Muslims and civil rights: A continuing debate

President Barack Obama’s June 4, 2009, address to the Muslim world served as a fresh reminder of the tensions between civil rights and national security that have played out in the U.S. and abroad since 9/11. The president’s speech was welcomed by the Muslim community, which remains deeply concerned about attacks against Muslims.

In the wake of Sept. 11, mosques were vandalized, Arab-Americans were physically assaulted and hate crimes rose. But beyond the immediate backlash, the U.S. government’s declared “war on terror” created a set of evolving security policies that critics say led to civil rights violations.

Many civil rights and related issues remain today. In addition to visa and immigration delays, they include concerns about workplace discrimination, verbal and physical harassment, and surveillance by law enforcement. Many trace these civil rights issues to the USA Patriot Act, enacted in 2001 and revised and reauthorized in 2006. They point to the act’s provisions expanding the ability of law enforcement agencies to search telephone, email, medical, financial and other records. In response to these measures, the Muslim community has established advocacy groups or bolstered existing organizations.

This source guide gives journalists tools to address the difficult balance between protecting Americans and protecting the civil rights of U.S. residents.


Why it matters

The equal treatment of Muslims under the law raises questions about the extent to which the United States can extend basic human rights and civil liberties to its citizens and permanent residents at a time of heightened tension over security. The issue also raises questions about how the country is assimilating its newest citizens. Will workplaces accommodate veiled Muslim women? Will judges allow Muslims to take an oath on the Quran ­- rather than the Bible? Are public schools willing to excuse Muslim students for taking absences during the two annual Muslim holidays?


Public opinion

Polls show Americans have a negative view of Muslim countries and Muslims in general. According to a 2007 Pew Forum poll, only 43 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Muslims. An April Pew survey on torture found that 49 percent of Americans believe government-sponsored torture can “sometimes” or “often” be justified.


June 2013: Civil rights advocates sued the New York Police Department over its Muslim surveillance programs, which include infiltrating mosques with informants. The lawsuit claimed that the surveillance programs were civil rights violations–innocent people were being targeted on the basis of nothing but their religion, the New York Civil Liberties Union argued. (See a New York Daily News article about the suit.)

May 2013: Barack Obama warned against using social media to attack Muslims, saying that doing so could be considered a civil rights violation. The Obama administration was the first in history to tell Muslims that the Department of Justice was committed to protecting them. (See a post from the Judicial Watch blog about Obama’s the DOJ’s efforts to protect the civil rights of Muslims.)

July 2012: The  Muslim civil rights group CAIR regained its tax-exempt status after it lost its status in 2011 for failing to file tax returns.

August 2011: Amusement parks throughout the country put into place rules prohibiting Muslim headgear from being worn on rides. The parks cited safety as the reason for the rule, but on August 30, 2011, an amusement park in New York was shut down because a fight over the rule broke out. (See a Fox News story about the incident).

May 2011: After Osama bin Laden’s death, a string of mosques throughout the United States were vandalized and defaced. The Council of American-Islamic Relations requested a federal investigation into the incidents. (See a Huffington Post article about some of the incidents.)

May 2009: Four men are arrested in what authorities said was a plot to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y. The men, all Muslims from Newburgh, apparently befriended an undercover FBI informant who attended the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh. (See the next-day New York Times story.)

April 2009: Law enforcement sources confirm that FBI agents monitored popular gyms throughout Orange County to gather intelligence on members of local mosques.

January 2009: Dennis C. Blair is confirmed as Obama’s top intelligence official and calls for counterterrorism programs to operate “in a manner consistent with our nation’s values, consistent with our Constitution, and consistent with rule of law.” (Read The New York Times‘ account of his confirmation hearing.)

Jan. 1, 2009: An AirTran flight bound for Orlando, Fla., from Reagan National Airport removes nine Muslim American passengers before takeoff. The airline later apologizes. (Read The Washington Post‘s story.)

December 2008:U.S. Rep. Rush Holt asks the National Security Agency to investigate evidence the agency illegally wiretapped a Muslim scholar, Ali al-Timimi, in northern Virginia and concealed the eavesdropping during the scholar’s 2005 trial on terrorism-related charges.

November 2008: A federal jury convicts five leaders of the suburban Dallas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development on 108 criminal counts of money laundering, tax fraud and supporting terrorism. The group was accused of funneling millions of dollars to Hamas, which the U.S. government declared a terrorist group in 1995.

Fall 2008: The FBI decides to limit its ties to CAIR. Some Muslim groups later react by suspending ties to the agency.

October 2007: A mistrial is declared in the first Holy Land trial after jurors are unable to reach verdicts on all the charges.

May 2007: The Council on American-Islamic Relations and hundreds of other organizations and individuals are named unindicted co-conspirators in the case against the Holy Land Foundation.


  • “Watch Lists”

    The American Civil Liberties Union’s resources include a “Watch List Counter” that tracks names on the U.S. government’s terrorist list.

  • “The ACLU and Freedom of Religion and Belief”

    The American Civil Liberties Union’s has a Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief that tracks legal violations in this area.

  • “CAIR Civil Rights Reports”

    The Council on American-Islamic Relations issues a yearly report on the status of Muslim civil rights. The last report was in 2010.

Islamic advocacy groups

  • American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

    The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee works to stop discrimination against Muslims.

  • American Muslim Alliance

    The American Muslim Alliance promotes participation of Muslim Americans in the political process. Agha Saeed is its founder and former chairman.

  • American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections

    The American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections promotes civic equality for Muslims and their participation in the American political process. It is an umbrella association of 11 Muslim American groups. Contact Salim Akhtar.

