By Sahar Aziz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas Wesleyan School of Law where she teaches national security and civil right law. She previously served as a senior policy advisor at the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The views expressed are her own.
Reports that the Internal revenue Service has been targeting Tea Party-affiliated nonprofit organizations has grabbed headlines, but should come as no surprise. In part because of ten years of expanding government powers, much of it under the guise of national security, selective enforcement of the law has increasingly become a norm rather than an aberration.
But some in the Muslim community might have a question – why are conservatives so surprised (and outraged) by this news when Muslim nonprofits and their leaders have been under intense scrutiny for over a decade? And when so many Muslim groups and individuals have faced scrutiny simply for the religion they follow?
Within months after 9/11, the U.S. government shut down the three largest Muslim American charities as part of a broader scorched earth strategy that sent a chill across American Muslim communities nationwide. Their boards of directors were arrested and many were prosecuted on pretextual violations of immigration or tax laws. None of the charities had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda, or the Taliban. That they were Islamic charities was all the government needed to seal their fate before a suspicious and traumatized American public.
Since then, new Muslim charitable organizations have faced heightened scrutiny from the IRS, with applications for many seeking nonprofit status taking years to process. My experience representing some of these organizations, and the anecdotes I hear from other attorneys in the same boat, have turned up example after example of selective targeting.
Even when organizations are able to make progress with their applications, they find themselves asked to provide additional information to the IRS, and are left with no choice but to patiently comply. Their files are often referred to the national office for further processing and in-depth national security checks on every board member. Upon expressing surprise at the unusual length of time and scrutiny, I was informed this was standard procedure after 9/11 for Muslim charities. In stark contrast to the average six to nine months application process other groups face, some Muslim nonprofit organizations have typically waited for two or more years.
People are rightly concerned by allegations that the IRS applied its powers in a discriminatory fashion. This is not how the federal government is supposed to work. Yet while some may see the case of Muslim organizations and Tea Party affiliated groups as different, the same principles are involved – the uneven application of the law and discriminatory treatment directed at a minority. In one case the minority is targeted for its faith, while in another they are targeted for their politics.
But something I find troubling is that for the largely white, conservative, anti-government Tea Partiers and their supporters it is apparently acceptable to target legal immigrants or first generation American Muslims in the name of national security, even as any singling out based on political affiliation is treated as an outrage.
Still, despite the vastly different public responses, the targeting of these seemingly unrelated groups is predictable. Why? Because once selective targeting is normalized, it is only a matter of time before such practices have an impact on other minorities and eventually political dissidents.
We saw this with the targeted surveillance used for Muslims that was also eventually applied to the surveillance of right wing groups as outlined in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security report in 2009. We also saw this when the Department of Justice inspector general reported that the FBI had been improperly spying on left wing political groups in 2006. And we witnessed the expansion of government surveillance of the nonviolent Occupy Wall Street movement, which was spied on by the joint terrorism task forces also used to spy on American Muslims.
These troubling trends mirror the alleged methods in the FBI's COINTELPRO program targeting black nationalists, communists, and anti-war groups particularly in the 1960s and 70s. It was only after white male veterans and college students were targeted that the public finally pushed back on government excesses, leading to passage of government accountability and oversight measures that were in turn reversed after 9/11.
While selective enforcement of any group based on discrimination or political ideology is anathema to a democracy, the IRS’s alleged targeting should at least trigger a long overdue national conversation on government overreach. That is one debate that impacts all Americans, whatever their race, religion or political persuasions.