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Tuesday, September 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Muslim Americans still bear brunt of backlash

Special to The Times

One year ago, the whole world was turned upside down by the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon. Every American was traumatized by the unfolding tragedy as it was played and replayed on our TV screens for days. The estimates of the number of victims began in the tens of thousands but came down to around 3,000 as time passed.

Nevertheless, a part of every American was killed in the event.

As Muslims and Arabs in America, we suffered with our fellow citizens. We agonized for the Muslims who were killed in the towers as we did for the Christians, the Jews, the Hindus. We also felt the additional pain with the knowledge that the perpetrators of this horrible crime were Muslims and Arabs. Both pains were immeasurable in their intensities.

As we watched the events of the tragedy, Arabs and Muslims knew that things would not bode well for us because we are recognizable and would be considered guilty by association.

We had no idea just how bad things would get.

It was with great relief that we saw President Bush immediately speak out and declare that Arabs and Muslims would be as protected as any other American would be. It was with joy that we saw our president hold interfaith services; perhaps things would not go badly after all.

Almost immediately after that charade was over, the president's lieutenants began their war. Their targets were Islam, Muslims and Arabs, from our grocery stores to our jewelry stores to charities around the country. All the while they denied that was what they were doing.

The administration offered allegations that the organizations targeted "had links with al-Qaida and terrorism," but they have yet to charge anyone or to take them to court. The State Department even has admitted it does not have a single person against whom it can prove a link with terrorism.

The climate of fear had set in.

It began slowly. First authorities came for the Arabs and Muslims who had just arrived in this country and then they came for those who had "overstayed their visa." As the net grew wider we realized that these pretexts were being used to arrest Arabs and Muslims who were then and still are being held incommunicado, without charges or trials. Estimated numbers are around 2,000 but the State Department refuses to acknowledge most of them as prisoners or "detainees". As reported in the Christian Science Monitor, our administration is now sending some prisoners to countries that use torture to get information from suspects more quickly.

In its zeal to root out terrorism, our administration began to target more Muslims and Arabs (20 percent of whom are Christians) in this country and few noticed the undermining of our Constitution in the process.

The right to be charged with a crime; the right to due process, to a speedy trial, to be faced by our accusers; the right to legal counsel, to have a jury of our peers, to be deemed innocent until proven guilty, all were snuffed out — "to defend our freedoms!" the leaders declared without noticing any contradiction.

At first these erosions of our birthright were "only" affecting noncitizens; shallow arguments were put forth as to how the Constitution did not really protect noncitizens and the citizenry acquiesced without a sound.

Then even citizens were stripped of their rights, they were declared "enemy combatants" for the purposes of fighting our "war against terrorism."

As our administration comes after Arabs and Muslims, they do so with the participation by silence of the people of this free country and by the silence of Congress. One thinks of other places where such events have taken place, that we call dictatorships. In the past one might have laughed at suggestions that the United States is in the same league with them. Not today.

As long as the targets are Arabs and Muslims, America seems content to keep us in jails without charging us, without trying us, without any evidence.

We are guilty because we pray in a mosque, we are guilty because we said something suspicious, we are guilty, guilty, guilty! Because we are Muslims; because we are Arabs. We are guilty because that is what America allows.

It appears that the tragedy of Sept. 11 is being compounded by a silent but greater tragedy, a constitutional tragedy under which the rights and freedoms of every person in these United States may be imperiled for generations to come.

Jafar Siddiqui is an American Muslim activist living in Lynnwood. He is a member of American Muslims of Puget Sound.

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