By Nadia Zouaoui
I am a journalist and documentary filmmaker of Algerian origin who has been living in Canada since 1988. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I have witnessed the different ways in which Muslims in the US and Canada are treated. Crossing the American borders if you are a Muslim man is a risk that many are afraid to take.
But I had always thought that perhaps this fear was exaggerated and that Muslims in North America were viewing themselves as victims.
I was astounded then by a 2010 ABC News/ Washington Post poll that showed that 46 per cent of Americans said they held unfavourable attitudes towards Islam – compared with 24 per cent in January 2002 – and that more than half of the American population believes there are more violent extremists within Islam than in any other religion.
I wanted to explore this big change of opinion. This research convinced me that there was a story to tell and this motivated me to make an investigative film about Islamophobia in the US.
I started my research in July 2010, and realised that many people were examining the aftermath of 9/11. Muslim Americans had decided to speak out through books, reports, theatre and demonstrations on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Muslims were preparing to tell the story of a community under siege – a community that had become collateral damage in the ‘war on terror’.
Alia Malek’s book, Patriot Acts : Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustices , showed how thousands of individuals in the US have been needlessly swept up in the ‘war on terror’ and subjected to human and civil rights abuses, from rendition and torture to workplace discrimination, FBI surveillance and harassment. The personal stories in this book made me realise that Islamophobia is a wide phenomenon permeating American society. And this is what I attempt to show in my film.
Shaheena Parveen, Adama Bah and Raed Jarrar are three of the personal stories in Alia Malek’s book that I have included in my film. They speak out courageously and passionately about their experiences as American citizens struggling to combat racial stereotyping.
A report by the Center for American Progress called Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America shows how a small group of self-proclaimed experts, backed by a host of donors, is spreading fear and hostility toward Muslims in the US.
These so-called experts market Islamophobia in books, reports, websites, blogs and carefully crafted anti-Islam propaganda. They talk to the media and advise Congress. The group has links with the extreme right-wing of Europe (Stop Islamisation of Europe) and has created a sister organisation in the US (Stop Islamization of America).
Norwegian murderer Anders Behring Breivik cited these “experts” in his “Manifesto” more than 200 times.
Making this film has brought me into contact with Americans who have been discriminated against because of their religion, but it has also brought me into contact with Americans who are fighting for justice and who want their country to live up to the ideals of their forefathers in which people of all religions, all colours and all ethnicities can live together in a melting pot where each will live with dignity and where human rights are respected.
Adama Bah: ‘I spent my 17th birthday in jail’
Adama Bah is a student who was detained for weeks on the suspicion that she might be a suicide bomber. She was born in Guinea, but came to the US when she was a couple of months old.
“I think I was 14 when 9/11 happened. At that time I was going to a boarding school in Buffalo. Before 9/11 I was a regular kid, going to school, worrying about what you wore, worrying about the boy next door,” she says.
“It was early in the morning, the teacher called all of us, so we knew something was up. She said the Twin Towers were hit and a Muslim has done it. We’re like: ‘We’re Muslims, what do we have to do with this? This is not what you guys teach us. That’s not what Islam teaches us. So why would they do that, what’s going on?’
“I didn’t know it was that bad against Muslims until I got back …. You can feel there was hate around you because I was wearing a headscarf and I was wearing a niqab. Outside you can feel the fear, but inside I was scared too and I was worried.
“Your friends have lost loved ones. You ask yourself: How will they react towards me? How will they feel towards me? These are all concerns I had to deal with. Will they still think of me as the same Adama that they grew up with? Will they say, ‘oh you’re all terrorists, go back to your country’?
“I’ve been accused of something – something that’s unthinkable. We are victims in it too. We have somebody who says that’s what our religion teaches, when our religion doesn’t teach that ….
“I was sleeping in my room, I had the blankets over my head and they came and pulled the blanket off. They were like ‘wake up’. My sister was sleeping next to me – we were so scared. My heart was beating so fast. There’s a bunch of strangers in my living room, I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know if I was being robbed. But when they turned around we saw their FBI jackets with guns. I’ve never seen a gun that close before and I was scared.
