Muslims Reflect on Lost Freedoms

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Hazem S. EL-Zanan, a researcher and student at the University of Nevada, Reno's Desert Research Institute, wants to make the world a cleaner place.

A scientist and scholar, he was born and raised in Egypt and graduated with top honors from Cairo University.

He worked for the Egyptian Environmental Agency and during his three years at UNR, the chemist has become a leader among international students on campus.

But his background also has made him a suspect under the U.S. Patriot Act. He is a Muslim.

"It is the laws, not the people, who look at us as criminals," EL-Zanan said.

The Patriot Act, approved in October 2001, allows the government to secure personal information about U.S. residents in a fight against terrorism. The law allows the government to detain aliens deemed threats to national security without public knowledge. It also gives federal law enforcement officials greater wiretap authority, access to student and library records and new Internet wiretap powers.

EL-Zanan and other Muslim scholars living in the Reno-Sparks area say their religion and Middle East ethnicity no longer allow them freedoms they possessed before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The message is: If you are coming from a Muslim country, you are a terrorist," Cahit Evrensel, an 18-year Reno resident from Turkey and associate professor of mechanical engineering at UNR.

"I thought in America, you are innocent until proven guilty," he said.

Members of the tiny Muslim community in Reno, no more than a few hundred families, say they are grateful to co-workers, local law enforcement and school officials who have shielded them and their children from anti-Islamic fervor.

"No one at my workplace has harassed me or anything like that because of 9-11," said EL-Zanan, who also is the president of the Muslim Student Association at UNR. "On the contrary, my supervisor and the other professors were always asking me about my life and how I will handle everything and if I need any help."

National Muslim leaders have denounced portions of the Patriot Act. The ACLU in June filed a lawsuit in federal court against portions of the act that let authorities monitor books people read and conduct secret searches. ACLU lawyers also have protested the FBI's scrutiny of non-terrorism suspects and its obtaining their records without probable cause.

For many, the battleground is on the college campus.

Yiwen Zhang, former president of UNR's International Affairs Club, had a Muslim friend who left the country shortly after the terrorist attacks.

"The pressure was too much. He was from Egypt," she said.

She has concerns of her own. Zhang has not been able to return home to China to see her parents for fear she may not be able to return to Reno to complete her postgraduate work. Zhang is seeking a master's degree in economics.

"There's no way I could get back once I left," she said. "New regulations have surfaced since 9-11. Muslim students, as well as international students, just want to keep quiet and finish school.

"Sept. 11 has not only affected Muslim students, it has hit the entire international student community."

When homeland security took top priority, Susan Bender tracked the Patriot Act's fast-paced series of regulations. Bender is UNR's director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, the population most affected by the Patriot Act.

Her department oversees the university's 1,000 international students from 70 countries. Nationally, there are more than 1 million international students.

Using the Patriot Act, the Department of State created special policies to investigate visa applications of all Muslim males from various countries. The Immigration and Naturalization Service also requires universities to comply with an Internet-based international student tracking system. International students must be entered into SEVIS, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which sends information directly to INS.

Garrison Courtney, a SEVIS enforcer in Washington, D.C., said the goal is to track students.

"If they check in, they must check out," said Courtney. "Before 9-11, there was no requirement for international students to have face-to-face interviews. Now it's mandatory."

The new system also makes Bender's job a lot harder.

"We have one month to get all our international students registered and into the electronic system, or they will be deported," she said.

"It's not only affecting people from Muslim countries. It has become an issue worldwide."