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Boisi Center Hosts Webinar Discussing Islam in the United States

The United States, while founded on the principle of religious freedom, constantly targets and negatively characterizes Muslims, according to Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Rutgers University.

“The United States prioritizes itself in religious freedom and religious accommodation,” Aziz said. “And yet again, Muslims are being targeted and persecuted.”

On Feb. 1, Aziz joined a panel of three scholars on Zoom to discuss her most recent book, The Racial Muslim: Racism Quashes Religious Freedom. Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life hosted the event.

Aziz said her studies in post–Sept. 11 discrimination against Muslims served as the inspiration for her book.

“Attorneys like myself and many others were engaging in all sorts of advocacy, in litigation, in trying to stop the government from what we thought were overreacting abusive practices and abuse of law and authority in ways that targeted Muslims,” Aziz said.

Aziz said the government told her and her associates it investigated individuals for security purposes only, but thorough investigation soon revealed that was not the case

“In 2011, there was some very impressive investigative reporting that happened at the Associated Press,” Aziz said. “[It] revealed that the [New York Police Department], for the last five to six years, starting around 2005 to 2006, had been engaging in massive surveillance programming against tens of thousands of Muslims in the tri-state area.”

The NYPD was looking for any type of terrorism that Muslims could have been involved in after the Sept. 11 attacks, believing all Muslims were terrorists, she said.

“They were fishing,” Aziz said. “They were sending informants. They were sending undercover agents, and they were fishing for any type of evidence for terrorism.”

In order to expose this fact and prove that the government and NYPD profiled in a discriminatory manner, Aziz said she turned to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“[This act] prevents anyone who receives federal funding from discriminating in their provision of services,” said Aziz.

Aziz said she wanted to prove the NYPD was using funds from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to target Muslim communities, but she realized there was no direct evidence to prove this.

“There was no evidence beyond pure profiling,” Aziz said. “And when I went to look at Title VI, I realized that it only covers race and national origin. It does not cover religion.”

This realization, she said, sparked the beginnings of her book, which analyzes how Americans discriminate against Muslim Americans becasue of their religious affiliation.

Abdullah Ali, an associate professor of Islamic law and prophetic tradition at Zaytuna College and another panelist at the event, said he was captivated by Aziz’s book.

“I really did enjoy the book,” said Ali. “In fact, once I got past the introduction, it was very difficult to put the book down because it contained so much information about the history of discrimination.”

Omid Safi, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University and another panelist, said he appreciated the strengths of Aziz’s arguments but thought some aspects were left out.

“I might want to see the Arab and Muslim [communities] disentangled a little bit,” Safi said.

Safi said this disentanglement could have been done through discussions on prominent Afro-Muslim figures, such as Malcolm X.

“I would argue … the single most prominent American Muslim in the 20th century [is] Malcolm X,” Safi said. “When we are thinking about the conversation of how Muslims become seen as a problem, there is no more essential person we can turn to.”

Safi concluded by sharing his hopes for the future of America.

“[My] only hope is the resurrection of an America that has not yet existed, which would not be based on unearned privilege, but that perpetual, never ending attempt to form the more perfect union, which can only be achieved by pursuing justice,” he said.

Featured Image by Molly Bruns / Heights Staff

March 4, 2022