Saturday, December 30, 2017
Late Wednesday night, the campaign to elect Judge Roy Moore to the vacant Alabama Senate seat sought to enjoin the Secretary of State for Alabama from certifying the result of the December 14, 2017 special election where Moore lost to Doug Jones. The basis: allegations of rampant voter fraud apparently among and related to African American voters that need to be investigated. Fortunately for us, an Alabama judge denied the motion to enjoin the certification and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.
It is easy to write this off as a last-ditch attempt of a disgraced candidate to stop the inevitable. But we should reflect on the larger context. Once again, the meme of voter fraud — the rampant supposition without proof that illegal voters (largely voters of color) are distorting our elections through voter impersonation — rears its head again as a direct weapon to suppress the votes for Jones. This use of the specter of voter fraud as weapon against the word of voters, particularly minority voters, is nothing new. And it’s the new normal in the post-Trump world.
As you know, Jones defeated Moore largely due to the significant turnout of the Black vote and anemic moderate Republican vote. The day after the election, I argued that this happened despite voter suppression laws seemingly designed to stymie the transformative power that a fully enabled and mobilized African-American vote would represent.
Yet, the day after the election the meme of voter fraud emerged. In this case, the meme apparently starts publicly here, when Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii), who is, apparently, “a famously outspoken Trump supporter,” tweeted this:
And there’s the meme of voter fraud in one tweet — the explanation for the higher turnout that swung the election was not lack of enthusiasm for a candidate who allegedly sought sexual relations with teenage girls, or the Alabaman African-American turnout that rivaled 2012 or 2016 turnout (coupled with lagging moderate white conservative turnout). It was voter impersonation — Mississippian voters impersonating Alabaman voters. The comments to this tweet included accusations of election rigging by outsiders, a “mysterious convoy of black buses,” and something completely random about the War on Christmas.
On December 13, Twitter responded with sarcastic comments like this:
But with the December 27 complaint by the Moore campaign, the meme is once again elevated to a last-ditch adversarial tool with the apparent end to subvert the will of the people. Yet the campaign’s complaint basically makes the same argument uttered in the tweets and comments. (1) irregular high turnout by black voters raises suspicion of voter fraud; (2) rumors of voter impersonation voter fraud by outsider voters raise concern; (3) outside partisan involvement (what other people call “politics”) raises suspicion; and (4) statistical analyses by election fraud experts raise suspicion. Moreover, in a quite-odd paragraph 22 of the complaint, we also see the Moore campaign seeking vindication of the truthfulness of their candidate in relation to the allegations that he sought sexual relations with teenage girls:
Clearly this is a last-ditch effort to forestall the conclusion reached by the Alabama Secretary of State, the Republican Party, President Trump, and, in at least this instance, an Alabama judge — that Jones beat Moore fair and square.
And yet, these allegations should be situated in the larger context of the evolution of the meme of voter fraud into a political weapon designed to distort elections, which started as long ago as 2000 in the hotly contested race between then-Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri and the late governor of Missouri, Mel Carnahan. In the face of a loss to a dead man, the Ashcroft camp argued that dead voters in Missouri tipped the balance. Nothing came of this as Ashcroft went on to be Attorney General and, through investigations by his Department of Justice, put in-person voter impersonation voter fraud on the map. And this leant credence to the movement for voter identification laws.
More famously and recently, President Trump argued via Twitter that the participation of “illegal voters” (read, illegal immigrants) were the reason why he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. A year later, President Trump has offered nothing in the way of proof to support this allegation. Also, in the election of 2016, Pat McCrory, who lost the governor’s office in North Carolina to then-Attorney General Roy Cooper, alleged a mass conspiracy of voter fraud denied him the election. Like Moore, McCrory filed objections and when those objections were denied, he sought a recount. The recount, and a subsequent audit by the North Carolina Board of Elections showed few irregularities, including several hundred miscast votes by former felons, some double voting, and one — ONE — vote out of the 4.5 million cast in the North Carolina 2016 gubernatorial race that could have been forestalled by voter identification laws. Voting errors are to be expected, and in North Carolina, those errors certainly did not amount to a grand conspiracy by the Democrats — what McCrory alleged — to steal the election.
Moore’s post-election litigation in the face of the door closing on his campaign fits this same pattern. And, true to form, a judge has declined to equate rumor and innuendo with proof — or even concern — sufficient to stop the mechanisms of democracy from working. The influence of political outsiders, the rumors of black votes being bussed in from Mississippi, and higher than expected African American turnout in predominantly African American counties (which, by the way, was at the same rate as for Clinton last year, as I noted earlier) does not equate to a mass conspiracy of voter fraud.
