumatic months in 2001-2002 on anyone. Yet the solidarity resulting at least in part from the overreach and unconstitutional nature of the Patriot Act, followed by the racism of the Trump administration, gives me a measure of hope.

For all Trump’s efforts to roll back previous social movement wins, many breakthroughs came out of his 2016 presidential victory. More and more grassroots mutual aid movements have materialized, affirming the necessity of growing practices of collective love and reciprocity as alternatives to state violence. Two Muslim women, one Palestinian and one North African, entered the U.S. Congress in 2019 in Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib and Somali American Ilhan Omar. They were joined earlier this year by Rep. Cori Bush, who was active in the Ferguson demonstrations and has openly spoken of solidarity between Black Americans and Palestinians.

In the midst of the Israeli onslaught against Gaza this past May, Representative Bush tweeted: “The fight for Black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected.” She added: “We oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma.” Tellingly, she spoke of being anti-apartheid.

Their voices in the halls of Congress are unprecedented. The effort to undermine them is intense. Yet we must remember that the long U.S.-led war on terror is an extension of the U.S.’s colonial, expansionist and racial capitalist project, rather than an exception. We cannot get stuck in celebratory hope after the defeat of Trump. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not only complicit in the war on terror but also helped expand it.

As Kali Akuno, Brian Drolet and Doug Norberg posted on Facebook on October 27, in their critique of efforts to “save democracy,” this stance is not “an argument to avoid or ignore fighting the further advance of fascistic authoritarianism. It is a critique of a view that restricts people to fighting against certain variants of capitalist governance to the exclusion of fighting against the capitalist system itself.”

If anyone recognizes that President Biden does little to help the U.S. achieve democracy, equality or diversity, it’s my Arab immigrant community. Further, there is no sign of social transformation with Trump continuing to loom on the 2024 horizon and racist provocateurs continuing to organize and contest the 2020 election of a centrist candidate. This is why we need to be willing to imagine a radically alternative future.

Twenty years ago, I remember Arab activists like Rana Elmir demanding an end to the Patriot Act. Forced to reckon with it, they understood its potentially dangerous future. They shouted at protests that it not only expands the containment, repression, and profiling of Arabs and Muslims, but could also massively expand the U.S.’s power to repress all progressive and BIPOC communities.

So here we are. Nicole Nguyen, expert on surveillance and the war on terror, reminds us that by expanding the concept of the “violent extremist” the United States has repressed resistance against the war on terror and resistance against the police.

In the face of this repression, we have no choice but to expand our practices of solidarity, creating hope through the convergence of shared struggles for liberation rooted in collective BIPOC traditions of care, nurturing relations with the land and each other, and in commitments to horizontal, non-hierarchical self-determination.

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