Muslims in U.S. Feel Targeted By Anti-Terror Business Policies

Washington Post, July 9, 2003
http://www.washingtonpost.com/
By Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post Staff Writer

Dokhi Fassihian is passionate about Iran, and her résumé reflects it. The policy analyst has written articles on Iran, helped with a book about the country and even worked there. So she was stunned when the Monster online service informed her recently that it would remove the word “Iran” from her résumé to comply with U.S. sanctions against that country.

“How can you be an Iran specialist and not have the word ‘Iran’ on your résumé?” demanded Fassihian, 27, of Arlington, who immigrated to Virginia at age 3 and holds a master’s degree in international studies from Johns Hopkins University. “I’m an American. I’ve lived in this country all my life . . . This is the first time I’m feeling discriminated against.”

The e-mail notices sent to Fassihian and thousands of other Monster customers provoked an uproar. The popular Internet career site quickly clarified that it intended to target résumés only from people living or job hunting in the seven countries designated by U.S. authorities as sponsors of terrorism, including Iran.

But Iranian Americans, including members of the largely middle-class community in the Washington area, are fighting to have the company drop the practice altogether. “What’s happening in this country after September 11 is a big shock,” said Fassihian, who works as a legislative analyst for the National Iranian American Council. “We have been grouped unfortunately in this category of potential terrorists.”


The controversy reflects a new concern rippling through Muslim and Arab American communities, already on edge because of hate crimes and a law enforcement crackdown since the 2001 terror attacks. Now some Muslims say they fear that businesses are singling them out unfairly in an effort to comply with U.S. anti-terrorism measures.

In recent weeks, national Islamic groups have expressed alarm about reports of Muslims in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and other states facing demands by banks and credit card companies for extra information — or finding their accounts closed without explanation. The customers had been asked to provide tax and banking records, residency documentation and proof of identity, the organizations said. And some immigrants in Washington and other areas say they have been distressed by extra questioning they have faced at money-transferring institutions.

National Muslim groups are trying to put together a registry of incidents to gauge the extent of the situation.

“We see evidence that the wolf has been in the neighborhood, but we want to confirm it,” said Khurrum Wahid, legal adviser to one such group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We want to see if this is truly a systemic problem or just one or two banks that might have gone about it the wrong way.”

U.S. officials and business experts deny that new anti-terrorism regulations discriminate against Muslims or Arab Americans. But they acknowledge that some customers could come under added scrutiny.

The U.S.A. Patriot Act and other measures passed after the terrorist attacks increase the burden on financial institutions to know their customers and identify suspicious transactions. That’s particularly true for money-transfer companies, which were not as strictly regulated in the past.

“What the financial institutions are asked to do is to take responsibility for ensuring that [they] are not used to fund acts of terror,” said Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the Treasury Department. The government, he said, “is not asking for discrimination, but vigilance.”

But there is some latitude in how companies carry out the requirements.

For example, businesses must assess whether customers’ money transfers could be linked to terrorist activities. Jorge Guerrero, president of the National Money Transmitters Association, said that if funds are sent to a country of concern to the U.S. government, “you have to look at those transactions, and perhaps perform enhanced due diligence.”

That may seem laudable to many Americans. But such a step can appear more sinister to immigrants wary of increased discrimination or law enforcement surveillance since the attacks.

Jamshed Uppal, 55, a Pakistani-born finance professor at Catholic University, said Pakistani immigrants in the Washington area have been so unnerved by the extra scrutiny that some are reluctant to keep sending money to relatives in the Muslim country.

Financial institutions “are asking for all kinds of details about the party to whom you’re sending money. It’s just a feeling that you get, that you’re under the microscope,” said the Silver Spring resident, who has lived in the United States for 18 years.

Some customers have experienced even more scrutiny.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations recently took up the case of a New Yorker named Muhammad Ali, who had tried to send $80 to his brother in Connecticut from a Western Union office in Brooklyn. The company’s main office subsequently called Ali, an African American, and told him his order would be blocked until he provided more identification.

The problem: Ali’s name — common among Muslims — had turned up on a 103-page list of suspected terrorists, drug traffickers and others maintained by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control. The list isn’t new; for years, major financial institutions have been obliged to make sure their customers weren’t on it. But since the attacks, hundreds of new names have been added to it, and more companies are checking it.

Ali eventually provided identification, and the money was sent. A Western Union spokeswoman, Wendy Carver-Herbert, said the company was sensitive to concerns raised by Ali and the Muslim group but couldn’t change its policies.

“We are often in a difficult position of trying to balance the needs of our customers while also ensuring that we are following the laws,” Carver-Herbert said.

Muslim groups are concerned that more cases of mistaken identity will occur, especially as the Patriot Act extends money laundering regulations to new kinds of businesses, such as life insurance companies and even gem dealers.

“How do you protect innocent people from, every single time they want to do business, this thing coming up?” Wahid asked. U.S. authorities, he added, “are really not going to be finding a terrorist using their own name to send $80 if they’re on a public list.”

Although banks have been required for years to guard against money-laundering, the financial system came under fresh scrutiny in the wake of the attacks.

The Sept. 11 hijackers funded their activities largely through $109,500 sent in four transfers to a checking account opened by two of them at a SunTrust Bank in Florida, according to the FBI. None of the four money transfers — sent by the same person in the United Arab Emirates using different aliases — triggered the bank to make a “suspicious activity report” to the Treasury, according to the FBI.

U.S. authorities hope the new regulations will better detect suspicious patterns.

“We know if you can stop the money, you can stop the terror,” said Griffin, the Treasury spokesman, adding that $36.4 million in terrorist-related funds had been blocked in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.

Financial institutions aren’t the only businesses tightening their practices.

Monster was concerned that it could violate U.S. law by providing services — even free Internet ones — to people in seven countries considered to be sponsors of terror. They are Iran, Syria, Sudan, Burma, Cuba, Libya and North Korea.

The company had to study the issue because a client raised it, said Donna Guilmette, director of legal affairs at the Maynard, Mass.-based company. “We did have some greater concern about some increased vigilance” by the government, she said, though the sanctions have existed for years.

The company decided it had to change its policies. In April, it sent e-mail notices to thousands of customers, announcing that “your résumé will be altered, removing all Sanctioned Countries.”

The reaction was furious. Arab Americans and Iranian Americans bombarded Monster with protest letters.

Businesses could “become more Catholic than the pope, out of fear,” said Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, adding, “We need to be there and challenge it.”

Monster quickly clarified that it did not mean to purge every reference to Iran. And it backtracked on a plan to drop schools in the sanctioned countries from its résumé builder. But the company drew the line on accepting résumés from people living or seeking jobs in those nations. That could violate the law, it said.

“It is a matter of interpreting some very vague regulations that are subject to a number of different interpretations — but that are being enforced very rigorously,” said Scott Maberry, a lawyer for Monster. The National Iranian American Council argues that the company’s previous policy did not violate the sanctions.

For Fassihian, the policy analyst in Arlington, the controversy has been about far more than her résumé. She was a child during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and felt little of the antagonism toward Iranian immigrants in the United States. Although she speaks Farsi and treasures her roots, she feels American.

“It’s very frustrating, very disheartening, for so many years to feel you’re a part of society . . . and to be told you’re different,” she said.

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This post was last updated: Nov. 21, 2013