Alleging a mass conspiracy of voter fraud with nothing but rumor is a bad play. No major state or national election has been reversed because of the meme of voter fraud. Yet it persists because it is a political statement. It is a politics that exists around the idea that the meme is real, and therefore such subversion ought to be opposed. This kind of paranoia can motivate voters. And so, it becomes the equivalent of a party line.
On another level, this use of the meme of voter fraud to attempt to thwart an election is really another battle in the war over American identity. In Alabama, we saw the power of the black vote met with unbelievable conspiracy theories. To make such a claim of voter fraud without tangible proof is to engage in identity politics of the worse kind. It is to delegitimize the votes of citizens because of a set presumption against their citizens’ worthiness through complaining about their votes’ validity. This parrots our too tragic history of violence against minority voting by legislative means.
But it is also the old tactics of voter suppression coming into their own in the era of Trump. This won’t be the last you will hear of the meme of voter fraud.
Putting into Practice Self-Empowerment
December 22, 2017
I am sitting in the Queen Alia Amman airport preparing to fly back to America. As I wait for my flight, I can't help going over the details of our trip in my mind. In the course of ten days, I have met with Syrian refugees, international nongovernment organizations, local Jordan direct services organizations, and government officials who each provided me with a unique perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Of all our meetings, the most impactful was our meeting with a local community based organization that provides direct services for women and children in the poorest part of Amman, most of whom are Syrian refugees. We learned about programs to provide education to children and work opportunities to empower women. Losing their homes and sense of belonging drastically affected the women’s outlook and self-perceptions such that they had lost their self-esteem. Listening to their realities was heartbreaking because it is unimaginable to me how a situation beyond one’s control could have such a negative effect. Until you experience involuntary exile due to threat of violence, you cannot fully comprehend the consequent psychological harms.
That so many people back home in America, from politicians to everyday American citizens, vilify Syrian refugees made the experience all the more jarring. Our media and government have turned people in a dire situation into monsters for political and social gain. I can't help but wonder why they teach us in school the famous quote on the Statue of Liberty "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door," while our government's policies towards Syrian refugees directly contradict such values.
Although I am not Syrian or ethnically Arab, I am a Muslim who feels some level of obligation to counter the negative stereotypes infecting American Middle East policy. Islam stresses the idea of the Muslim Ummah - a community that transcends racial, linguistic, and class barriers for the greater good of the Muslim identity. As someone who shares an identity with the majority of the Syrian refugees, I felt a connection that compels me to serve as a cultural ambassador connecting the humanity of the Middle East with the United States.
Although I am upset at how refugees are portrayed in Western media, I can't help but also feel guilty. Being a Muslim is an identity I hold, but so is being American. Although I share an identity with Syrian refugees, I also share an identity with a government whose policies is exacerbating their suffering. I can’t help but wonder how I have been complicit in the oppression of Syrian refugees. I can’t help but wonder when I should have spoken up; or when I was ignorant or lazy when I should have been educating myself and others about the real facts on the ground that debunk the false narratives.
What I have learned, as this trip ends, is that now is the time to do the work I did not do in the past. I have been given this incredible opportunity to come to Jordan and research issues facing Syrian refugees. I have been given the tools and now I need to take every meeting, fact, statistic, and tale I have learned over the past ten days and turn them into action. Writing a policy report the spring of 2018 based on what we learned on the ground in Jordan is the next step in our project.
Almost every Syrian refugee I met told me that they want to see change in their situation. They want to go home and live safely with dignity again. I may not be able to change their lives, but I can try to inform my fellow Americans and hold my government accountable for misguided and misinformed foreign policies. By putting into practice self-empowerment I hope I can inspire others to follow.
-- Omar Rana, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Supporting Community Based Organizations in Human Rights Work: Day 8
December 21, 2017
First, we visited the University of Jordan and met law students in a legal clinic that collaborates on cases with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). The students expressed their passion for helping others through application of international human rights law. They shared with us their work with Syrian refugees and how the clinic leveraged their legal studies towards that end. As the students highlighted the economic and social challenges facing refugees, their empathy was palpable. We heard no resentment in their voices notwithstanding that Syrian workers are competing with Jordanians in an economy with limited opportunities.
When asked what could be done to address the refugee crisis, the students suggested burden-sharing among nations, increasing job opportunities and international development, which directly benefit refugees and Jordanians alike. We sensed that the Jordanian students viewed the Syrians as part of a “family” in their approach to improving Jordan. The goal is to accommodate the whole family, not just Jordanians.
