Federal Civil Rights Engagement with Arab and Muslim American Communities Post 9/11
Written Testimony of Sahar F. Aziz, Associate Professor at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law
On the Federal Civil Rights Engagement with Arab and Muslim American Communities Post 9/11
Before the United States Commission on Civil Rights | November 9, 2012
Chairman Castro, Members of the Committee my name is Sahar F. Aziz. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today in my capacity as a law professor whose scholarship focuses on the intersection of national security and civil rights as it relates to Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians in the post-9/11 era. I want to note, at the outset of my testimony today regarding federal civil rights engagement with Arab and Muslim American communities post-9/11, that the views I present today are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my law school. Prior to joining the legal academy, I spent over seven years representing individuals and working with nonprofit organizations that were directly, and often adversely, impacted by post-9/11 national security laws, practices, and policies. I also had the privilege of serving as a Senior Policy Advisor for the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. where I coordinated federal engagement programs across the country. Accordingly, I have participated in various federal civil rights engagement efforts with the Arab and Muslim American communities both as a government official and an advocate representing community interests. My testimony today reflects my experiences, observations, and academic research on the important, albeit imperfect, project of government engagement with Arab and Muslim American communities.
The topic of today’s hearing—federal civil rights engagement with Arab and Muslim American communities—bears a great deal of importance on the question of how the federal government should balance its protection of civil rights and liberties of all Americans with America’s national security needs. While this topic warrants a more extensive analysis, my testimony highlights four key points that I believe are paramount to a successful federal civil rights engagement program with Arab and Muslim American communities.
First, for federal engagement to be effective, community representatives at engagement meetings must encompass the rich diversity of the Arab and Muslim American communities, including but not limited to, ethnicity, socio-economic background, youth, women, political viewpoint, and race. Often times, a limited number of individuals who are male, Arab or South Asian, and over the age of 35 are repeatedly invited to government engagement meetings. As a result, discussions are constrained by the limited experiences and viewpoints of a select few purportedly representing tremendously diverse communities. This impedes the communities’ efforts to seek redress on civil rights grievances as well as the government’s ability to meaningfully identify and resolve civil rights issues.
Second, the federal government and any participant local and state entities should not use community engagement meetings in furtherance of national security, surveillance, investigative and prosecutorial objectives, but rather to develop trust and constructive relations with their constituents towards the common goal of protecting individual rights and public safety for all Americans. Unfortunately, recent news reports prompt serious concerns that some government engagement meetings are pretext for gathering intelligence, conducting investigations, and eventually pursuing prosecution of meeting attendees or their families and associates – as opposed to good faith efforts to build relationships between government and constituents. Absent credible evidence and binding mechanisms that guarantee the government is not conducting engagement based on false pretenses, engagement efforts are doomed to fail as mere public relations exercises aimed at diverting attention from critiques of government overreaching.
Third, government engagement efforts with Arabs and Muslims must be holistically focused on the host of social, economic, and political factors that affect the vitality of Arab and Muslim communities across the nation. The government’s primary interest in working with Arab and Muslim communities based solely on national security issues reinforces false stereotypes that these communities warrant extra scrutiny, thereby increasing the risk of private acts of discrimination and perpetuating counterproductive counterterrorism tactics. Moreover, communities’ suspicions that engagement efforts are merely investigative tools employed as part of broader counterterrorism objectives are reinforced, thereby hindering the potential for developing sustainable relationships based on trust and mutual respect.
Finally, government civil rights engagement programs must be subject to independent citizen and Congressional oversight to ensure stated objectives are in fact met. Notwithstanding the best of intentions, the efficacy of government engagement programs should not be left to the discretion of government employees left unaccountable to impartial and independent third parties. Various models of citizen oversight used in other contexts can guide the creation of effective monitoring and oversight mechanisms for government engagement projects. In the end, failed engagement efforts risk worsening relations between Arab and Muslim communities and government, in addition to wasting limited government resources during challenging economic times.