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‘Welcome to our world’: Muslims see disparities and dangers in Jan. 6 probe

Supporters of President Donald Trump storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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Muslim comedian and radio host Dean Obeidallah doesn’t hold back when it comes to the Jan. 6 rioting at the U.S. Capitol, which he calls a terrorist attack carried out by “the American version of al-Qaeda.”

“LOL!!” Obeidallah tweeted when a rioter who bragged that she’d never go to jail ended up with a two-month sentence.

“FINALLY!!!” he wrote in celebration of charges against a man who allegedly punched a police officer.

“It’s almost surreal to see the reversal,” Obeidallah said in an interview, referring to the shifting public opinion on who gets classified as a “terrorist” — a label that until recently was reserved almost exclusively for Muslim militants.

Still, like many Muslims watching the Jan. 6 investigation unfold, Obeidallah’s reaction is more nuanced than the schadenfreude of seeing White suspects in the terrorism spotlight. He and a dozen other activists and attorneys said the Justice Department’s sprawling prosecution, while a reassuring step, is also a reminder of the deep disparities that persist in terrorism cases involving Muslims.

Largely because of differences in how the law treats foreign vs. domestic terrorism cases, the defendants who were filmed battering Capitol police officers are expected to receive less time in prison than Muslims who were prosecuted on nonviolent charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization — offenses such as sending money to fighters overseas or making travel plans to join them.

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What’s more, U.S. Muslims resoundingly denounced Islamist militant groups and faced pressure from right-wing pundits to “apologize” for attacks they had nothing to do with. Now, they’re watching in astonishment as those same pundits — like much of the Republican establishment — defend the violent, mostly White extremists at the heart of the government’s Jan. 6 probe.

 “It’s cliche to say, but if those were Muslims who waged that attack, the result would’ve been vastly different,” Obeidallah said. “The same people who are defending the terrorists today would’ve been calling for the prosecution of them — and denouncing any Muslim American who dared say these people are being persecuted.”

 The Capitol investigation coincides with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent broad-brush vilification of millions of ordinary Muslims in the “war on terror,” making the comparisons especially stark. 

A generation of Muslim kids grew up hearing taunts of “Terrorist!” at school. Adults were nervous about reading the Koran or speaking Arabic on an airplane lest they be removed, a phenomenon that led to the awareness campaign #FlyingWhileMuslim. Lawsuits abounded from Muslims claiming discrimination based on religion in virtually every aspect of daily life — in workplaces, schools, courts and jails. Anti-Muslim hate crimes — such as beatings and mosque vandalism — surged to record levels, according to FBI statistics.

Two decades later, Muslim communities that are intimately familiar with state surveillance have little patience for the Jan. 6 defendants’ newfound grievances about “SSSS” special-screening marks on boarding passes or the hardship of observing dietary restrictions while in jail. In Muslim chat groups, eye-roll emoji are attached to videos of Jan. 6 defendants — many of whom were caught after boasting publicly about storming the Capitol — now presenting themselves as political prisoners.

 “I saw the one guy where he was on a no-fly list and he couldn’t fly and he just had a meltdown. I was like, ‘Welcome to our world!’ ” said Margari Hill, executive director of the nonprofit Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and a hijab-wearing Black woman who said she has faced extra scrutiny because of her appearance. “I’ve missed flights for how long they’ve held me. I’d say 75 percent of times I fly, I get the extra pat-down or my luggage has been opened.”

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The irony, Muslim activists say, is that the conservative political class that cheered on Republican administrations’ sweeping targeting of Muslims is now using that same legacy to spread the conspiratorial idea of a witch hunt against followers of former president Donald Trump, one of the most vocally anti-Muslim politicians in the country.

 Trump has spread debunked claims of U.S. Muslims celebrating 9/11, said “I think Islam hates us,” and bullied a Muslim Gold Star family with anti-Muslim stereotypes. One of his first acts as president was instituting a travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries. Under his administration, former officials have said, Trump and his appointees fought attempts to focus on the far-right threat and pressed security agencies to instead investigate Muslims, Black activists and the far left.

That history of smearing of Muslims, activists say, is why Trump stalwart Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who tweeted “Today is 1776.” on Jan. 6 and repeatedly has been accused of having ties to the rioters, was emboldened to liken her Black Muslim colleague, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), to a suicide bomber and a member of the “jihad squad.”

 Now, Trump and his supporters are casting themselves as the new Muslims, “victims” of an overreaching security apparatus that criminalizes personal beliefs. In tearful videos and online fundraising appeals, the families of Jan. 6 defendants recite the same complaints Muslim suspects have made: entrapment, collective punishment, overzealous prosecutors, First Amendment violations.

 The trailer for Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s recent documentary about the Jan. 6 attack opens with a dramatic drumroll and the ominous warning that a domestic war on terror has arrived, targeting “half of the country.” The words “War on Terror 2.0” flash on the screen, followed by intense scenes of Capitol rioting interspersed with old footage of al-Qaeda’s former leader, Osama bin Laden.