We then met with a volunteer organization founded by a group of Syrian and Jordanian millennials raising money for a carnival for Syrian children. The event raised more money than anticipated such that the youth group decided to create an organization to provide medical and social services for refugees ineligible for government or nongovernment aid. Since its inception in 2014, the organization has raised millions of dollars, thereby allowing it to provide medical aid and social services to approximately 100 people per month. The most fascinating element of this organization is that they are all simply a group of friends driven by compassion to help those in need. We felt proud to see our generation contributing to this cause, and more importantly, became motivated to take part in their initiative. Our conversation included potentially working with them in the United States and helping them get support through one of our legal clinics that works with small businesses. The exchange of ideas further incentivized and validated the importance of our trip to Jordan.
Our encounter with Jordanian youth also taught us the value of being multilingual. Their ability to converse with us in English and easily switch between English and Arabic made us realize the limitations of the American education system. Because most students in the United States are not fully bilingual, their opportunities for meaningful engagement with peers abroad are limited. Studies shows that less that 1% of Americans are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom. Although this may not reflect a lack of interest in learning a foreign language, it certainly limits opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges. Indeed, I have frequently heard Americans express an interest in learning other languages. To meet these interests, our classrooms in the United States should start teaching foreign languages at a younger age when it is easier to learn.
Speaking a different language allows for a more nuanced experience. As a native Arabic speaker, I experienced Jordan through a different lens than my non-Arabic speaking peers. I was able to learn and analyze the information communicated to us in English, but I was also able to pick up on small gestures, jokes and comments said in Arabic but not translated, and if explained in English, would lose their meaning. This trip brought home the importance of learning languages in order to effectively work on international human rights.
-- Tamara Anaie, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Thursday, December 21, 2017
Listening to those Most Affected: Day 7
December 20, 2017
In one of the famous parables by the Persian poet and mystic Rumi, he tells the story of the elephant in a dark room. People go into the room, unable to see, and touch only one part of the elephant. Based on that contact, they come up with a theory of what it must be. But none can guess the true nature of the animal using their limited perspective alone.
With each passing day here in Jordan, it feels as though we illuminate a little more of the elephant that is the Syrian refugee crisis. Today, the picture expanded in new ways based on two unique viewpoints we hadn’t yet experienced firsthand. In the morning we met for the first time with someone who could provide insight into the government’s perspective, and in the afternoon, we visited with Syrian refugee families in their home, engaging with the affected population in ways we hadn’t before. Both were eye-opening conversations.
We learned that the Jordanian government is intensely overburdened due to the refugee crisis. The crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time. Jordan was already facing a debt crisis and other economic problems. As an oasis of stability in the middle of a turbulent region, attracting investment to the country is difficult, tourism has taken a hit, and the government continues to subsidize energy, even though its crucial access to affordable gas through Egypt was cut off due to regional unrest.
Yet, the government kept its borders open to the Syrian refugees for five years until 2016 after a car bomb exploded at a government checkpoint, killing six Jordanian soldiers. In our conversation today, the government official acknowledged that this was not in Jordan’s economic best interest, but the Jordanian government couldn’t turn its backs on neighboring Syria as its people were dying.
The government must walk an incredibly fine line in upholding the obligation it shouldered when hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees poured across its borders, while at the same time avoiding the build-up of resentment among its own people who are struggling to find work. The response isn’t perfect, but somehow, for now, it seems to be succeeding in striking the right, tenuous balance.
There have been no incidents of protests or riots against the refugees by Jordanians. As we’ve heard again and again, the Jordanians are a welcoming people. It’s hard to fathom such empathy, especially when you consider negative reactions to immigrants and refugees prevalent in some parts of America. What does it say about our culture, a culture compromised of the descendants of generations of immigrants, that if we in America had experienced such an influx of people, there almost certainly would have been rioting in the streets?
Our next visit was one of the most powerful for me of the trip so far. We spent the afternoon in the living room of a refugee family, visiting with a group of several Syrian refugee women who shared their experiences with us. Life for them is so hard. They struggle to survive in an expensive city on just 10 dinar (about US$14) per person per month, an amount that has decreased as the crisis lingers. The refugees constantly apply to NGOs for aid and are repeatedly turned down or ignored. Their children are in school, they have a roof over their heads, but most can’t work to make ends meet.
A disagreement broke out between the refugees at one point about what the next step should be for them and their families. One argued that resettlement in a third country, like the US or Europe, is the best option. At least there, he said, we could be put on a path to citizenship, work, know what our status is, and create a stable future for our children. Another argued that she would rather have the tools she needs to survive in Jordan until it’s safe to return to Syria. Uprooting herself and her family again to resettle in a third country would mean giving up on the hope of returning to Syria, where her family remains.
Toddlers ran around the room playing with us while we visited. Time can be difficult to put in perspective, but when we were told that these children were born in Jordan as refugees, the force of just how long this displacement has lasted really hit home. We were handed a beautiful newborn to hold, and as I looked at him in my arms, I wondered what his future held. My heart broke thinking that his mother must look at him and wonder the same thing, without any answers.