“They told me to put my hands behind my back. I don’t remember if they read me my rights because I was so dazed out. I felt like I was walking towards a death sentence …. But still I didn’t know what was going on.
“I spent my 17th birthday in jail. It was the worst birthday I could ever have.
“What upset me is that they still have these commercials that say: ‘United we stand, united we stand.’ But … you targeted a group of people. You wear a head scarf, your name is Mohamed … you get targeted .… I deserve apologies from the president down because everybody turned their heads around and I was 16 … somebody from that government has to say that was wrong. Because I know I was innocent and they know I was innocent.”
Shaheena Parveen : ‘My son is a victim of cheating and conspiracy’
Shaheena Parveen is a Pakistani immigrant and an activist whose son, Shahawar Matin Siraj, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2006 by a federal judge for plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station in 2004.
“We came here to flee from religious persecution because we are Aga Khani Ismaili. On June 7, 1999 our family came to America from Pakistan …. We always wanted to come to America because we believed there would be good opportunities for our kids. From his childhood, Matin [Shaheena’s son] was very honest and clearheaded but a little naïve. I kept him close to me because he is very gullible,” she says.
“Since 9/11, and because there are a lot of Arabs in our neighbourhood we were always being visited by journalists and there was always discrimination. This even happened frequently in our store as well. After 9/11 they sent an undercover agent. [Osama] Eldawoody, an Egyptian informant, was sent to my son in 2003 …. Eldawoody built a close relationship with my son and became a very close friend. They say Eldawoody was 50 years old but he looked older to me, and my son was young, he was only 19 years old, when they sent Eldawoody to spy on him. My son is naïve; he is what you might call a bit slow .… Eldawoody brainwashed my son.
“My son is a victim of cheating and conspiracy because my son refused to kill innocent people. When 9/11 happened, my son wanted to go and donate blood for the victims. They falsely labeled this boy as a terrorist. It’s that label of terrorism that hurts the most. We are not afraid, we won’t be silent and we will continue to fight.”
Raed Jarrar: Demonising Muslims
Raed Jarrar is an Iraqi-Palestinian architect, blogger and political advocate.
“I’m half Iraqi, half Palestinian. I was born in Baghdad. I came to the US to take refuge. The irony is that I was running away from a situation created by the US to the US. I didn’t come as a refugee. I came as an immigrant because my wife is a US citizen, but I came because life became impossible in Iraq,” he says.
“After a few days of arriving in the US, people were very curious about Iraq …. So, I became, not by choice, a spokesperson or an analyst for what is happening in Iraq.
“I discovered that there’s a completely different narrative given to the US public by mainstream media. And this narrative is about how we’re liberating Iraqis, how they want us there, how we’re bringing them democracy – the same lies that have been repeated over a decade …. So I felt it is my personal responsibility to put my career on hold and try to do more of this public outreach.
“I was in New York [at JFK airport] going back to California where I used to live in that time …. This security official approaches me and flashes his badge in my face .… Then they said can you take off your t-shirt or cover it? I looked at my t-shirt and I realised that I was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘We won’t be silent’ both in Arabic and English. I said why?
“They said people are feeling offended or scared. I tried to explain the meaning of the message. I said I don’t think it’s offensive. One of the TSA officers told me that ‘wearing a t-shirt written in Arabic and coming to a US airport is the equivalent of wearing a t-shirt that reads ‘I’m a robber and I’m going to a bank’.
“I was very shocked and offended of course by this assumption. I was very clear though, I said I will not wear another t-shirt or cover it because I have constitutional rights and I will not waive them unless you show me something: Is there a regulation against Arabic t-shirts?
“I felt that the mentality behind the incident, the mentality that justifies treating me as a second class citizen, taking away my rights is the same exact mentality that justifies killing Muslims and invading their countries.
“It’s the same mentality that justified bombing my neighbourhood in Baghdad. It’s not about covering my t-shirt in New York city …. That’s why I felt it’s really important for me and for anyone else who deals with this to actually fight it …. I am as American as you because this is how the constitution works here. And I’m as human as you even if you refuse to recognise that.
“This mentality is thriving, the mentality of demonising Muslims, looking at them as second class humans or maybe not humans at all. It’s very devastating!”