Trending Topics:

How anti-Muslim war makes US democracy impossible

on 11 Comments

The “usual suspects” are already being rounded up. U.S. citizens with Iranian names and backgrounds are being selected for special screening at the border. City police departments in New York and Los Angeles have vowed to be on alert for Iranian terrorists.

It’s been the same story for decades. Nearly anytime the United States has a military conflict with a country or group that is labeled Muslim, the civil and human rights of Muslims or people who “look Muslim,” whatever that means, are violated by both the U.S. government and some of its citizens.

Anti-Muslim war-making has made real democracy impossible.

I was nine when 52 white Americans were held hostage for more than a year at the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979. As yellow ribbons went around the trees, and anger grew across the country, Iranians and brown people associated with Iranians were attacked, harassed, and questioned.

Cover of Muslim American Politics and the Future of US Democracy

Cover of Muslim American Politics and the Future of US Democracy (Image: NYU Press)

My Arab-American grandmother knew there might be trouble. At the least, she was concerned about reputational damage. I remember her telling strangers that Iranians were not Arabs, and so we had nothing to do with the hostage crisis.

I look back on that moment and realize that she was acting out of fear. And her fear was rational.

No matter how assimilated a Muslim or “Muslim-looking” person is—my grandmother was Christian—the federal government’s policies toward Muslims end up depriving U.S. citizens not only of their political rights but of their chance for social equality, too.

This practice has been rooted as much in repressing Islam among U.S.-born Black Muslims as it has been in restricting the rights of foreign-born Muslims and their families.

In the 1950s, Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam gave birth to some of the most potent dissent in America. Malcolm X’s charismatic critique of white supremacist Christianity, anti-Black racism, and U.S. military intervention abroad was a serious political challenge to the U.S. during the Cold War. The government repressed the group, and the civil rights of Nation of Islam members were violated by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), federal prisons, and local police departments.

Though Muhammad Ali would be revered later as a principled opponent of the Vietnam War, it is hard to overestimate how much he was hated by Democrats and Republicans alike for refusing induction into the U.S. military in 1967.

That association of Muslims and Islam with “the enemy” was transformed after 1979 as so-called “Middle Eastern-looking” Muslims took center stage in the federal government’s policy-making and law enforcement.

During the 1991 Gulf War and especially after 9/11, the nation’s focus on war-making in Muslim-majority lands meant that, even as Black Americans remained the group whose civil rights were most violated, Muslims became a class of people whose basic Constitutional rights could be denied as a matter of law.

Long before President Trump implemented his legal ban on Muslim and other visitors, President Obama’s administration singled out Muslims for special treatment in domestic counter-intelligence, devoting extraordinary FBI resources to mass surveillance, undercover informants, and entrapment. The Democratic President profiled Muslims without any suspicion of guilt, used secret evidence to prosecute terrorists, and assassinated U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in Yemen. Muslim youth became the targets of sophisticated sting operations that tried to entice them to wage a violent jihad on their fellow citizens even as right-wing neo-Nazi and other white supremacist groups grew stronger. [1]

And before President Obama, there was President Bush’s USA PATRIOT Act, extraordinary rendition, extra-legal detention at Guantanamo Bay, torture of both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens such as Brandon Mayfield, warrantless wiretaps, and a litany of human rights abuses perpetuated against Muslims both at home and abroad.

Since 9/11, the treatment of Muslims has exposed a rot at the core of American democracy, and that rot has been disturbingly bipartisan.

Too many Americans, conservative and liberal, are willing to make exceptions to the Bill of Rights when they believe their security is at risk. Too many are willing to prioritize the safety of some of us over the safety of all of us.

As the President wages war on yet more Muslims, it is important to remember that while Muslims will be its primary victims, this long war on Muslims damages what holds us together, our shared belief in human freedom and dignity for all.


1. Eric Lichtblau, “F.B.I. Steps Up Use of Stings in ISIS Cases,” New York Times, June 7, 2016,; Jesse J. Norris and Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk, “Estimating the Prevalence of Entrapment in Post-9/11 Terrorism Cases,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 105, no. 3 (2015): 609–78.; Jesse J. Norris and Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk, “Temporal Trends in U.S. Counterterrorism Sting Operations, 1989–2014,” Critical Studies on Terrorism 11, no. 2 (2018): 4; Trevor Aaronson, “The Informants,” Mother Jones, September/October 2011,; Trevor Aaronsen, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism (New York: Ig Publishing, 2013), 44–45; Human Rights Watch, Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terrorism Prosecutions (New York: Human Rights Watch and Columbia University, Human Rights Institute, 2014), 3,

Edward Curtis

Edward Curtis is professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is author of Muslim American Politics and the Future of U.S. Democracy (NYU Press, 2019).

Other posts by .

Posted In:

11 Responses

  1. gamal on January 14, 2020, 6:45 pm

    “and a litany of human rights abuses perpetuated against Muslims both at home and abroad”

    After nearly 20 years of war on Afghanistan Americans grasp of the nature of the society/ies of Afghanistan is pretty much content free full of simple ill founded ideas, binaries and stereotypes, Tom is a legend in field work and an amusing and informative speaker and the author of:

    “The War for Afghanistan: A Very Brief History: From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History”

    He is an associate of the US foreign policy intelligentsia, enjoy.

  2. Misterioso on January 14, 2020, 9:09 pm

    The “Christian” crusades against the Muslim world togeher with the West’s profound ignorance of Islam and its monumental contribution to civilization and science laid the foundation for the anti-Muslim bias that regrettably, is still with us today.

