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Tuesday, July 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
To earn my vote, Kerry must protect my civil rights

By Parvez Ahmed
Special to The Times

Parvez Ahmed
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Millions of Americans will tune in as John Kerry accepts his nomination to be the Democratic Party's candidate for president. It will be the most anticipated speech of his lifetime, a life with a remarkable record of courage, patriotism and service. Kerry the person has earned my respect. Will Kerry the candidate earn my vote, too?

As we tune in, each one of us will like to hear about something that is most dear to our hearts. For many voters like me it will be civil rights. Early on during the Democratic primaries, Kerry voiced his displeasure about the Patriot Act. However, since being the presumptive nominee, his silence on this issue has been deafening.

Preserving our liberal democracy is perhaps the single-most-important issue facing Americans this election, although polls suggest otherwise. Public silence confirms an uncomfortable truth that since 9-11, the civil rights of some Americans have been compromised while the majority remains oblivious to the dangers that lurk around the corner.

Fighting terrorism is important. But this fight cannot take place at the expense of civil liberties. At the end of the day, if we cannot protect the very fabric that unites us as a nation, then what is it that we are fighting for?

Right after the ill-fated day of Sept. 11, 2001, a majority of Americans, despite the historical admonition of Ben Franklin to not do so, were willing to give up a little bit of liberty for a little bit of security. A vigorous debate on this issue might have yielded some answers as to exactly which rights Americans were willing to give up to be a little bit more secure. This did not happen and the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress in record legislative time.

The onus of a severe curb on civil liberties fell largely on Muslims and Arabs, many of whom were nonvoters. A voiceless and defenseless group of people was soon to become the collateral damage of the war on terror.

Since 9-11, this group has been subjected to special interviews, registrations, automatic detentions and deportations. Many have been tried in secret, while others had no trials afforded to them. Some have been detained based on their political opinions, others for their political associations with disfavored groups. Some Muslim charities have been shut down and many have been intimidated into silence.

American-Muslims now live with the dread of a knock at the door often at wee hours of the night or early morning. Many are coping with the reality of racial profiling at airports, discrimination at places of work, verbal abuse in public and hate crimes at places of worship. A recent poll showed nearly 88 percent of Muslims saying that they knew of at least one person who suffered anti-Muslim bias or discrimination.

Some have argued that war justifies treating foreign nationals differently than citizens. In this paradigm, citizens are presumptively more loyal. After all, 19 foreigners attacked us on 9-11. Unfortunately, we are quick to forget that prior to 9-11, the single biggest terrorist attack on American soil was conducted by a homegrown terrorist in Oklahoma.

David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, in his book "Enemy Aliens," posits that the seemingly reasonable argument that justifies treating foreigners differently is fraught with four fallacies: It is illusory in the long run; it is likely to prove counterproductive as a security matter; it is regrettably an oft-repeated pattern of government overreaction in times of crisis; and most importantly, it is constitutionally and morally wrong.

What often starts as a preventative measure and only appears to curb the rights of the aliens soon gets muddied into restricting the rights of citizens. Most Americans would be justifiably alarmed if they knew that a draft of an anti-terrorism bill went as far as advocating native-born citizens being stripped of their citizenship. Government exists to serve citizens and not the other way around.

Among a U.S. president's first public promises is "to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." I eagerly await to hear how the candidates plan to uphold this oath were the American public to give Kerry a chance or offer President Bush a second chance.

Parvez Ahmed is a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, headquartered in Washington, D.C. CAIR is the country's largest Muslim civil-liberties advocacy group. E-mail: pahmed@cair-flor-ida.org

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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