American citizens have an absolute right to religious freedom – to choose and practice any religion or none at all. Today, U.S. officials target Muslim Americans in airports and haters target them in our streets and cities. This is not normal. This is un-American. We need to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans and stop the bigotry and hatred.
Muhammed ibn Ali is the son of the late Mohammed Ali, heavyweight world boxing champion (three times), famous as well for his political stands, including opposition to the Vietnam War. Muhammed ibn Ali is a U.S. citizen, born and raised here. As a U.S. citizen, he has an absolute right to travel freely in and out of the country. Yet, when he returned to the United States with his mother after attending a Black History Month event in Jamaica, U.S. immigration officials stopped him and questioned him for more than two hours.
U.S. immigration officials have no business stopping U.S. citizens. Their only concern is with non-citizens. Yet they held Ali for hours and questioned him about his religion – not his citizenship. He described what happened to Democracy Now:
“We was headed to baggage claim, and immigration pulled me aside and asked me a series of questions. The first question they asked me was: What’s my name? The second question was: Where did I get my name from? And the third question was: What religion are you? And so, I answered, “My name is Muhammad Ibn Ali.” And I said, “I got my name from my mother and father. They raised me. They gave me the name Muhammad Ali from birth.” And I said, “I’m Muslim.” Obviously, I think they didn’t believe me, so they took me into another room, the room in the back, and asked me the same series of questions. And so, it really struck me as a surprise, shock and awe, because I’m an American citizen, so I don’t see why he even stopped me in the first place.”
His mother, Khalila Camacho-Ali, who was in a wheelchair, was separated from her son and also questioned by immigration officials. She also told Democracy Now what happened to her:
He says, “Well, we know you’re Muhammad Ali’s wife or ex-wife. OK, well, where do you live? And what is your religion?” And I says, “My religion? Are you kidding me?” I said, “That’s a personal question.” I said, “Is my papers in order?” They said, “What is your religion?” I said, “OK, I’ll comply.” And I said, “I’m a Muslim.” I totally was freaking out. I go, “What’s going on?” I didn’t understand. I says, “Is my papers in order?” “We just want to ask you a few questions. That’s all.” You know, I mean, they were very kind, but they never said why they asked me the question.
Both Ali and his mother had traveled abroad before, with no problem. This year is different. This year is not normal.
Ali was stopped again, on March 10, in a Washington, DC airport. The New York Times reported:
“One day after Muhammad Ali Jr. spoke with members of Congress about being detained at a Florida airport last month, he was briefly stopped again before boarding a flight on Friday afternoon, his lawyer said.”
This time, security officials found fault with his identification. The official Illinois identification card – good enough to get him on the flight to DC – was no longer accepted to get him on a flight home. He was questioned for at least 20 minutes, according to his attorney, who was traveling with Ali. After he produced a U.S. passport, he was allowed to board the flight. The Transportation Security Agency denied that the incident ever happened – despite the eyewitness accounts of Ali’s mother and attorney.
“People need to start paying attention to what’s happening in our country,” attorney Chris Mancini told the New York Times. “Our rights are being eroded.” Mancini, a former federal prosecutor, told Democracy Now his office has been hearing from Muslims all over the country.
“And the two things that people are saying—the first one is heartbreaking: Do you think I should deny my religion so that I can get into the country without being hassled? That’s heartbreaking. And the other calls we’re getting is: “You know, they—I’m a Muslim, and they asked me the same thing. And then they had a list of questions: Where do you pray? What imam do you practice with? What do you read? What religion? Do you pray five times a day? Are you a member of Jarid-something-or-other?” I can’t remember the exact name.”
Minnesotan Omar Abdelwahed says he gets this kind of treatment frequently. He is a U.S. citizen, born in Minneapolis, and travels a lot on business, usually to France. In an article published in MinnPost, he explained:
“I go through TSA once or twice a month. I am often traveling back from some amazing country. I believe I am blessed to be able to travel as such. When I return to my home country, the United States, I give my passport to a machine. It spits out my picture with a giant X across it and I’m asked to move to the non-U.S. citizen line.”
