THE BLOG

Treatment of Muslims Tarnished America's Reputation

09/13/2011 05:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2011
  • Azadeh Shahshahani Legal & Advocacy Director, Project South; Past President, National Lawyers Guild

One of the freedoms that was most appealing to me when I came from Iran to the United States at age 16 was the right, free from governmental interference, to practice one's religion, or no religion at all. In my trips back to visit family and friends, I often boasted about the guarantee of religious freedom here.

But this and other fundamental rights have been increasingly denied to Muslim-Americans in the years since Sept. 11, tarnishing America's reputation as a beacon of religious freedom and due process of law.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in my second semester of law school at the University of Michigan. The implications for the Muslim-American community soon hit home. I heard about Iranian friends on student visas having to register as part of the notorious National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a program instituted in fall 2002 that amounted to a discriminatory dragnet.

I learned after the fact about friends being approached by the FBI at their homes for "voluntary" questionings. Of course, my friends, coming from a country where one does not disobey authority figures unless ready to face the repercussions, had obliged, often submitting to the questioning without representation.

This is why, when I finished law school and moved to North Carolina, I approached the ACLU of North Carolina with an idea for a project to recruit and train a network of attorneys ready to represent community members facing FBI questionings or discrimination, and working with Muslim and Middle Eastern communities to help empower the community through Know Your Rights presentations.

During the presentations in North Carolina, and later in Georgia, I learned about Muslim-Americans facing violations of the fundamental rights and liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

In North Carolina, we received multiple letters from Muslim-Americans whose citizenship applications had been put on an indefinite hold due to FBI name checks. Some had been awaiting a decision for five years or more. Thousands of American families are to this day still awaiting an explanation as to why the Administration chose to subject them to such an arbitrary and indefinite hold.

In Georgia, we saw a judge violate the very freedom President Obama spoke of so eloquently in his 2009 speech in Cairo, that "freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion."

The president acknowledged the right of Muslim women and girls to wear the hijab, but on Dec. 16, 2008, this right was denied to Lisa Miedah Valentine. Instead, she found herself in handcuffs and in jail, with her hijab removed, after Judge Keith Rollins of the Douglasville [Georgia] Municipal Court sentenced her to 10 days in jail for contempt of court. Valentine and other Muslim women were denied access to the Douglasville Municipal Court even after they expressly conveyed to court officials that the wearing of the head scarf is an expression of their faith.

The Judicial Council of Georgia has since -- as result of advocacy by the ACLU and other organizations -- recognized the right of people of faith to wear headgear of their choosing at the courthouse. However, we continue to hear about Muslim-Americans from across Georgia facing discrimination at the courthouse or other public forums due to their wearing of religious clothing.

Muslim-Americans, like all people in the United States, should have the right to due process of law and the right to express their religious beliefs free from discrimination.

These freedoms are too important to be violated, as evidenced by the willingness of people in my birthplace to risk their lives to secure them.

A version of this article first ran in a 9/11 package in the Daily Report.

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