Solutions to Violent Conflict

The War on Terror and Muslim Registry: Between Continuity and Change

In Human Rights, Religion and Conflict on December 14, 2016 at 10:17 am

Perin Gurel is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Concurrent Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

The global and local fronts of our endless “War on Terror” intersect around the suspect figure of the Muslim. What might this mean under a president-elect Trump? The structures kept intact, and in some cases expanded, by President Obama provide some clues.

First, there is the Muslim registry. Right after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration implemented a special registration program that used immigration law to register, interview, fingerprint, detain, and deport males from 24 Muslim-majority countries (and North Korea) who were in the United States on student, tourist, or work visas, particularly punishing those who had fallen “out of status” because of glitches with the system. This law (NSEERS) not only furthered the association of Muslims with terrorism, it also turned immigration enforcement into one of the strongest arms of the War on Terror, as the government committed human rights violations previously well-known to other racialized communities, implementing arrest sweeps and raids based entirely on national and ethno-religious background, detaining individuals and breaking up families, all without a single terror-related charge. According to the ACLU, no one registered under NSEERS was ever convicted of a terrorism-related crime before deportation. The government simply wanted a show of doing something by turning on the most vulnerable, the lowest hanging fruit, and sent a message that implicitly justified citizens doing the same.

Selective registration was made dormant by the Obama administration in 2011. The president did not cancel the program: he just removed names of countries from the list. He thus bequeaths a ready-made template to the president-elect, who can easily enforce immigration law selectively and vigorously in a way that will disproportionately impact Muslim and Latinx communities. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped design both NSEERS and Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 immigration law, which promoted racial-profiling, is a member of Trump’s transition team. NSEERS and SB 1070 are perfect examples of the intersections between the domestic and the foreign, the official and the unofficial, and between legal and social citizenship. In both cases, the state says to certain human beings, “you look like you don’t belong; I will stop you and ask you for your papers.” This in turn encourages some citizens to say, “you look like you don’t belong, I will punch you and tell you to go back where you came from.”

So far American leaders from George W. Bush to President Obama have largely followed a good Muslim/bad Muslim narrative, publicly pushing for social citizenship and civil rights for American Muslims while keeping intact structural policies that limit civil and human rights inside and outside the country: FBI racial profiling, harassment, and entrapment of the indigent and mentally ill; extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, and abuse at Guantanamo and, perhaps worse, a secret worldwide network of CIA black sites operating without oversight. There is also the perverse logic of an extrajudicial assassination policy that lists all unknown Muslim males murdered in a drone attack as de facto enemy combatants. Constructing “good” Muslims as agents on “the front lines” of the War on Terror, both establishment Democrats and Republicans depicted them as potential family members, friends, and neighbors of terrorists, subtly delegitimizing any criticism of the racial logic of the War on Terror.

We are now getting ready for a leadership shift, which may make the link between unofficial hate crimes against Muslims and official U.S. policies crystal clear through openly racist and xenophobic language. Perhaps this will create an opportunity for potential allies who did not agitate against racial profiling, registrations, and deportations within the United States, or against persistent violations of human rights outside U.S. nation-state borders, to finally see the connection between rhetoric and policy and to stand up to the policies.

Perhaps this is the moment we heed the words of Malcolm X and think beyond “civil rights” towards “human rights” with a framework that includes a critique of U.S. empire. After all, social citizenship for Muslims/Arabs/Middle Easterners – this nebulous racialized category that cuts across both unofficial hate crimes and structural policies like NSEERS – will remain precarious as long as the War on Terror continues to operate on a blueprint of collective punishment at home and abroad.

As we get ready to think through the challenges of a new era, we should stay on guard against blatant violations of our values and institutions. We may also want to notice how the new administration will not necessarily be making things anew, but will likely expand already existing racialized structures around immigration, the prison-industrial complex, and empire – War on Drugs, War on Crime, and War on Terror – structures to which we have long consented.