By: Dr. Aref Assaf
Since when are polls the yardstick by which we judge the legality or even the morality of core civil rights? Since when have polls become the yardstick by which laws have been enacted or rescinded? The recent rash of polls to gauge citizens’ responses to the NYPD’s spying activities against American Muslim citizens seem consistent in their conclusions. Even if they judged spying as a violation of civil liberties, the majority of respondents are willing to forsake the liberties of Muslim citizens for the promise of security for all.
One wonders if it is the public‘s prejudice, naiveté, or lack of compassion that is the cause of such negation of the rights of a besieged minority? Alternatively, is it the very design of polls (geographic bias, and leading questions), and who funds them that is the culprit? Are the polls’ findings a message to lawmakers, state and federal, that criticism of the NYPD would be a very risky political gamble few would dare wager?
I am not a polls expert, but I have become incensed by the seemingly deliberate message recent polls have portrayed — the willingness of a majority to deny fundamental liberties to millions of fellow citizens. I wonder if a poll were to be conducted on a national, not a regional level, what findings would be gathered. I wonder if the following two seemingly similar questions would produce the same answers:
Q-1, As a Christian (if the participant is one), following the horrific terrorist attack by Timothy McVeigh in 1995, (who killed over a hundred little children in Oklahoma) would you have condoned our government’s spying on every Christian, every church, and every Christian owned business?
Q-2, To protect our nation and to ensure the security of our country, do you think it is an acceptable cost to spy on American Muslims?
Could the expressed public sentiment constitute a valid reason as to why the New Jersey Attorney General (NJAG) seems reluctant to call his ‘gathering of information’ a formal investigation of the NYPD — and why other New Jersey law enforcement agencies have collaborated with the NYPD’s espionage activities? It is increasingly plausible for some pundits to see the inaction by the NJAG as halfhearted. It is a constrained effort measured by the expected public outcry should the NJAG announce their decision to investigate the much beloved NYPD, whose only crime is ensuring the safety of America.
While the NJAG has assured us that such was never a motivation for their anticipated actions, members of the American Muslim community fear a legal discrimination is being born. Unless the NJAG categorically commits to a formal investigation that exposes the illegality and indeed immeasurable harm of the NYPD’s actions, do not be shocked to soon read of a legislator introducing legislation to curtail the civil and religious rights of American Muslims. America has, in times of perceived national insecurity, disenfranchised thousands of Germans and Japanese citizens simply of because of their ethnic or racial background.
Public sentiments have indeed played a defining role in founding laws and legislation. But often these laws rarely infringe upon the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. And when they do, they are quickly overturned.
The political, religious, and now ‘legal’ lynching of American Muslims will only produce a mirage for those who seek America’s security. They have become a sacrificial lamb for America’s ills and its desire for vengeance. Admittedly, not media savvy, American Muslim’s categorical denouncement of terrorism has been muffled by the louder and more determined shouting of Islamophobes.
As a student of history, it has become self-evident to me that had a poll been taken to determine the peoples’ views on slavery, on women’s right to vote, on school segregation, etc., America would still be a country of savages. But I have also come to know that America eventually reverts to its proper moral compass by doing what is right and standing up for the underdog. Muslims—decent, law-abiding and patriotic citizens, hope this day will come before more dishonor impregnates the soul of America and its endearing ideals of equality, fairness, and above all, justice. Well, you rise up to aid a fellow American citizen.
Since when have polls have become the measure of our moral and legal compass? Only our elected legislators can make laws even if they are unpopular. History is replete with examples where popular acceptance of some laws enduring years of debate, resistance and even popular upheaval. From slavery to women’s rights to vote to school segregation and to the civil rights movement, the public sentiment was adversarial long after laws were passed to address these matters. This may explain why Mark Twain never liked statistics. This was perhaps due to their malleability. You are assured of getting vindication for anything if you ask the ‘right’ question.
Countering the tyranny of the majority is a battle that John Adams, one of America’s founding fathers, began in 1788. He, like many others, realized that there is a difference between what is popular and what is right. If the NJ AG believe it to be unpopular to pursue the NYPD, American Muslims will be the latest victims of a public sentiment gone crazy.
As the late Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum, a Paterson based think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.