Yesterday’s blog post talked about empowerment, the idea that the real solution to the refugee crisis isn’t actually one solution; it’s getting to a place where the refugees themselves can decide their future, based on what they need and want. The discussion today shows that not every solution works for everyone. In a perfect world, and a more sustainable one, the lasting solutions would be the ones the refugees choose for themselves.
All the refugees we spoke to agree that the life they are living right now in Jordan is not sustainable. I couldn’t understand the words they used without interpretation, but I could hear the anxiety in their voices, the desperation of not knowing what would come next and of mounting economic pressure. They had middle class lives in Jordan. Now they’ve been living in poverty and uncertainty for six years, with no end in sight.
During our visit, espresso-sized cups of delicious Turkish coffee were passed around the room, one for each of us in our group, an expression of hospitality by people who have nothing. True generosity is not giving from surplus, but giving when it’s everything you have. Jordan has done that for the Syrian refugees. The Syrian refugees today did that for us.
-- Joanna Gardner, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Education, Empowerment, and Kindness: Day 6
December 19, 2017
Today, our experiences focused our attention on ways to address the refugee crisis and what the Syrian people want—an approach frequently overlooked. We first experienced this while meeting with a community-based organization in a poor neighborhood in Jordan whose work is centered around helping Syrian refugees and their low-income neighbors integrate into society. They offer supplemental education for children and adults who have not had access to school for long periods of time or who lack basic education.
We learned that many of the Syrian families who fled to Jordan have low levels of education because they came from poor, rural areas. As they continue to live in poverty in Jordan, it can be difficult for them to understand the importance of education for their own children and not fall prey to temptations like sending their children to work instead. The organization we visited developed an innovative solution: each child is given 1 Jordanian dinar to attend school each day. The money allows families to afford keeping their children in school, and has thus far been effective in achieving this goal.
Throughout the day, our attention continued to focus on different ways of addressing the refugee crisis. One of the people we spoke to told us that if you ask a refugee what they need, they will tell you that they do not need food, water or a first aid kid. They need empowerment, something that is not offered through mere donations or sympathy.
It made me question what empowerment really is. Does it come with education and having a job that helps sustain your life? Or is there something more. Does it also include allowing someone to feel as if they genuinely belong in a country or that they have the option to live freely within the country? For instance, the community-based organization offered programming for women's empowerment by assisting them in creating handicrafts to sell, while also working on developing their self-confidence and business skills as entrepreneurs.
Perhaps it has something to do with avoiding making the Syrians feel as if they are a project that needs saving. For example, we learned that during the beginning of this crisis, many Syrians avoided registering as refugees with the UNHCR because they wanted to avoid being labeled as a member of a vulnerable community or to perceive themselves that way. Can empowerment simply be given in the way we perceive and portray a Syrian person?
A recurring theme that echoes through the cities of Jordan is the kindness and generosity of Jordanians. I believe these traits might also be a contributing factor to addressing the Syrian crisis. As the blog post mentioned yesterday, we do hear about the tensions between the Jordanian and Syrian people living in Jordan, and it is understandable. Many Jordanians live in poverty, and the international community is slowly starting to realize that in responding to protracted crises like these, it is just as important to support the refugees as it is to support their host communities.
But our meetings today were deeply moving in the ways they showed how generous and welcoming Jordanians are. The community-based organization we visited today serves low-income Syrians and Jordanians equally. One phrase I kept hearing whenever we asked about any tension was that, “there is no Jordanian and Syrian when asking for help; there is only human.” It was extremely uplifting to hear these words and realize that although tensions here surely exist, the compassion of Jordanians is strong. We hope to continue to let the Jordanians touch our hearts and teach us how to better coexist and be more tolerant. One quote that I think captures this well is one we saw painted in a mural on the streets of Amman: “Alone I am fragile, together we are strong.”
-- Tamara Anaie, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Monday, December 18, 2017
Dispelling False Assumptions: Day 5
December 18, 2017
Never assume something is true until you get all the facts. How one person perceives the refugee crisis, what one person decides is a solution, and general impressions are not always the whole story.
Today was a busy day of meetings in Amman. Going into our meetings, I had two preconceptions: 1) Jordanians are supportive of Syrian refugees and 2) resettlement, particularly to the US, is the most desired solutions to the refugee crisis. I was quickly disabused of these assumptions.
We shared with the stakeholders our general impression that Jordan has a very different narrative for refugees than the United States. That is, refugees are far more welcome here in Jordan than in the U.S. Everyone agreed that Jordanians are generally very hospitable.
At the same time, one stakeholder laid out a critical context that could create points of tension, including the long history of protracted refugee crises in Jordan, including the Gaza Camp still hosting Palestinians who fled their homeland in 1967. In addition, an economic crisis, saturated job market and the scarcity of potable water imposes significant burdens on the Jordanian population.
