Held Hostage: Identity Citizenship of Iranian Americans

By Mahdavi, Sara | Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Held Hostage: Identity Citizenship of Iranian Americans


Mahdavi, Sara, Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights


If I see someone come in and he's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.

- Former U.S. Congressman John Cooksey'

I. INTRODUCTION

In the aftermath of September 11, the federal government has revived the practice of profiling people who appear to be Muslim, Arab, or Middle Eastern,2 resulting in state-sanctioned discrimination and encouraging discrimination by private actors. Public violence in the form of governmental policies targeting "Muslim-looking" people in the United States has been accompanied by private discrimination and hate crimes against such people.3 Though the U.S. government has declared formally that Americans do not blame all Muslims or all Arabs for the attacks of September 11, former Congressman Cooksey's derogatory comments about men who wear turbans, made in a radio interview broadcast statewide in Louisiana, demonstrate otherwise.4 Though Cooksey later claimed he had not intended to disparage loyal Americans of Arab descent, he then aired television commercials in which he stated, "We know the faces of the terrorists and where they're from."5 Furthermore, Cooksey noted that although the words "a diaper on his head" were too strong, "our security and safety are our most important rights."6

Similar profiling of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent was seen again during the 2004 congressional elections. When Kamran Akhtar was arrested for videotaping the Charlotte, North Carolina skyline in July 2004, North Carolina congressional candidate Vernon Robinson immediately aired the following television ad:

NARRATOR: This is Pakistani terrorist Kamran Akhtar. He got arrested videotaping targets in Charlotte, North Carolina. He came here illegally across our Mexican border.

VERNON ROBINSON: I'm Vernon Robinson, and I approved this message because ol' Akhtar didn't come here to live the American dream. He came here to kill you.7

Contrary to Robinson's allegations, Akhtar was detained for immigration violations and was never charged with any terrorism-related activities. Federal authorities are not known to have uncovered any ties between Akhtar and terrorists.8 The comments and advertisements of Vernon Robinson and former Congressman John Cooksey indicate, however, that profiling of people perceived to be from the Middle East - those who have the "faces of the terrorists" - is unapologetically alive and well. Although racial profiling had become unacceptable in the minds of many Americans prior to 2001, this view quickly changed after September 11, at least with respect to people who appear Arab, Muslim, or Middle Eastern. According to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll taken in September 2001, 58% of U.S. citizens favored racial profiling of Arabs, including profiling of U.S. citizens of Arab descent; 49% favored special identification cards for them; and 32% supported special surveillance of Arabs and Arab Americans.9 In contrast, prior to the September 11 attacks, 80% of Americans opposed racial profiling.10 Even more frightening, a 2001 Gallup poll found that one-third of the U.S. population favored internment of Arab Americans.11

This profiling and questioning of people of Middle Eastern descent continues because members of this group are seen as foreign and are presumed to be disloyal. This phenomenon, in turn, leads to a lack of American identity citizenship among group members. Although many people of Middle Eastern descent residing in the U.S. are U.S. citizens, they lack identity citizenship, which Linda Bosniak describes as a sense of belonging and community membership.12 Identity citizenship may be essential to protecting a community's interests and guaranteeing the rights and treatment granted by formal citizenship.13 Thus, a lack of identity citizenship can lead to the erosion of a group's formal and political rights.14 Violations of these formal and political rights then reinforce the lack of identity citizenship, both within the community whose rights have been violated and in the American public's perception of the community. …

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