I want to tell my boys not to worry. But as Muslims or Arab descent, they
are at risk.
By Laila Al-Marayati
Laila Al-Marayati is a physician and spokeswoman for the Muslim Women's
League based in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion
May 18, 2003
Not long ago I rented the movie "The
Count of Monte Cristo" to watch with my two sons, who I thought would
enjoy the exciting, action-packed tale. My 11-year-old surprised me,
though, by becoming very agitated as the protagonist, Edmond Dantes, was
banished to the Chateau d'If, a grisly prison on a desolate island where
torture was the order of the day.
"Are people tortured in prison
today?" he asked.
"Well, yes," I admitted.
here, here in America?"
"No, of course not," I reassured
him. "It's something that only happens in other countries."
"Can they take you out of prison here and send you somewhere else to
get tortured?" he asked.
I am usually honest with my children. But
not this time. I had recently read that U.S. officials had admitted to
sending detainees abroad to countries with regimes that have no qualms
about using torture to get people to cooperate. This was not information
my son needed to hear.
"Absolutely not!" I assured him.
"Why are you so worried about this?" "Well, what if they
make a mistake and you get taken to jail even though you didn't do
anything wrong? I mean, what if they sent you to jail just for being
Muslim? Everyone thinks Muslims are terrorists and bad people."
fear of arbitrary arrest and torture disturbed me, especially since this
is the reality for some Muslims here and many more abroad who have been
incarcerated as suspects in the "war on terrorism."
has roots in Palestine and Iraq, so naturally we are preoccupied with
events overseas, but we limit the exposure of our children to media
coverage of the Middle East. We don't discuss the threats to their civil
liberties at the dinner table.
Though our children are proud of their
ethnic heritage, they identify themselves as Americans. At their Islamic
school, parents and teachers reinforce the notion of an integrated Muslim
American identity. Muslim values, they learn, can contribute to the
betterment of their country. Some of the kids have ties "back
home," visiting frequently, perhaps creating a dual allegiance. Not
so in our family. We don't spend our summer vacations in Baghdad or the
I don't have the heart to tell my boys that, if pending
legislation passes, our security as Muslims living in America, even as
citizens by birth, will be at risk, or that my son's questions might
foretell his own future.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department
prepared a draft proposal to revise the USA Patriot Act, a post-Sept. 11
law that greatly expanded the ability of law enforcers to track suspected
terrorists. If the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 outlined in
the memo (known widely as Patriot II) is ultimately passed by Congress,
the government would, in the name of fighting terrorism, be granted
sweeping new surveillance powers, more leeway to detain citizens
indefinitely without charge and the ability to present secret evidence
against those accused of supporting terrorism. The death penalty would be
expanded to include certain terror-related crimes. The government would
also have the authority to strip Americans of their citizenship for
providing support to an organization deemed a "terrorist group,"
a term that is broadly and vaguely defined.
I want to tell my children
that as law-abiding American citizens, they have nothing to worry about.
But I know that simply obeying the law won't keep them from being profiled
at the airport, monitored while attending the mosque or wiretapped if they
participate in Muslim-oriented activities on campus when they go to
college. The truth is, they will be suspects, simply because of their
identity as young adult Americans who also happen to be male, Muslim and
of Arab descent.
We can hope that our elected officials won't agree to the
further erosion of civil liberties and will refuse to pass Patriot II. But
if they lack the resolve to question something that wouldn't make us more
secure but would render America unrecognizable to our founding fathers,
then we're all in trouble.
"The Count of Monte Cristo" raised
frightening issues for my sons. But it also made an important point. When
Dantes was at the height of despair during his imprisonment, he rejected
God for having abandoned him. Later, when the words etched on his cell
wall, "God will give me justice," were proved true, he vowed
never to lose faith again. His troubles may have caused my son to agonize
about the injustices that could befall him one day, but perhaps he also
learned from the film that God's justice prevails despite man's injustice