  • Council on American-Islamic Relations

    The Council on American-Islamic Relations says it is the largest advocacy group for Muslims in the U.S. It advocates for Muslims on issues related to civil liberties and justice. Contact communications director Ibrahim Hooper in Washington, D.C.

  • Islamic Society of North America

    The Islamic Society of North America promotes unity and leadership among Muslims. The organization, based in Plainfield, Ind., has a large immigrant presence. Contact executive director Ahmed Elhattab.

  • Muslim Advocates

    Muslim Advocates uses legal advocacy, policy engagement and education to promote rights for Muslims and others. Contact executive director Farhana Khera.

  • Muslim Public Affairs Council

    The Muslim Public Affairs Council works for Muslim participation in civic life. It works to cultivate leadership in young Muslims and encourage a sense of ownership over their religious and national identity as Americans. The group’s $1.1 million budget includes no overseas funding. It has offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles and has several state chapters. The council is considered moderate and politically savvy and is led by first- and second-generation Americans. Salam Al-Marayati is president and co-founder.

  • United Muslims of America

    United Muslims of America is a nonpartisan public affairs organization that works to promote the participation of Muslims in American public life, including economics, education and politics. The nonprofit organization is based in Sunnyvale, Calif., and is supported by membership fees.

  • Islamic Supreme Council of America

    The Islamic Supreme Council of America is a nonprofit, nongovernmental religious organization dedicated to working for the cause of Islam. Contact Chairman Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani.

National sources

  • Nabeel Abraham

    Nabeel Abraham teaches anthropology and directs the honors program at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich. He co-edited Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream.

  • Anny Bakalian

    Anny Bakalian is a researcher at the City University of New York. She co-wrote a book titled Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond, which looks at how ethnic organizations mobilized to demonstrate their commitment to the United States while defending their rights and distancing themselves from the terrorists.

  • Mehdi Bozorgmehr

    Mehdi Bozorgmehr is a research the City University of New York. He co-wrote a book titled Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond, which looks at how ethnic organizations mobilized to demonstrate their commitment to the United States while defending their rights and distancing themselves from the terrorists.

  • Louise Cainkar

    Louise Cainkar, an assistant professor in the department of social and cultural sciences at Marquette University in Milwaukee, has written widely about the effects of Sept. 11 on American Muslims. Her book Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience After 9/11 is to be published in August 2009.

  • Erwin Chemerinsky

    Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, is a nationally recognized expert in constitutional law. He has defended Guantanamo detainees.

  • David Cole

    David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, is an expert on First Amendment and civil rights issues and co-author of Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror.

  • Charles Kurzman

    Charles Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. He is the author of The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, in which he argues that there are far fewer Islamic terrorists than Americans think.

  • Sunaina Maira

    Sunaina Maira, an associate professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Davis, writes about youth and immigrant culture. Her upcoming book is called Missing: Youth, Citizenship and Empire After 9/11.

  • David Schanzer

    David Schanzer is director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in Durham, N.C. He is also a visiting professor of public policy at Duke University and an adjunct professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Edward Alden

    Edward Alden, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the former Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times. His latest book, The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11, examines U.S. visa and border policies in the wake of 9/11.

  • Muzaffar Chishti

    Muzaffar Chishti is director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University’s School of Law. His work focuses on U.S. immigration policy, the intersection of labor and immigration law, civil liberties and immigrant integration. He has been critical of the New Sanctuary Movement for its failure to distinguish between civil and criminal immigration cases.

  • Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia

    Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia directs the Center for Immigrants’ Rights at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law.

  • Michael Wishnie

    Michael Wishnie, a law professor at Yale Law School, has taught a class titled “Balancing Civil Liberties and National Security After Sept. 11.” His human rights law clinic has been honored by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

In the South

  • Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im

    Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. He is an expert on Islamic law, and his interests also include human rights, reproductive rights and women’s rights in Islam. He is a participating scholar with the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics.

  • Ihsan Bagby

    Ihsan Bagby is an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky and an expert in Islam and its history and practice in North America. He is one of the authors of the research report “The American Mosque 2011.”

  • Mohja Kahf

    Mohja Kahf is a poet and an associate professor of literature at the University of Arkansas. She writes about gender issues and Arab-American women.

  • Ebrahim Moosa

    Ebrahim Moosa is a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. He has written about Muslim law and ethics.

In the Midwest

  • Aminah B. McCloud

    Aminah B. McCloud is a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago and director of the Islamic World Studies Program. She has written about black Muslims. She can also discuss the place of animals in the Muslim world. The notion of animal rights is a new one for Muslim societies, she says.

  • Liaquat Ali Khan

    Liaquat Ali Khan is a professor of law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan. A native of Pakistan, he focuses his research on terrorism and conflict in Muslim societies. He has written extensively about Islamic law and in 2008 wrote an article for The American Muslim about Islamic perspectives on the economic meltdown.

  • Asifa Quraishi-Landes

    Asifa Quraishi-Landes is associate professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an expert on U.S. and Islamic law.

  • Loukia K. Sarroub

    Loukia K. Sarroub, an associate professor of education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, writes about literacy among American and Iraqi children.

  • Andrew Shryock

    Andrew Shryock is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is jointly affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. He has written about Arab Detroit post-9/11.

In the West

  • Ahilan Arulanantham

    Ahilan Arulanantham is a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Co-Director of its Center for Immigration Law and Policy (CILP). He formerly directed immigrant rights and national security cases for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

  • Khaled Abou El Fadl

    Khaled Abou El Fadl is an internationally recognized law professor and the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at the University of California, Los Angeles. He teaches a course on Islamic law and has also taught about Middle Eastern investment law, immigration law and human rights and terrorism. His books include Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, and he wrote the entry on Shariah for The Oxford University Handbook of Islam and Politics.

  • Therese Saliba

    Therese Saliba teaches international feminism at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

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