Janine Jackson interviewed Maha Hilal of Justice for Muslims on the "terrorist watch list" for the September 20, 2019 episode of CounterSpin. This is a slightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: We do not need the anniversary of September 11, 2001 to remind us of the devastating legacies of that day: the obviously endless wars, by any name, in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. And in the United States, the wave of Islamophobia, was not invented that day, of course, but rose to the principle of organization for law enforcement and policy makers and the media: anti-Muslim prejudices repackaged as national security.
Now a pillar of that sanctioned discrimination seems to be weakened. A judge of the United States District Court ruled that the Terrorist Detection Database, generally known as the "watch list," and the list from which other lists, such as the No Fly lists, were derived. It was unconstitutional. "The general right to free movement is a long-recognized fundamental freedom," said Judge Anthony Trenga. And the TSDB, or watch list, violates that right.
This is good news, no doubt, but our next guest says it is crucial that we understand that it is not a conclusion, but a possible beginning. Maha Hilal is co-director of Justice for Muslims Collective, organizer of Witness Against Torture and board member of the School of the Americas Watch. She joins us now by phone from Arlington. Welcome back to CounterSpinMaha Hilal
Maha Hilal: Thank you, Janine; Thanks for having me.
JJ Let's talk first about what the court said here. The observation list, first of all, if people don't remember, had about 1.2 million people in 2017, about 4,600 of them U.S. citizens or Green Card holders, not all Muslims, but disproportionately. And the information is shared with some 18,000 state, local and federal officials, along with private entities and foreign governments. It has been 15 years now. Why did Judge Trenga determine that the watch list was unconstitutional?
MH: So, specifically, when the judge was looking for and reviewing the case, he determined that there were two things that were unconstitutional in terms of the watch list: 1) that those who are on the watch list were not notified of their presence on the list , and 2) that there was no significant way to challenge their presence on the list.
And in his decision, he specifically said that the watch list "does not provide a United States citizen with a constitutionally adequate remedy under the Due Process Clause." Therefore, this was a fairly historic victory for the American Muslim community, particularly on an issue that has long affected many Muslims who have been traveling, both at home and abroad.
JJ And I understand that it made it difficult to present cases, because they said: "Well, you have no right", because you didn't know you were on the list! There were a number of things that prevented the recoil in this, right?
MH: Right. And in the government's response, they specifically said that there were numerous reasons why a person could experience things like interrogation at the airport, (or) could stop somewhere else. They were convinced that American Muslims in this case were not necessarily on the watch list, because they said there are many other institutions that could be targeted at these Muslims, which was not necessarily that they were on the watch list that was the problem. And obviously they couldn't prove that, which was the other problem.
JJ So, "widely shared but secret and potentially very consistent," I think the terms were. I think we can all agree with that. But your piece, recently, by Newsweek It is addressed, "Admitting that the terrorism watch list was unconstitutional is important, but not enough." Why is that?
MH: Then, when the plaintiffs spoke about the ruling, and that Judge Trenga had declared it unconstitutional, at least to the extent that, once again, it was included in the list and could not challenge his presence on the list, that was Theoretically a good thing, and obviously, makes some progress.
However, it has not reached a conclusion in terms of what the remedies for the list would be in the future. He gave each plaintiff and the defendants 45 days to suggest remedies. And obviously, the remedies that were proposed were not to complete the list completely.
It could be said that it would be a difficult question. But at the same time, the only request that the plaintiffs made in their complaint was that people should be notified of being on the list, and that they should be able to question their place on the list. That is a rather limited request, in terms of what it would take to fundamentally change the observation list or get rid of it completely.
JJ The watch list too: there seems to be a real division here, which may seem more meaningful than it is, between citizens and non-citizens. What's going on there?
MH: Right. Then, again, when the plaintiffs talked about the victory, of course, it was a victory for US citizens in particular, and for some non-US citizens living in the United States. But the number of US citizens and legal permanent residents who are on the list is 4,600, and the complete list is approximately 1.2 million people. So, even if this group of people acquires more rights, depending on what the judge decides, that is a fairly small percentage of the entire list.
So, as I mentioned in my article, the question arises, will this result in two separate observation lists? One in which US citizens and non-US citizens living in the US UU. They have additional rights, and one in which non-citizens, who generally have no rights when it comes to this country and challenge their presence on lists or detentions or other things, will have a separate list and have no way to significantly challenge their presence in the list.