Another stakeholder explained that some Jordanians believe Syrian refugees have been limiting their access to health care. Nearly 85% of Jordanians are insured, most of whom receive government health care. Jordanians who are not insured can access government subsidized health care.
Some Jordanians believe Syrians are also subsidized by the state, which is not true. Because they are not Jordanian citizens, Syrians must pay full cost for health services. For low income displaced Syrians and refugees, this makes access to care prohibitively costly. As a result, international organizations are providing financial aid specifically for the medical treatment of Syrian refugees. Contrary to popular perceptions, such external aid does not adversely impact Jordanians’ access to health care.
The stakeholders also pointed out that although resettlement is an option, the scale of the crisis (there are over 5 million Syrian refugees worldwide) makes resettlement an unsustainable solution. The international community should look at more sustainable solutions like creating flexible funding for neighboring nations like Jordan. This allows the Jordanian Government to address the needs of refugees as well as the needs of low income Jordanian citizens without creating tensions.
At the same time, resettlement is still considered important. There are some refugees who want to be resettled, and as one stakeholder pointed out, everyone should be able to define the path to their self-development. But more broadly, resettlement provides benefits to host countries such as the U.S. – the more the host population develops relationships with people from around the globe, particularly conflict-ridden areas. As we better understand the circumstances of Syrians most affected by the conflict, the more our government is able to support and advocate for effective and sustainable foreign policy solutions.
We ended our day with a lovely dinner at a Syrian restaurant. Our dinner guests were a local couple – a Syrian refugee and his wife. Before walking into dinner, I expected the conversation to be depressing. It turned out quite the opposite. We talked and laughed about nearly every topic under the sun from camel races to Bollywood movies, and we even celebrated one of our group members’ birthday. Of course, at some points, sad and difficult topics came up. The refugee talked about the harsh atrocities he and his family faced while in Syria and the harsh living conditions some of his family members continue to face living in a refugee camp in Jordan. These stories left us all in a state of wonder at how this person could have gone through so much but still be optmistic.
He had a smile on his face because that is what worked for him. It is entirely believable that when we met him he would have been the glum refugee that is portrayed in the media. And those people probably exist. But just because that is one person’s story, like how one person can present a solution or a perception, that does not mean every person feels that way. Is what I learned today now going to reverse everything I was told before … absolutely not. If anything, today taught me that the most important part of human rights lawyering is gaining as many perspectives as you can because not every human is going to think the same way.
As we were leaving, the wife of the Syrian refugee said that if there is anything that we should get out of our research to take back to America is that Syrian refugees should not be stigmatized just for being refugees. Rather than labeling all Syrian refugees as potential security threats, everyone should take the time to learn new perspectives.
That is sound advice that I’ll remember throughout the course of my research, and my life.
-- Omar Rana, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Sunday, December 17, 2017
Coexistence in Jordan: Day 4
December 16, 2017
Our fourth day in Jordan was another combination of sightseeing and work, and the last one we will have like that for a while. The next several days are full of stakeholder meetings that will leave less time for sightseeing. It’s been inspiring to see the beauty of this country while at the same time learning about its response to the Syrian crisis. Sometimes those two things overlap.
Jordan is a country that is rich with religious history. For me personally, as my first visit to a Muslim-majority country, it has been beautiful to hear the adhan (call to prayer) echoing across the city, a constant reminder of spirituality throughout each day. Even as we drove from the airport, the number of mosques, lit up green against the night sky, was striking.
Christianity, too, has deep roots in the country, and our sightseeing today took us to some of these sites. We toured two ancient Christian churches in the city of Madaba just outside of Amman—one Greek Orthodox and one Roman Catholic. Both churches are famous for their ancient mosaics. During our visit, we ventured beneath one church to see its Byzantine foundations, dating from the 6th century. Our third church visit was to Mount Nebo, a holy site for both Christians and Muslims, who share a common devotion to Moses as a prophet.
Islam and Christianity exist side-by-side in Jordan, their common histories intertwined. In Madaba, Muslims and Christians share neighborhoods and mosques are across the street from Christian churches.
The Jordanian response to the Syrian refugee crisis seems in many ways to reflect the coexistence that is built into life here. It would be naïve to think that any time two differing cultures intersect it is always harmonious, and it is true that our conversations (and survey data collected by the Jordanian government) have not painted a uniformly rosy picture of Jordanian-Syrian relations. And yet, in our individual conversations with Jordanians, we continue to be impressed by the level of compassion we hear for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees that have poured into the country over the last six years.