He knows why. A TSA agent told him: “It is your last name. That’s why.”
“I’ve been singled out countless times for my last name, asked repeatedly to leave the line for U.S. citizens, regardless how many times I’ve passed additional screening in the past, my name and face crossed out, literally, with a giant X. Clearly, these security measures do nothing but alienate and divide U.S. citizens because of erroneous assumptions of their backgrounds, all from scanning their last names.”
This is not okay. We cannot allow this to be normal in America.
Threats against Muslims and attacks on synagogues have escalated in recent months. On March 4, the president of a Kentucky mosque got a threat in the mail: “An explosive device will be placed at your mosque very soon.” Should he take it seriously? Well, four mosques were burned in the first two months of 2017. I’d take it very seriously.
“The mosque fires come amid increased fear about hate crimes against minority religious groups. In recent weeks, scores of bomb threats were called into Jewish community centers and schools around the country and graveyards in Jewish cemeteries in three states were vandalized. On Sunday, somebody threw a rock through a window of the Masjid Abu Bakr mosque in Denver. In Redmond, Washington, vandals destroyed the Muslim Association of Puget Sound mosque’s entrance sign on two occasions within two months of the election. Two days after the inauguration, a woman shattered the windows of the Davis Islamic Center in California, and left strips of raw bacon on a door handle. In January, a white nationalist fatally shot six people at a mosque in Québec City. Last week, a white man shot two Indian men, one fatally, at a Kansas bar after making racial slurs, questioning their immigration status, and shouting, “Get out of my country.”
In North Carolina, a February meeting attended by about 20 people – “professional conservative activists, GOP volunteers and militia types” – focused on paranoid rhetoric about Islam in the United States. The Guardian reported:
Jones’s presentation was repeatedly interrupted by comments about killing Muslims from Frank del Valle, a staunchly anticommunist Cuban immigrant, with little or no pushback from the others in the room.
“Can we not kill them all?” Del Valle asked, about 15 minutes into the presentation, during a discussion about the differences between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam.
He didn’t get shut down. In a discussion of “what to do next,” anti-Islamic speaker Robert Goodwill (how’s that for irony?), tried – half-heartedly – to distance himself from Del Valle:
“Goodwill attempted to steer the discussion away from violence, noting that the election of Donald Trump was a positive development for their cause….
“I am beyond that point,” Del Valle replied. “I’m ready to start aking people out.”
Goodwill responded, “I can understand that. We’re not there yet.”
Yet. “We’re not there yet.” God help us.
The meeting got a reaction locally:.
“Greensboro’s mayor, Nancy Vaughan, who is of Syrian descent, posted on her Facebook page in response to the Kernersville meeting: “Words matter. Hold them accountable. Expose hate where you find it.”
Words do matter. All 100 U.S. Senators asked the president for “swift action” against the rising tide of anti-Semitism manifested in threats to Jewish Community Centers. After waffling for weeks, the president finally condemned anti-Semitism. In contrast, official silence on Islamophobia is deafening.
Jews and Muslims across the country are making common cause against both forms of religious prejudice. Islamophobia – hatred of Muslims and the religion of Islam – is just as pernicious as anti-Semitism. The Senate, the president, and each of us needs to stand up against hate.
What you can do:
- Educate yourself about Islam and about Muslims in America. Here are a few places to begin:
- Debunking Myths about Muslims and Islam
- Islamophobia Undermines Religious Freedom
- Building Bridges: A Muslim and Non-Muslim Dialogue about Islamophobia in America, Part 1
- Building Bridges: A Muslim and Non-Muslim Dialogue about Islamophobia in America, Part 2
- Myths and Facts about Muslim People and Islam
- Speak up and speak against Islamophobia, wherever you hear it.
- Demand that political leaders speak out against hate crimes against Muslims.