Politicians and right-wing podcasters double down on that idea. One of the loudest, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), known for racist and conspiratorial views, called the Jan. 6 defendants “prisoners of war” and likened their conditions at a D.C. jail to those for “terrorists” at the U.S.-run prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Gina Ligon, who leads a federally funded terrorism research center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said she noticed that message gaining traction when she gave a public talk and showed the audience images of Jan. 6 defendants.

 “Some of their arrest photographs were in my slide deck — they were White, average and clean-cut,” Ligon recalled. “A professional woman in the audience raised her hand during the Q&A and asked if ‘Americans like them’ were going to start being put on watch lists like ‘the Muslims’ were after 9/11.”

 The tropes crop up on the left as well, among liberals who mock right-wing defendants as “Vanilla ISIS” or “Y’all Qaeda.” On Twitter, people comment “Where was he radicalized?” on items about the Capitol suspects — the tongue-in-cheek use of a question typically asked about Islamist extremists. Similarly, researchers sometimes portray the far-right threat as “the new jihad.” The intention is to underscore extremist violence on the right, but activists say the tactic still relies on the stigmatizing Muslim-terrorism association, as if identity-based violence were an imported threat and not one baked into the country’s founding.

 Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said “terrorism” is so synonymous with Arabs and Muslims that they are the go-to template for pundits decoding the Jan. 6 investigation. Less discussed, she said, is how devastating that ingrained link has been for families who have gotten caught up in the well-documented overreach of the “war on terror.”

 “People have paid a price for that, dearly,” Berry said. “Wrongfully charged, wrongfully incarcerated, people deported, discrimination and hate crimes.”

 Dalia Mogahed, research director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank focused on U.S. Muslims, has spent years tracking how the criminal justice system treats Muslim suspects. One study examined the prosecution of ideologically motivated violence in the United States from 2001 to 2015, finding that “for similar plots, Muslim-perceived defendants receive harsher legal charges and longer prison sentences than their non-Muslim counterparts.”

 Perhaps the most upsetting part of watching the Jan. 6 cases, Mogahed said, is knowing that had the rioters been Muslims, they would have ended up “with literally decades of jail time.” Like many other Muslim commentators, Mogahed argues that the answer isn’t to expand controversial policies to the militant right, but to craft a strategy that targets violent threats while guarding civil liberties.

 “I feel enraged that there are two judicial systems in this country — one for White folks and one for everyone else,” Mogahed said. “I don’t want everyone to get our treatment. I want everyone to get their treatment.”

Debates on how to publicly respond to Jan. 6 are happening within Muslim activist circles, too. For example, Hill, of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, and some other Black Muslims sometimes find themselves at odds with Arab and South Asian organizers who urge them not to use the “terrorist” label in the right-wing context because of its baggage.

 “There was a fear that the language would boomerang and hit us again, and that’s real,” Hill said.

But that’s a difficult argument to make to Black Muslims who see a historical through-line from the White mob violence their ancestors endured and the scrum at the Capitol, where Confederate flags, a noose and other racist symbols were on display.

 “Some of the images I saw on Jan. 6 reminded me of lynch mobs, and to be able to name what displaced my family from Georgia as ‘terror’ was a cathartic moment,” Hill said. “You have people saying, don’t use ‘terrorism.’ Well, I need to use this word to describe how my family was terrorized.”

 An offshoot of this debate is the idea of introducing a domestic-terrorism statute, ostensibly to give investigators the same tools they have at their disposal in international cases. While Muslim and allied activists support the prosecution of violent White extremists, many are vehemently against using Jan. 6 as pretext for handing the federal government broader powers, as happened in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

 “Watch out for what you ask for,” said Linda Moreno, an attorney who has represented Muslim defendants in high-profile terrorism cases. “Because in 2024 you may have a Republican executive, House and Senate with consequential and dangerous expanded powers to unleash on their political adversaries.”

 Obeidallah, the comedian and radio host, said it’s hard to watch the Jan. 6 prosecutions and not get mad about what he sees as glaring double standards. He was especially steamed over the case of admitted Capitol rioter Jenny Cudd, who made headlines in May when she asked a judge for permission to fly to Mexico for a prepaid vacation. Cudd’s request was granted two days after a grand jury indicted her on five federal counts, including a felony.

 “First of all, you’ve got to have a lot of White privilege just to ask that. Second, the judge granted it! I’m like, okay, you know, we’re done. What can we say?” Obeidallah said, with a bitter laugh. “If a Muslim person was involved in an act of terrorism, even at a small level, and asked to go on vacation — can you imagine the uproar? Fox News would’ve exploded.”

 For all the outrage, however, Obeidallah said he preaches fairness over vengeance. He doesn’t want to see authorities expanding the same counterterrorism tactics that Muslim advocates have fought in court.

 “They did surveillance of where we prayed, where we worked, where we went to school, where we dined — based on nothing,” Obeidallah said. “That was unconstitutional. I don’t want to see that happen to the MAGA people either.”

Obeidallah said he’s not calling for “surveillance of every person who waves a Trump flag,” but rather what he would wish for anyone accused of a crime: an investigation based on evidence.

“Any evidence of wrongdoing, they better pursue it,” he said of authorities working the Jan. 6 probe. “They better not give a pass because they go, ‘Well, they’re just like us.’ ”