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“Innocent Until Proven Muslim” reveals the monster under the bed

Maha Hilal’s new book unpacks the pervasive Islamophobia of the United States.

Header Photo: Researcher, writer, and organizer Dr. Maha Hilal is shown facing the camera in her headshot among a prussian blue background. Image provided by publisher Broadleaf Books.

As a journalist who covers the intersection of science, social justice, and institutionalized bigotry, the last several years had led me to believe that I couldn’t hate America more than I already do. I was wrong. Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, The War On Terror, And The Muslim Experience since 9/11, a new book by researcher, writer, and organizer Dr. Maha Hilal, has only increased my contempt for the country where I was born to immigrant parents.

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Before Dr. Hilal started this work, she was my middle-school classmate on the West Side of Madison. Though we lost touch for a few years before reconnecting in the late aughts, I worried about Maha and some of my other Muslim friends on the day the twin towers fell. I watched the second plane hit from the living room I shared with five fellow UW-Madison students in our apartment off of South Park Street. Hilal, who was also a UW student at the time, tells me over the phone that she remembers “walking through the Union South, and everyone being glued to the TV, and I was just like, what’s going on here?” We were 18 years old.

Not being accustomed to such visible violence on its own soil, America was immediately determined to take revenge on someone, with its decree to “never forget.” Hilal recalls that she was working for the Deputy Sergeant at Arms at the state Capitol at the time. In the wake of the attacks, her employer issued a statement that discrimination would not be tolerated. As a Muslim, she sensed right away that there would be a push to hold the Muslim community “collectively responsible.” 

Hilal had yet to understand how violent, pervasive, and concerted this push would be, and how it would systematically dehumanize and violate the fundamental rights of all Muslims, not only via torture in the bowels of Gitmo, but everywhere—including in spaces where children are meant to be protected, like schools and healthcare facilities, and throughout the globe, where the CIA rendered more than 136 people to be secretly tortured in over 50 complicit countries.

Innocent Until Proven Muslim is the culmination of everything Hilal’s research, organizing, and work dismantling the War on Terror has revealed about America’s institutionalization of Islamophobia over the two decades following 9/11. It lays out how the U.S. government swiftly and deftly deployed rhetoric to paint all Muslims as “suspects” and justify illogical, dehumanizing policies to strip people of their rights and carry out state-sanctioned violence against innocent scapegoats. 

The five structural dimensions of the War on Terror described in the book—militarism and warfare, draconian immigration policy, surveillance, federal terrorism prosecutions, and detention and torture—paint a comprehensive picture of the scope of state violence carried out in its name. While all five of them together comprise a daunting threat of violence that hangs over the heads of Muslims in America, the panoptic violence of surveillance is perhaps most chilling in its sheer omnipresence. Millions of Muslims have been stripped of the autonomy inherent in being able to simply live a private life without the threat of the government watching over one’s shoulder. This threat is hardly exceptional; Muslims in America are forced to think twice about something as mundane as purchasing a pressure cooker, or something as deeply personal and foundational to one’s well-being as sharing thoughts of suicide with a mental health professional. Muslims struggling with mental illness are often “caught in between the national security state and their mental health,” says Hilal.

Woven throughout the book is incisive analysis of the dominant American narrative about Muslims post-9/11—and it doesn’t let Barack Obama or Joe Biden off the hook for their weaponization of rhetoric. Consider the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Program, a so-called “soft” U.S. government counterterrorism effort started in 2011 to mitigate violence within Muslim communities. The book details its trajectory. In his State of the Union Address just a few months before the government unveiled the plan for CVE, Obama said that America is responding to extremism “with the strength of our communities, with the respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that Muslim Americans are part of our American family.”

Like myriad similar statements asserting that Muslims, they’re just like the rest of us, Obama’s sentiment appears benign and even benevolent. The book demonstrates that these seemingly humanizing statements are actually anything but humanizing. Instead, this rhetoric allowed CVE to normalize the suspicion of Muslims, including youth and children. When his administration announced the CVE plan, Obama wrote in the opening of the national strategy guide that “communities— especially Muslim American communities whose children, families and neighbors are being targeted for recruitment by al-Qa’ida—are often best positioned to take the lead because they know their communities best.” 

By suggesting that Muslims are uniquely predisposed to extremism, the administration tacitly perpetuated the opposite message: Actually, Muslims aren’t like the rest of us at all. So much so that it is up to Muslims themselves to police each other. This is an insidious lie based on an assumption no less preposterous than, say, suggesting that, following the murders by Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Christian communities should play a role in preventing violence by virtue of the perpetrator’s religious identity. 

Innocent Until Proven Muslim lays bare a nauseating truth: For too many children, the monster under the bed is America. For example, after the teacher of a Black Muslim adolescent named Ahmed Mohamed had him arrested for bringing a clock that he had built to school, believing the clock to be a bomb, Obama invited the child to the White House. Obama even addressed Mohamed in a Tweet, writing, “we should inspire more kids like you to like science.” Hilal explains that this tweet concealed that it was the Obama administration’s own CVE policy that allowed children to be targeted in the first place, and that it’s based entirely on post-9/11 mythology. With his tweet, far from inspiring kids to like science, the president suggested that kids like Ahmed Mohamed—Muslim kids—are actually not like other kids. Talk about structural barriers to the pursuit of a STEM education. 

Innocent Until Proven Muslim closes with interviews with 11 Muslim Americans from a wide range of backgrounds to help represent the diversity of the Muslim population, including Black, white, and Latinx individuals, people who were born into Islam, and those who converted later in life. All in all, this book reframes what it is we should “never forget” as a country. We must never forget the words of writer and poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan whom Hilal quotes in the book—words that I’ll share with my older kid who will soon attend the same Madison middle school where I sat next to my friend Maha: “If you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one that’s not human.” We must never forget that without abolishing the War on Terror, we will never achieve justice for all. To understand the vastness of the harm of this barbaric war, pick up a copy of this book. 

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