Muslim Racialization and US Law Enforcement Agencies

Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans by Sangay K. Mishra (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) is the first of its kind involving the politics of South Asians in the United States. Desis Divided fills an important gap in the study of Asian American politics and speaks to a larger literature on minority political incorporation, showing both the strengths and limitations of Desi political involvement.

After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government responded in two ways: (1) looking for the perpetrators of the attack outside the United States, which resulted in the invasion of Afghanistan, and (2) a domestic “war on terror,” which started with the detention and interrogation of thousands of Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, and South Asians. Here I briefly note some of the measures undertaken by law enforcement agencies after 9/11 attacks that underline the systematic and pervasive nature of Muslim targeting that in turn was embodied as frighteningly transformative experiences by the interviewees.

The first round of investigations, started immediately after September 11, 2001, and termed the Pentagon Twin Tower Bombing Investigation (PENTTBOM), led to approximately 1,200 citizens and noncitizens being detained for interrogations within the first two months of the attacks and subsequently released (Akram and Karmley 2005). According to a review conducted by the Department of Justice (DOJ), it was clear from the beginning that most of these detainees had no connection to terrorism at all and their detention could only be explained by their religion, ethnicity, and nation of origin (Chishti et al. 2003). The DOJ report found that law enforcement agencies selectively followed up on dubious tips for persons of Arab or Muslim extraction and accepted the arbitrary nature of arrests and designation as “special interest” by the FBI (Office of the Inspector General 2003).

A radical redefinition of immigration laws was also visible in the FBI’s “hold until cleared” policy, under which the bureau required that the Immigration and Naturalization Service not release any individual until they were cleared by the FBI as not implicated in a terrorism investigation. The process of trial and “clearance” decision was secret; neither the detainee nor the public had access to the criteria by which the cases were being evaluated. According to the government’s own Office of the Inspector General report, the average case took eighty days for the FBI to clear (2003). This violation of due process was justified on the basis of individuals’ alien status and exceptions created under the PATRIOT Act (Akram and Karmley 2005, American Civil Liberties Union, 2004a).

The “voluntary interview” program—an ironic name since the process was anything but voluntary—was also initiated right after 9/11. The first 5,000 individuals designated for interviews were claimed by the government to have “al Qaeda-related factors.” The criteria used to select individuals for these interviews were: males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three who entered the United States after January 1, 2000, on nonimmigrant visas, and who held passports from or lived in countries known to have an “al Qaeda presence.” The DOJ kept the list of countries secret; however, based on the information about the people interviewed, the countries appeared to be Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, and Indonesia (Akram and Karmley 2005). Despite the DOJ’s admission that the first 5,000 interviews did not produce any leads to terrorist activities, a second round of interviews was initiated in February 2002 that involved 3,000 individuals (Chishti et al. 2003).

Extending the approach of exclusively targeting people on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and nation of origin, on January 25, 2002, the DOJ announced the Absconder Apprehension Initiative to identify, interview, arrest, and deport people who had received final orders of removal in normal immigration hearings but nonetheless remained in the United States. While there was a total of 314,000 absconders present in the United States at that point, this particular initiative was focused exclusively on Muslims from Arab, South Asian, and Middle Eastern countries (Akram and Karmley 2005) By May 2003, over 1,100 of these alleged absconders had been arrested, and two-thirds of them deported destroying families in the process (American Civil Liberties Union 2004 b).

The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) was the most infamous of the policy initiatives that were introduced in the post-9/11 period . The program had two registration components: through port of entry and through domestic or call-in registration. Domestic or call-in registration required male nonimmigrants (people on temporary visas) over the age of sixteen from twenty-five Muslim countries to physically appear at designated INS offices with relevant documents and go through the process of verification and questioning, or risk losing their status. More than 80,000 individuals were interviewed under the program, and over 13,000 were placed under removal proceedings. The program came under intense criticism and was finally discontinued in 2005 (American-Arab ADC and PSU 2009). NSEERS was followed by a secret program termed Operation Front Line, coordinated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prior to the 2004 presidential elections, which targeted immigrants on temporary visas from Muslim-majority countries. Almost all the investigations were related to visa violations or fraudulent passports and visas, and there were no cases related to terrorism. Even though NSEERS was suspended, government agencies continued to use the data collected during the program to further target Muslims (Lichtblau 2008).

The first phase of the War on Terror, defined by policies such as voluntary interview, the Absconder Apprehension Initiative, and NSEERS discussed above, was focused on noncitizen Muslims as foreign populations, and all policy details were constructed around their links to countries of origin. However, counterterrorism policy gradually moved away from an initial focus on Muslims on temporary visas (foreigners) and toward the “radicalization” of the domestic Muslim population. This phase was defined by surveillance of the Muslim community and the extensive use of informants from the community. In August 2011, the Associated Press (AP) published a series of reports on the NYPD’s surveillance program focused on Muslims in New York City and adjoining states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. The NYPD documents leaked by the AP journalists revealed that a secret unit within NYPD’s intelligence division, known as the Demographics Unit, targeted twenty-eight listed ancestries of interest (all of them from predominantly Muslim countries) and focused on gathering information about communities where terrorists might hide. Places of worship, restaurants, hookah bars, bookstores, and other places visited by Muslims were targets of surveillance. Muslim Students Associations at different New York City college campuses were also targets of the NYPD surveillance program (Goldman and Apuzo 2013; Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility 2013). The demographic unit responsible for this surveillance program was disbanded in 2014, after these stories became public and attracted stinging criticisms by civil rights groups. However, the NYPD continues to recruit informants from the Muslim community by using its power over community members who are detained by the department for petty crimes and violations.[i] Police departments and the FBI in other major cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have also adopted similar practices that became controversial and faced criticism from Muslim community and civil liberty groups.[ii]