Today’s conversation with a Jordanian who works with an international NGO once again reflected that perspective. She told us that Jordanians are a welcoming people; the diversity that has existed in their country for decades has helped to make them that way. Most people she knows, she said, feel compassion for the refugees, even if their own economic situations are difficult. What’s needed, she told us, are programs that meet the basic needs of both Jordanians and refugees, with a focus on jobs. (Unemployment is a problem in Jordan, and we have heard in other conversations that it is one of the points of tension between Jordanians and Syrian refugees).
The portrayal of Syrian refugees by the mainstream media in Jordan is also generally positive, focusing on the humanitarian needs of Syrians and the Jordanian spirit of welcome. Even if local media is not always regarded as entirely trustworthy, the media narrative on refugees sets a tone of receptiveness and welcome.
Our conversation today also reinforced the importance of listening to local voices in communities affected by crises. We talked today about how international NGOs sometimes fail to address the real priorities on the ground because of the perception that “we know best” and a failure to listen to what the community says it needs or to put local people in control.
One example we discussed is the flurry of NGO activity around the problem of child marriage among Syrian refugees. While no doubt a major problem, the person we spoke to today expressed some frustration that the money used for these kinds of interventions could be better spent meeting Syrians’ basic needs, since it is severe economic pressures that drive parents to marry off their girls young in the first place. But instead, foreign donors latch on to a secondary problem that fails to meet the real need or make a lasting impact. The failure to address the priority needs of refugees reveals a lack of insight and an attitude of condescension and lack of respect for the ability of local communities to assess their own needs.
Western international NGOs and their funders would do well to learn from the Jordanian model of coexistence. Living together, learning from each other, and mutual respect are the only ways that meaningful and sustainable work can be done to address human rights needs around the world.
-- Joanna Gardner, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Saturday, December 16, 2017
Professor Bryan W. Van Norden has recently published TAKING BACK PHILOSOPHY: A MULTICULTURAL MANIFESTO. A renowned expert in Chinese philosophy, Professor Van Norden taught for 20 years in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Chinese and Japanese at Vassar College. Currently, he is Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Visiting Professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. In TAKING BACK PHILOSOPHY, Professor Van Norden contends that:
"American colleges and universities failing their students by refusing to teach the philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and other non-Western cultures[.] ... Even though we live in an increasingly multicultural world, most philosophy departments stubbornly insist that only Western philosophy is real philosophy and denigrate everything outside the European canon. ... Taking Back Philosophy ... lambastes academic philosophy for its Eurocentrism, insularity, and complicity with nationalism and issues a ringing call to make our educational institutions live up to their cosmopolitan ideals."
Seeing Behind the Headlines: Day 3
December 15, 2017
After a memorable day of sightseeing in Petra and Wadi Rum, and a night spent camping in the Jordanian desert under a sky filled with stars, our group returned to Amman today to begin the work we came here to do.
Today we spoke with the field office director of an international NGO that works with refugees here. In the space of just a few hours we gained perspective on the situation in Jordan in ways we never could have from online research alone.
For instance, we learned that while Syrian refugees living in Jordan receive a great deal of attention—and with good reason; the UN has registered over 655,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan in the space of six years, amounting to 9% of the total Jordanian population in a country the size of Indiana—this attention has meant that other refugees living in Jordan are often overlooked.
The UNHCR estimates that some 70,000 non-Syrian refugees and asylum seekers currently live in Jordan. To give these numbers some perspective, here’s a chart illustrating the number of refugees the US has admitted each year since 1980. The current ceiling stands at 50,000. Bear in mind that while the US population is over 323 million, the population of Jordan is just 9.5 million.
The scale of the Syrian refugee crisis and the international attention it has received means that many international NGOs and assistance programs, even some facilitated by the Jordanian government, are targeted at Syrians alone, excluding the large numbers of Iraqi, Sudanese and Somali refugees living in Jordan. In the estimation of the person we spoke to today, some of the most vulnerable refugees in Jordan are non-Syrian refugees, who lack access even to the limited resources available to Syrians. The resentment felt by the refugees left behind is often echoed by the broader population of Jordanian citizens struggling economically, who may feel that the international community ignores their pain to focus only on the Syrian refugees, even while Western countries close their own borders.
We learned today that the Jordanian government has taken steps to mitigate the negative effects that can occur when international NGOs descend on a country in the wake of a disaster. It has passed regulations that require NGOs who provide direct assistance to Syrian refugees to extend a percentage of their services to struggling Jordanian citizens as well, and to hire a portion of their staff from among Jordan nationals. Our group had not found information about this regulation during our online research and found this detail to be a fascinating aspect of the Jordanian response to the crisis, particularly becasue the issue of “helicopter” international NGOs in the wake of disaster is pervasive around the world. We’re curious to know if Jordan is the first country to implement such a policy, and whether other nations might follow its example.