JJ Well, the remedy, or the way to reach a requested remedy, they say, "presents ideas for a watch list system that serves national security purposes in good faith but adequately safeguards people's constitutional rights."
There is nothing in this that disrupts the framework, as you say, that Muslims are guilty until proven innocent, that Muslims are inherently a threat to national security. It doesn't really shake that frame, right?
MH: Not at all. And I was really surprised that the plaintiffs represented this case as a great victory, and they talked about their next step to finish the watch list, when the judge didn't even talk about possibly dismantling the list or finishing it.
In fact, he simply reiterated the fact that American Muslims and non-Muslims living in the United States have certain rights that others do not have. And it was also not clear from his reasoning, and the statements he made in his decision, that the list itself was a problem.
It was not that the list had fundamental flaws; it was about the way it is being implemented and he said: "How do we reform the watch list?" instead of "How do we get rid of it? Because it is so problematic, there is no way we can reform it."
JJ Part of the problem is that, when you work only through the legal system, you will only deal with these specific plaintiffs and this specific case. And when we talk about prejudices and anti-Muslim actions in this country, it is, and you made this point the last time we had it, it really goes beyond the issues of legality and illegality; In a way, all that legal framework is too narrow.
Maha Hilal: “There are theoretical rights to which American Muslims in particular are entitled. And then there is what happens when you have your rights compete with the state. "
MH: Right. I believe there are theoretical rights to which American Muslims in particular are entitled. And then there is what happens when you have your rights compete with the state. And it is clear, every time that is the case, when it is a case of national security, your rights have to compete with what is of the theoretical interest of the state to combat terrorism. And when that is the only way you can measure your rights, then, inevitably, it becomes really difficult to earn something substantive or get positive changes for your community.
And I believe that this case, although it is better than nothing, and is indicative of some success on behalf of the American Muslim community, I definitely believe that much more work must be done to challenge the assumptions and narratives that exist, to allow such policies to exist. first.
And for American Muslims in particular, I think it is also very important when it comes to the terrorist watch list or any other policy that really makes a big division between citizens and non-citizens, since they are particularly strategic so as not to deprive even more to non-citizens. , because that is already a problem. And non-citizens have faced many consequences in the "war on terror." And for American Muslims, being complicit in that, I think, is a big problem. And unfortunately, it's something that came up in some way in the way the case of the terror watch list ended and in the way it was talked about.
JJ Yes, we return to the good Muslim against the Muslim evil, which is the kind of division we see …
Simply, finally, the last time we spoke, you pointed out that the goal of many of the ways in which Muslims have been attacked is not just to attack those specific people, is to send a message to the entire community that you could also be directed, that you will also be monitored, that you will also be profiled.
So, the answer to that has to be more than these narrow remediations in some sense, even if they are very powerful, there must be a positive setback that elevates the reality of who Muslims are and who that community really is, yes?
MH: Right. And I would say that at the same time, it is quite tiring to bear the burden of Muslims, talk about who they are and "we are like everyone else" …
JJ Yes Yes.
MH: Because we are the group that is being dehumanized, and should not rely on the dehumanized group to reject these problematic narratives. And I also think that sometimes, in the way that American Muslims reject Islamophobic narratives, they are actually reinforcing and reiterating the stereotypes of Muslims in the first place. And we could talk about internalized Islamophobia; Maybe that's for another day, but I think it's really important.
And with decisions like this, when we talk about the list of terrorists, one of the plaintiffs talked about being vindicated for what the ruling was, that it was unconstitutional and that he was innocent.
And at this point in the "war on terror", I take innocence and guilt, sincerely, with a grain of salt. And I think it's really important to examine these concepts deeply, because it presupposes that people in places like Guantanamo are inherently guilty, right? As, we know that the label of "innocent" and "guilty" does not really apply precisely, and that there are many mechanisms that exist specifically to make someone guilty and criminalize him.
JJ Absolutely. Including just rewriting, changing the law as it existed.
No, I did not say, and I would not say, that it is the responsibility of American Muslims to make that setback.
JJ I believe that the responsibility lies with others, including, from my point of view, the corporate media, which have played beyond and I believe that they have been, in fact, a key force to circulate these odious ideas.
JJ We have been talking to Maha Hilal. She is co-director of the Justice for Muslims Collective, as well as being an organizer of Witness Against Torture and a board member of the Watch School of the Americas. You can find his article, "Admitting that the terrorism watch list was unconstitutional is important, but not nearly enough" in Newsweek.com. Maha Hilal, thank you very much for joining us this week CounterSpin.
MH: Thanks Janine