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Panelist and Rutgers law professor Sahar Aziz speaks during a panel on Islam on America as her fellow panelists look on inside the UNLV Student Union on Thursday, Sept. 26. (Jana Sayson/The Nevada Independent)

For hundreds of years, Muslims in the U.S. were just another religious minority, comprising less than 1 percent of all Americans. But on Sept. 11, 18 years ago, the American Dream “came shattering down” for Rutgers law professor Sahar Aziz.

Today, she says the “security threat” Muslims were portrayed as in the early 2000s has morphed not only into a matter of culture, but also as a perceived clash of civilizations. 

“That’s what we’re seeing now when we talk about Muslim ‘invaders,’ ‘Sharia law taking over,’ that you have this ‘fifth column’ secretly inside that’s planning to take over the country, and we have to keep them out through these Muslim bans, we have to deport them, and if we can’t do that, let’s mass incarcerate them through anti-terrorism prosecutions,” Aziz said.” 

Today, long-simmering suspicion of Muslim-Americans as a minority has come to the fore again, intensifying once more in the wake of modern U.S. politics. 

That’s one reason why former Sen. Harry Reid, in association with the UNLV Boyd School of Law, hosted a panel discussion Thursday for a night billed as a “conversation about Islam in America.” The panel, moderated by National Public Radio journalist Leila Fadel, was comprised of a number of Muslim scholars and advocates who took questions on a range of topics dealing with the past and present of Islam in the U.S. 

Discussion included a deep dive into an increasing focus by some Americans on the concept of Sharia law as a cultural threat, including the proliferation of “anti-Sharia” laws in the wake of Trump’s election. For the panelists, including Farhana Khera, president and founder of Muslim Advocates, traditional religious rites not unlike those in the talmud or Christian sacraments have been twisted into a “bogeyman.”

“It’s what I call a solution in search of a problem,” Khera said. “There is no issue, there is no threat. American Muslims have been here since the founding of the country, and there is no effort afoot to try and overturn the constitution. We are simply asking that the laws that apply to everyone else, that we’d be treated the exact same way.”

For panelist Michael Kagan, head of the UNLV Boyd School of Law’s Immigration Clinic and one-time resident of the Middle East, perceptions of Muslims and other minorities by majority communities have become dominated by the “worst” of each group, allowing no room for nuance.

“That robs certain communities of the ability to be human, to be imperfect,” Kagan said. “A community that is constantly living under suspicion is forced to always be more than perfect, which no one can do.” 

The night was also heavy with both the cultural and historical context often left out of conversations of Islam and American Muslims, such as the modern lack of acknowledgement of the religion’s place in the very earliest parts of American history when Muslims from West Africa were enslaved in the New World. 

“Many people don’t realize that Muslims come to this country from the very beginning, when in fact slaves were forced to this country,” Farid Senzai, a professor of political science at Santa Clara University, said. “The statistics are that somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of all slaves that came to this country were Muslims, and they came from many Muslim-majority countries in West Africa, including Senegal and Gambia.”

Senzai added that, though most Muslims emigrated in the last 100 years, Muslims have long been involved in American affairs, even fighting for the side of the colonists in the Revolutionary War. Senzai pointed to the story of Joseph Benenhaley — possibly an anglicization of Yusuf ben Ali — who allegedly fought the British alongside Brigadier General Thomas Sumter. 

The event didn’t keep Reid from commenting on the political firestorm brewing in Washington over a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president in which Trump sought Ukranian help in investigating leading Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Speaking to reporters before the event, Reid briefly addressed the newly-established impeachment inquiry, and whether the escalation by Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi posed a risk for the party’s 2020 aspirations. 

“I can’t imagine [impeachment] ever helping anyone,” Reid said. “With President [Bill] Clinton, the House brought up articles of impeachment — I sat as one of the leaders during the time of the impeachment, the trial took place in the Senate. With the focus on President Clinton, the American people just simply thought, ‘that’s not something we should be doing.’ And in that case Clinton became more popular, not less popular. I don’t see that happening now, because it’s a different type of impeachment proceedings.” 

Still, Reid said he had the “highest respect” for Pelosi, adding that he didn’t believe she “rushed into” the impeachment inquiry. 

“I think that she’s going to proceed cautiously, and I think it speaks well of her that she believes enough’s enough, and that she initiated it,” Reid said. 

Ahead of the second anniversary of the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, Reid also lamented stalled congressional action on gun background checks, where he said “not enough is being done.”

“Ninety percent of Americans, we believe we should have background checks for people who are crazy, for people who are criminals,” Reid said. “Why can’t we get that done? I think that’s outrageous.”

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