During our discussions after the meeting, we realized how important it is to be here, in person, talking to people on the ground. In this first meeting alone, we gained unique insights that we never could have learned from afar. For example, the struggle of governmental and non-governmental actors in Jordan to do right by the Syrian refugees it accepts while caring for its own citizens is not discussed in the refugee literature
It’s an aspect of lawyering that none of us had ever experienced, but that our professors tell us is a critical, if sometimes overlooked, element of effective public interest advocacy. Otherwise, we run the risk of looking past the enormous complexities that exist in every community in our zeal to do “something” in the wake of disaster. We’re already seeing how important it will be for us in our future work to embed ourselves in whatever community we’re trying to serve and to listen, to attempt to wrap our minds around the complicated tangle of causes and effects in order to not just do “something” but do something worthwhile. Especially when we, the public interest lawyers, are foreign to the community, when we’re coming in from the outside.
We’ve been conscious as a group these last few days of our “otherness” in the wake of the Trump administration’s Jerusalem announcement. Reports of protests played on the radio in the car during one of our day trips, and today we learned of a peaceful protest happening in downtown Amman. It’s made us hesitant to respond when people ask us where we’re from. Last night, sitting around a campfire in the desert under the stars, the camp owner played a tanbur, an ancient traditional guitar, for us. He asked me where I was from, and when I answered, he nodded and said simply, “You are welcome.” His words have been echoing in my head ever since.
Over the next several days, the listening we do in these meetings will surely continue to reveal the contours of the messy, complex, faltering, inspiring welcome that has been extended to refugees here and what it means for Jordan and its people.
-- Joanna Gardner, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Friday, December 15, 2017
Seeing Petra for the First Time: Day 2
December 14, 2017
When I was home for Eid al Fitr (the Muslim festival after Ramadan) last summer, I prayed next to one of my father's best friends who was Jordanian. After Eid prayer, I was talking with him about his upcoming trip home to Jordan. I told him how much I have always wanted to go to Jordan and, more specifically, see Petra, a world heritage site containing the ruins of an ancient city carved into the cliffs. I could not have predicted then that only six months later I would be in Jordan to see it for myself.
Today was the big day that I finally visited Petra for the first time. My colleagues and I ventured three hours south of Amman to Petra. On our way, we stopped at cafes where we enjoyed Arabic coffee and Zataar, a common Jordanian snack of bread with ground thyme and sesame seeds. On our drive to Petra, our driver told us that he lives in a community with many Syrian refugees. The driver informed us that rents have gone up by almost 300% in some cities due to the influx of refugees. Despite this, the driver and other Jordanians viewed the refugees as friends.
Our conversation with the cab driver adds to the conversation Tamara had with the woman on the plane on our first day. The woman echoed that Jordan has experienced a huge increase in its refugee population and she's witnessed the effects in the more crowded streets. However, she expressed that Jordanians generally feel empathy for the Syrians such that they least they can do for their vulnerable neighbors is to provide them a safe place away from the Syrian conflict. She also mentioned that she was happy to see young Syrian women beginning to take on new industries. For example, she's noticed that mostly Syrian women are occupying the beauty care salons, which were previously occupied by other minorities in the country. The conversation with the woman on the plane and the cab driver shows that some Jordanians feel a sense of compassion towards the Syrian refugees, a compassion that main stream narratives in the United States lack.
When we finally entered the picturesque Petra historical park, it was absolutely incredible. We passed through a stone alleyway (al-Siq) and came out to the Treasury, the sight frequently seen in pictures of Petra. We then walked up to the tomb cut out in the stone, to the ruins of a Byzantine church. As we were leaving, two members of our group fulfilled their dreams by riding a camel back to the Petra entrance. One of the members of our group expressed an interest in going to Wadi Rum. When one of Jordan's national parks in the desert north of Saudi Arabia, famous for its beautiful scenery and the many movies that were filmed there, our driver suggested making it a day trip.
We took him up on the offer to take a guided tour of Wadi Rum followed by a night in the camp at the park. I was the most apprehensive because I have never been much of a camper. Much to my surprise, the camp had indoor accommodations and the main camp area was completed with plush couches, fire pits, and a dance floor. We were treated to a magnificent feast of Jordanian cuisine.
The feast included expected Arab staples like rice, hummus, tahini, and pita bread. It also included an unexpected twist. Lamb that was cooked in a put which the chefs covered in sand. After dinner we partook in traditional dancing on the dance floor. We finished the night around a large campfire reminiscing about the incredible day we had. I wish more than anything that I could tell my dad's Jordanian friend all about it. Unfortunately, while he was visiting Jordan a week after I saw him, he unexpectedly passed away.