A systematic targeting of Muslims by law enforcement agencies in the post-9/11 period has fueled racialization on the basis of religious identity. A forty-eight-year-old New York City–based Muslim Pakistani immigrant said: “Early on I think it was true for everyone (South Asians), but it looks like the law enforcement agencies have gone through their training and they have been told: this is a Sikh turban and this is a Muslim turban, so be aware. If you get this turban, let them go, but this turban, stop them. So they went through that change of their manual of training and it is now mostly the South Asian Muslim community.”[iii] Subsequently, mosques and specific Muslim neighborhoods were put under constant surveillance, causing extreme hardship and emotional distress to the community. Referring to the targeting of a predominantly Pakistani neighborhood in the Coney Island Avenue area in Brooklyn, New York, a Pakistani American activist said: “They (the FBI and NYPD) would go door to door, and they would wait in the restaurants for change of shift, and the restaurant workers working in the kitchen would come out and they would question them. There were several arrests made. Then they were people like Mr. . . . he was also arrested in a neighborhood search. It was four blocks from here. . . . There were many such arrests. People have been traumatized a lot.”[iv] The news of incidents such as the Coney Island Avenue police raids circulated among the Muslim communities all across the United States, and a sense of being under siege developed from hearing such stories.

The systematic targeting of Muslims by governmental agencies worked as an official validation of the racialization of Muslims as suspicious, untrustworthy, and outsiders. Many Muslims interviewed did not feel very comfortable revealing their religious identity among strangers, and they always exercised an element of caution about their surroundings. A thirty-two-year-old Muslim immigrant of Pakistani origin based in Brooklyn, New York, expressed his fears of such encounters in the following words:

[su_quote]There was genuine suspicion of Muslims and defensiveness on the part of Muslims . . . just makes you walk around the streets much more carefully. I’ve learned to be much more defensive in public situations. Certain people get angry, not everyone. I just mean have a defensive self-protective demeanor. You just have to have an eye out on what is going on around you a little bit more. A guy with one too many beers starts asking you too many questions and you have a feeling this isn’t going the right way—time to move on. I have stopped going to bars by myself, which I used to do quite often. I only go with friends. Start facing the reality.[v][/su_quote]

A complete racialization of Muslims as threatening, terrorist, and untrustworthy was reflected in the all-encompassing reach of the process, ranging from the actions of law enforcement and immigration agencies to innocuous encounters in workplaces, neighborhoods, and public spaces.

The construction of Muslim identity in this particular way had wider ramifications for all South Asian communities who “appeared Muslim.” The approach of law enforcement and immigration agencies reflected in systematic targeting of Muslims further strengthened the public attitude of hostility and bias toward Muslims and those who appeared to be Muslim. A very high number of bias crimes against Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs by the public in the years following the 9/11 attacks is thus inextricably linked to the approach of law enforcement and other governmental agencies that used religious and national identities to profile and target communities in the War on Terror. Legal scholars have suggested that there is a mutually constitutive relationship between systematic racial profiling by law enforcement agencies and hate violence committed by the public. Muneer Ahmad argues that the public hate violence against South Asians and Arabs is aided and strengthened by the flawed logic used in racial profiling by the law enforcement agencies. The logic that Muslims as a group are suspicious because those involved in the 9/11 attacks were Muslims leads to profiling of Muslims. Hate crimes operate on the same logic: any Muslim-looking person belongs to a larger suspicious community and is hence a possible target of racial violence on the streets (Ahmad 2002). Leti Volpp, analyzing the post-9/11 profiling and violence against South Asians and Arabs, critiques the conventional legal understanding of public versus private actions and argues that the private actions of the U.S. populace, in the form of hate violence attacks against Arab and South Asian Americans, bears a direct relationship to the explicit racial and religious profiling by the U.S. government (Volpp 2002). The hate crimes against Sikhs partly underline this insidious logic of profiling that fuels public violence against those who appear to be Muslim or Arab.


[i] The New York Times reported in May 2014 that the NYPD regularly recruits informants from the Muslim community by using controversial tactics. They interview Muslims who are arrested by as part of its routing law enforcement practice. Muslims detained for minor violations are either enticed or coerced through various means to become a part of the NYPD’s network of Muslim informants who gather information about the community. For details, see Goldstein 2014.

[ii] The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) under the leadership of William Bratton started a program, termed as Muslim mapping, that aimed to collect varied kinds of information including places of worship, residential patterns, restaurants, cultural centers, and other kinds of spaces inhabited by the Muslim community. It was scrapped in 2007 after strong objections by the local Muslim communities and civil liberties group terming this practice as thinly disguised racial profiling practice (see MacFarquhar 2007). The local FBI also engaged in surveillance of Muslim community leaders who were part of Multi Cultural Advisory Council created by FBI to build communication and trust between law enforcement agencies and the community. The dispute over surveillance led to a case (FBI v. Islamic Shura Council of Southern California) that revealed a systematic surveillance of Muslim community leaders by FBI (see Reza 2006; Mishra and Lokaneeta 2014). FBI engaged in similar practices in Northern California whereby community groups, places of worship, and other Muslim spaces became target of routine surveillance (see La Ganga 2012).

[iii] Interview, New York, N.Y., 3 March 2007.

[iv] Interview, New York, N.Y., 15 March 2007.

[v] Interview, New York, N.Y., 12 February 2007.

From Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans by Sangay K. Mishra (University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
Copyright 2016 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Reproduced by permission of the author and the publisher.


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Sangay K. Mishra Written by:

Sangay Mishra is the author of Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Mishra is an assistant professor of political science at Drew University.

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