Twenty years to the month after the US Congress passed the Patriot Act, Arab Americans continue to feel its devastating impact. The Patriot Act, and its successor, the USA Freedom Act, are backronyms that are Orwellian in their spin.
The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA Patriot) Act of 2001 and the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring (USA Freedom) Act of 2015 have, in fact, intimidated and oppressed Arab and Muslim Americans while justifying an escalation of state violence against people of color rather than “strengthening” the US or “fulfilling rights.” Even today, years later, the surveillance authorized by the US Congress enables profound intrusions into the lives of citizens and non-citizens.
Just last year, Senator Ron Wyden in voting against the latest surveillance bill, warned that “the legislation hands the government power for warrantless collection of Americans’ web browsing and internet searches, as well as other private information, without having to demonstrate that those Americans have done anything wrong, or even were in contact with anyone suspected of wrongdoing.”
Yes, some of the worst excesses have been walked back since 2001, but invasive civil liberties violations persist. And the consequences of government intimidation continue to course through Arab, Muslim, and many more BIPOC communities. The legislation produced a culture of fear for anyone and everyone who might be perceived to be Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, or South Asian. This fear was exacerbated during the four years with Donald Trump at the helm when demagogues promoting racist rhetoric and hate were effectively hailed and perpetrators of white supremacist violence were too often not held accountable. While this is certainly not new within the long history of US colonial and racial violence and racially motivated scapegoating, it was on steroids under Trump when such violence was more openly expressed than had been the case in recent years.
After 9/11, communities targeted by the Patriot Act, especially their working-class, recent immigrant or refugee members, have faced a form of psychological and emotional incarceration that operates through the debilitating fear caused by the sense that at any moment they may be picked up, detained, deported or tortured in a place like Guantánamo Bay. Injury or death by hate crime was a serious concern.
As 135 civil rights organizations pointed out earlier this year, treating these groups as a threat to US national security has led to “over-policing of these communities, including intrusions into community centers, mosques and almost every aspect of their lives.” The anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism promoted by the Patriot Act and more recently by the Trump administration has real-life consequences. A research study I am co-leading for the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at UIC on the Status of Racial Justice for Arab Americans reveals that racist trends in our society continue to blame Arab immigrants and Arab Americans for the attacks of 9/11 and treat them with suspicion and hatred in everyday life.
In the Chicago area alone, I have seen the fallout of these policies and the intimidation that results. The FBI showed up at a Palestinian woman’s home for daring to send humanitarian aid to Palestine. She isn’t responsible for 9/11 but was treated as though she was complicit.
In 2016, Roula Allouch in her capacity as chairwoman of the national board of directors of the Council on American-Islamic Relations addressed for The New York Times the difficulties of what has come to be known as Flying While Muslim. She noted that an increasing number of people are being deplaned for being Muslim and individuals are being removed for speaking Arabic.
20 years later, the ripple effects of the war on terror and the USA Patriot Act have inspired Arab, Muslim, Black, and other BIPOC social justice movements to grow alliances around concerns that are now frequently framed as both anti-imperialist/anti-war and abolitionist. Over the past few years, we have seen a rise in coalitional movements focused on resisting the application of “counter-terrorism” policies intended to smear, police, and surveil U.S.-based Black resistance movements. Consider the U.S.’ creation of the idea of “Black identity extremism” — a term that has reportedly been abandoned in favor of “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism.” Policymakers tend to imply that such classifications help stop white nationalist violence. Yet the FBI intentionally relies on such categories to target BIPOC movements. In cases when the “war on terror” has been used to criminalize Black activists, U.S. administrations have conflated “terrorism” with Black-led resistance against police violence as a strategy for surveillance and criminalization. The coalitions arising in response to the U.S.’ scapegoating of Black and Arab communities as “threats” to the U.S. nation-state were perhaps most dramatically seen in Ferguson, Missouri. Following Ferguson, the FBI used sophisticated surveillance aircraft technologies to police BLM protests after the killing of Freddie Gray in 2018 and has continued to do so. Local joint terrorism taskforces have also visited activists from the Movement for Black Lives, blaming them for “inciting violence.”
The convergence of the U.S.’ repression of Arab, Palestinian, Muslim, and Black movements (and groups that defy these categories such as Black Arab activists) have profound implications for the direction and widening of anti-war and abolitionist movements. They have also opened up new possibilities for growing U.S.-based support for Palestinian liberation.
As Congresswoman Cori Bush tweeted: “The fight for Black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected.”
Indeed, the legacies of U.S. settler-colonialism, racial capitalism, and expansion inspire ever-changing coalitions — like the solidarity Japanese Americans enacted with Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11 and the Patriot Act.
For all the pain of the past 20 years, I take hope that more and more social movements will continue to transcend single-issue organizing. As movements like the Dissenters, the Palestinian Feminist Collective, and the Movement for Black Lives have shown us, we cannot abolish policing without abolishing the war on terror.
Nadine Naber is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). At UIC, she is the founding director of The Arab American Cultural Center.
Dr. Naber has served as an editorial board member of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).
She is an award-winning author, nationally recognized public speaker, and activist on racial justice.