Civil rights groups pressure the U.S. Dept. of Justice Department to expand guidelines against racial profiling by including religion.
By Dima Ansari
HAMTRAMCK, Mich. – Ali Suleiman Ali travels regularly as head of Muslim Family Services in southeastern Michigan and as imam of a local mosque. Like many other American Muslims, he has been the victim of religious profiling by customs officials under the guise of national security
“When I’m traveling outside of the country, coming back, I [get] a lot of questions,” Ali says. Questions like “how many times do you pray?” and “do you perform your morning prayer at the mosque?”
A 2011 Pew Research study says 21 percent of Muslims reported being singled out by airport security, and 13 percent say they have been singled out by law enforcement. Overall, 52 percent say government anti-terrorism policies single out Muslims in the United States for increased surveillance and monitoring.
Because of this, civil rights groups say a federal prohibition against religious profiling is necessary. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religious discrimination in a number of areas, but does not include religion in its ban on discrimination by entities receiving federal money, including local and state law enforcement.
The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of civil rights advocacy organizations have requested that the Department of Justice policy guidance that prohibits racial profiling by federal law-enforcement officials be extended to include local and state law enforcement and be expanded to prohibit religious discrimination – specifically, religious profiling.
A lawsuit filed by the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, alleges that Ali and three other American Muslims were subjected to invasive body searches and prolonged questioning about their religious practices by Customs and Border Protection officers every time they tried to enter the U.S.
A legal memo by the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights office says it is opening an investigation into officers’ “questioning regarding religion” because of complaints from people who are “Arab and/or Muslim.” The memo noted “there is much less law in this area than one would expect.”
In July, civil rights organizations again called for the strengthening the DOJ guidance in response to leaked government documents published by The Intercept, an online investigative news site, that showed five prominent American Muslim leaders being watched by the government.
ACLU legal counsel Jennifer Bellamy says, “It is very critical to add a religious profiling ban because discrimination is discrimination and effective policing is based on conduct and behavior not appearance, not religion, not sexual orientation and race.”
DOJ officials declined to comment.
‘Talk about painting with a wide brush’
However, even if the guidance is strengthened, it exempts national security cases as well as border crossings. These loopholes, Bellamy says, need to be addressed.
On Aug. 14, CAIR Michigan announced it had filed a lawsuit on behalf of five people who claim to have been placed on a terrorist watch list through racial and religious profiling.
A more recent Intercept article said the “second–highest concentration of people designated as ‘known or suspected terrorists’ by the government is in Dearborn, Michigan, a city of 96,000 that has the largest percentage of Arab-American residents in the country.”
“Talk about painting with a wide brush.” said Nabih Ayad, chairman of the Arab-American Civil Rights League and former Michigan civil rights commissioner. “I mean they literally put 60 to 70 percent of Dearborn on the terrorist watch list or had suspected terrorist ties.”
Dearborn Police Chief Ron Haddad said his department has no information “that indicates that we have that type of problem. There’s nothing here that would lead me to believe that we have a hotbed of terrorist activities in the city of Dearborn.”
According to the CAIR lawsuit, Timothy J. Healy, director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, testified that the TSC determines whether someone is a suspected terrorist through “reasonable suspicion.”
“That is so flimsy and broad and it’s reminiscent of [Joseph} McCarthy era, guilt by association finger-pointing that’s not based on any evidence or concrete fact,” said Lena Masri, staff attorney for CAIR Michigan.
According to Masri, American Muslims are “vastly overrepresented” on the watch list.
Haddad and U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who handles the Eastern District of Michigan, denounced the government labeling so many eastern Michigan residents as potential terrorists, apparently based on their religious affiliation.
Mike German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a former special agent for the FBI, says criminality is better indicated by “behavior” than “fishing expeditions.” Law-enforcement resources now directed toward religious activities such as attendance at mosques, growing beards and wearing attire required by the Muslim religion would be better directed toward behavior that indicates a threat.
And, although Haddad has denounced apparent government religious profiling in eastern Michigan, his department will not allow American Muslim women who are arrested to keep their hijabs or headscarves on when having their booking photos taken.
“They think it impedes security,” Warda Kalim, an attorney for CAIR Michigan who has been trying to get the department to change its policy for more than a year.
According to Haddad, letting the women wear their hijabs could be a safety hazard.
“It may go against their religious beliefs,” Haddad said. “[But] it’s not a right … Just because you’re wearing a hijab doesn’t mean you’re wearing it for a religious purpose.”
Some civil rights activists disagree.
“People don’t know that the head covering is a religious undertaking to begin with,” said Fatina Abdrabboh, director of the Michigan branch of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “So when it’s viewed as casual or a hat or discretionary or an option, that undertakes religious freedom component of it all together. You start to have a conversation that includes language of choice or option.”
Haddad says he can’t compromise on safety and that women are provided with “paper hijabs” after the booking process.
Making it plain
According to Sahar Aziz, a former senior civil rights adviser for the Department of Homeland Security, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act cannot be used in cases of religious discrimination by local police because religion is not a category of discrimination in that section of the law.
“If you have religion in there explicitly … it just makes them have to document better and think through before they start engaging in law-enforcement action, rather than being sloppy at the expense of individual rights,” said Aziz, now a law professor at Texas A&M University.
She said adding religious discrimination to the Title VI prohibitions would be strong motivation for a state or local agency because it would lose its federal funding if it didn’t comply. “That’s a significant penalty.”
Dearborn isn’t alone in getting into hot water over possible religious profiling. For more than 10 years, the New York Police Department was found to have been spying on American Muslims and mapping activities such as where they worshiped, worked, shopped and played, according to the Associated Press. The mapping was a preemptive measure in the NYPD’s attempt to curb terrorism, but it failed to generate a lead or trigger any terrorism investigations, according to the AP.
End Racial Profiling Act
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is trying to end racial and religious profiling by all levels of government: local, state and federal.
Introduced in May 2013, the End Racial Profiling Act would prohibit religious profiling and would authorize the Department of Justice to take away funding from state and local governments that won’t comply.
“We’re getting more and more complaints about religious profiling, particularly under the guise of terrorism investigations, and so people that are Muslims or Arab-Americans or Sikhs are saying, ‘We are being profiled just because of our religion,’ ” said a staffer from Cardin’s office who spoke on background.
Cardin participated in a news conference with leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus leaders and civil rights groups to push for the bill, said Cardin spokeswoman Sue Walitsky in an email.
But the Maryland Democrat’s bill has not gone anywhere in the Senate because of Republican opposition.
“It is more likely a candidate for executive action [by the president], while we work on easing the gridlock in Congress,” Walitsky said. “DOJ could revise its racial profiling guidelines at any time, using [the End Racial Profiling Act] as a guide.”