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William Fisher: Muslim-Americans Turn To The Law

Muslim-Americans Turn To The Law

By William Fisher

His name is Junaid Ahmad. He is 24 years old. And he is among a rapidly increasing number of first generation Muslim-Americans who have decided to pursue careers in the law.

Ahmad, who was born in Chicago, Illinois, after his parents emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1973, is a second-year student at William and Mary law school in Williamsburg, Virginia. He told us he chose the law over more traditional first-generation Americans' choices - medicine, science and engineering - because he cares deeply about human rights and civil liberties.

When he graduates from law school in 2008, he says he hopes to join the legal staff of an international human rights organization, and also do some teaching.

Ahmad says he is "worried about the politics of fear" that the Administration of President George W. Bush has encouraged since the terrorists attacks of September 11th 2001. He adds that "Many Muslims in America are being routinely harassed and stereotyped and "might feel more comfortable with lawyers who understood their language, culture and customs."

He says his personal experience is that, despite denials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice , these agencies "are practicing ethnic profiling on a routine basis." He recalls returning to the U.S. from Pakistan several weeks ago, just after the alleged airliner-bombing plot was announced in London.

"Individuals and families with small children who seemed to look South Asian or Middle Eastern were routinely taken out of the usual waiting lines and questioned for hours" by agents of the Transportation Safety Administration, a DHS agency that is in charge of airline security. "And they were the only ones questioned," he claims.

Active in human rights issues ranging from the crackdown on civil and political liberties worldwide to global economic justice during his undergraduate study at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, Ahmad currently serves as pro-bono director of communications for the National Muslim Law Students' Association, formed in 2002, as well as an Executive Board Member of the Domestic Violence Resource Project, based in Washington, DC.

Another organization, The National Association of Muslim Lawyers , was launched in California in 1996 with 24 members, and now has 500. It actively partners with the NMLSA. And half the 100 members of the Bay Area (California) Association of Muslim Lawyers are law students, a further sign of the substantial increase.

A spokesperson for the NMLSA, Ms. Rufiath Yousuff, told us that firm numbers of Muslim law students are hard to come by because law schools and law firms do not ask an applicant's religion. But there are currently Muslim law student organizations at approximately 30 U.S. law schools from Berkeley to Yale.

Ms. Yousuff says her organization currently has 249 subscribers, "with at least 50 joining last year alone." Members include law graduates, law students and college students interested in law.

She told us, "After 9/11 there came a shocking realization that there were not enough Muslims in the profession to protect the rights of Muslims both within the U.S. and also the international community. And, that those who did not profess the Muslim faith may not understand the subtle dimensions and intentions of those who practiced their faith or culture in a manner that peripherally seemed un-American, when in reality no treason was intended."

She cites the Muslim obligation to give to charity, one of the five pillars of Islam. "A Muslim may send money to another country or organization and be arrested for allegedly materially aiding a terrorist country. In such a situation, a Muslim lawyer could identify their intent in such an act, while being aware of the legal mechanisms to secure their release."

Ms. Yousuff told us, "9/11 certainly impacted upon the career choice of many Muslim students. Moreover, there is an acknowledgment amongst the American Muslim legal community, particularly those working in the civil rights areas, that they are in essence amongst the first generation of the current Muslim civil rights movement. Like Brown v. Board of Education, some of the precedents that will be set in relation to Muslims and their plight will be set by those who struggle in this cause today."

However, she adds, "Not all Muslim Americans entering law now are intending to join in the cause. Many will be doing it for exactly the same reason as any other American student; namely, fame, fortune, a comfortable lifestyle or an interest in a particular legal area. And in reality it would be foolish if Muslims limited themselves to one field alone. Times will inevitably change, or at least this is my hope, and when it does, I, with many others in the Muslim community, hope that Muslims will contribute to society via expertise in various areas of law."

This view is supported by Samer Shehata, Assistant Professor of Arab Politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. He told us, "I do not doubt that harassment experienced in the period since 9/11 has increased Muslim-Americans' interests in issues such as discrimination, civil rights, and the law. But it is also the case that as the children of immigrants grow up (and as their parents become more settled and established), they increasingly attend colleges and universities."

But the motivations of NMLSA members appear to lean heavily toward the civil liberties area.

Typical is Omar Khawaja, a J.D. Candidate at Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C. He says, "After 9/11 and the ensuing debate over whether it was possible to be a practicing Muslim and patriotic American, it was clear to me that policy makers in Washington D.C. needed greater input from Muslim Americans. While working on Capitol Hill, I decided that law school would help me become a better advocate for Muslim and Muslim American causes. Despite the circumstances, I'm grateful at having the opportunity to work in the legal field and make a positive contribution to society as a Muslim American."

This attitude is being expressed in a variety of ways. For example, lawyers and law students are going into the community to teach Muslims about civil rights. In Santa Clara, California, a legal clinic at a local mosque offers free community consultations. And Muslim lawyers are taking on cases such as the Muslim woman who says she is on the Transportation Security Administration's no-fly list in error, and another who says she lost her job because she wore a hijab, or head-scarf.


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