    Here’s just a peek at the history of Islam:

    “[By] laying the foundations of their power in a system of wise and equitable laws, diligently cultivating the arts and sciences, and promoting agriculture, manufactures and commerce, [the Muslim Arabs] gradually formed an empire unrivalled for its prosperity by any of the empires of Christendom…. The cities of Arabian Spain became the resort of Christian artisans, to instruct themselves in the useful art. The Universities of Toledo, Cordova, Seville, and Granada, were sought by the pale student from other lands to acquaint himself with the sciences of the Arabs and the treasure lore of antiquity.” (Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra, GREFOL,SA, La fuensanta, Mostoles, Madrid, 1990. pp. 52-53)

    It was in Andalusia (known in Hebrew as Sefarad) “that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style – from the intellectual of philosophy to the architectural styles of mosques….”
    (Maria Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the World, Little, Brown and Company, 2002, pp. 11 and 30)

    “In Al-Andalus the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as his foreign minister…. Fruitful intermarriage among the various cultures were vital aspects of Andalusian identity….” (ibid)

  3. jon s on January 15, 2020, 6:25 am

    Speaking of Hebrew, a surprising discovery. Evidence of the use of Hebrew in everyday life .

    • echinococcus on January 15, 2020, 9:17 am

      Big, fat, hairy deal, “surprising”… jusst as expected, rather. A list of names and number, which in those years would be in the guy’s liturgical script. Duh. As for usage, well of course; just like Latin the liturgical language, too, not only the script, was widely used. But it was no one’s mother tongue after ca 200 BC.

      Forget the ignoramus who wrote this idiocy, what should we think of a “history teacher” who has not the foggiest idea of this?

      • jon s on January 19, 2020, 10:57 am

        I admit that I was surprised , especially by the sign, in Hebrew : “This is the window through which to throw out the feces”. We know of Hebrew being used in prayer and study and rabbinic correspondence. But here we see that even the person tasked with getting rid of the waste, presumably the lowest-ranking person in the household, was using Hebrew in daily, mundane, chores in 14th Century Cologne.
        So, yes, I learned something new .

      • echinococcus on January 20, 2020, 10:41 am

        Aah, the head ignoramus doubles down!
        He won another donkey’s-ears hat to wear in class.

        Of course it is the so-called lower classes who would be using only the liturgical script (and numbering system) as it happened all over the place — all the way from the early Middle Ages on to quite recently! Duh.

        The vernacular was not a written language in any case in those times — the general population still wrote in Latin (or Greek, or Classical Arabic, or whatever their liturgical language.) Those who had started to write in the spoken language, haltingly, of course belonged to the dominant ethnicity.

        The only instruction that people nominally belonging to the Jewish community would get, especially if not rich and educated, would be that of the temple. Duh again.

        Guy was surprised to hear that the normal, regular thing was happening normally. What is incredible is that a complete impostor like Johnny S is allowed to teach class! and in history, no less! as an invader himself, to invaders and their offspring. It’s indoctrinators like this Johnny S who are the cause of the “Israel” population being a bloodthirsty murderer mob, with negligible exceptions.

      • jon s on January 21, 2020, 3:25 pm

        I admit that you’re probably right on this , and I shouldn’t have been surprised. Perhaps I was somewhat taken aback by the Hebrew on the way to the (sort of ) toilet. So, rethinking the matter, and recalling the quantity of Hebew texts of the time, I see that I was on the wrong track.

  4. fyrebird on January 15, 2020, 7:30 am

    I posted a comment on this topic in another thread:

    The ‘war on terror’ as I argued has decriminalised — indeed, authorised — the traumatic policies and crimes committed against Muslim minorities not just by the United States but other countries. These include escalations in India, Myanmar and China. All of this is connected. It’s precisely why Israeli leaders were jubilant after 9/11. It removed that moral impediment and saw a section of humanity as worthy of bullying and killing not that these countries weren’t already doing it, but it created a kind of officious justification. I must say, parochial sections of the left — with claims of wider learning — were complicit in this as well in their blame on ‘religion’ and not understanding how things actually work in a neoliberal system much less knowledgeable about the Koran.

  5. Vera Gottlieb on January 15, 2020, 12:17 pm

    America has never been a democracy…

  6. Ossinev on January 20, 2020, 7:21 am

    @jon s
    ” But here we see that even the person tasked with getting rid of the waste, presumably the lowest-ranking person in the household, was using Hebrew in daily, mundane, chores in 14th Century Cologne.
    So, yes, I learned something new .”

    Presumably you have not yet learned about the settlers in Hebron chucking the stuff on native Palestinians below. Ah the ancient Jewish sport of s..t hurling revived. It must make the Zionist heart swell with pride !

  7. gamal on January 21, 2020, 6:33 am

    “Since 9/11, the treatment of Muslims has exposed a rot at the core of American democracy, and that rot has been disturbingly bipartisan”

    Islam (Islamism) has a new poster boy for the emerging campaign, he is a slaver…of Yazidis and no doubt a chopper of heads, hand and genitalia…it’s the old heart of darkness remix

    I am looking forward to the prequel…

    “Or maybe if ISIS attacks on Iraqi civilians/militias result in the Iraqi parliament revoking their request for the US to remove their troops from Iraqi soil.

    There’s the possibility that ISIS will start a resurgence in Libya, meaning that NATO has to get in there and sort things out.

    Maybe some furious ISIS fighters will be the ones who assassinate Iranian generals in future. It’s much less messy that way.

    Or, hell, maybe we’ll return to the hits of the 90s and early 2000s, and Islamic jihadists will get back to work in Chechnya.

    Whatever happens, ISIS are back baby. And that means that some way, somehow, Mr al-Salbi is about to make the foreign policy goals of the United States much easier.”

    That’s what Goldsteins are for.

Leave a Reply