What I thought the day I talked to him is just as true today. Jordan is an incredible place with incredible things to offer, whether culinary, historical, or cultural. It is disappointing that negative stereotypes of Arabs and Middle East culture affect some Americans’ views of an entire region. As a result, they deny themselves the opportunity to have the enriching experience we had today.
-- Omar Rana, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Thursday, December 14, 2017
In May 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a landmark speech in Washington, DC. This address, entitled, “Give Us the Ballot” was King’s vision about how Black voting power could transform the apartheid South. In particular, he said:
“Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a ‘Southern Manifesto’ because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.”
Maybe we had a foretaste of King’s foresight as we watched the African American vote defeat Judge Roy Moore and elect Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate from Alabama, a state at the heart of Trump conservatism. And maybe we also saw a glimpse of how an empowered Black vote can be a threat to establishments that rely on their marginalization.
But let me confess up front that I predicted Moore would win—and win outside of the margin of error--because of how Alabama had been dominated by Trump in the 2016 election and how Alabamans had elected Moore twice to statewide office (after he had been removed once and suspended once from his judgeship for violating the U.S. Constitution).
And I also knew that Alabama’s strict voter identification law, its efforts to make such identification less available, and its efforts to modulate (but not eradicate) the collateral consequences of criminal convictions that bar voting all made Alabama a focal point of the voter suppression wars.
Thus, this election was both a referendum on the divisive gender and racial politics of Donald Trump and a test of the ability of the Black community to surmount the effects of voter suppression. And I was a pessimist about both.
In a world absent the allegations that Moore had romantically pursued teenage girls while a District Attorney, absent his Islamophobic stances, and absent the prominence given to various reactionary claims, e.g., all the amendments after the Tenth are “problematic,” I probably would have been right. But all this came to light, and it demobilized white voters and energized Black voters. And that cost Moore the election.
Exit polls reveal that Black voters overwhelmingly voted for Jones and white voters voted overwhelming for Moore. Here’s the data as summarized by the Washington Post:
This was a perfect storm to cause the defeat of Trump’s chosen candidate in the heart of the Trump campaign’s base.
But the data makes two key points: first, the base of white Republican voters voted overwhelmingly for Moore despite the rhetoric and the accusations. This echoes the outcome of the 2016 election. However, fewer moderate Republicans voted for Moore; they instead supported Jones. Had there been more Republican party unity, or a more respectable candidate, the Republicans would probably have won. And presumably, in the next election cycle, Alabama Republicans will unite behind a more respectable candidate.
But this is not to deny the strength of Black voting power. African American voters were consistent with their performance in 2016 in opposing the Trump-Moore politics. This to me is a glimmer of King’s prophesy of how African Americans would use the vote to oppose white supremacy in the name of justice. They compared Moore to Jones and selected the person who they thought was “a man of goodwill.”
This happened despite the post-Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder era of voter suppression to use voter ID laws, racial gerrymandering, and structural efforts to make it more difficult for poor black Alabaman voters. I have previously discussed Alabama’s voter identification laws and the strong risk that such IDs would be unavailable to poor black voters due to DMV closings in the Black Belt (the counties in Alabama which are over 80% black and where there is high poverty). In a recent academic paper, I extend these arguments to talk about how there is a little-discussed structural problem when it comes to failing to prioritize the right to vote—and that structural misgiving can have voter suppression consequences. I have also discussed the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Alabama legislature’s effort to racially gerrymander state districts to pack black voters and preserve white Republican political power.
In short, Alabama is a front line of the post-Shelby County voter suppression wars.
Black voters turned out despite the barriers, and the efforts of civil rights groups to overcome the barriers deserve praise. Between that and the white voters who damned him by few votes, Moore lost.
It is tempting to argue that Black voters’ ability to organize and vote despite voter suppression means voter suppression claims are overblown. That reasoning is faulty. Being able to surmount an illegitimate difficulty doesn't make the difficulty any less illegitimate. Moreover, numerous federal courts have used the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to strike down voter identification laws because of their potentially disparate discriminatory impact.
The evidence brought in court included academic studies, the documentation of the intent to suppress minority votes, and the statistical risk of disparate effects. It all supports the claim that strict voter identification laws, arbitrary and last-minute changes in the timing of voting, and arbitrary enforcement have been used in concert to unnecessarily intimidate and unduly burden the right to vote (rather than making voting more efficient or secure). This battle continues in Alabama and elsewhere to secure the legacy of the right to vote.
King foresaw what that legacy could be. He knew that the African American electorate could transform the South if voter suppression barriers were removed and African Americans brought the vote to bear. Roy Moore’s defeat by African American voters gave us a glimpse of this transformative power. But it’s also a reminder that the voter suppression war can still be lost.
And it also forces us to wonder anew if this new era of voter suppression exists because of fear of the Black ballot.
A group of Rutgers Law School students have the unique opportunity to visit Jordan as part of a seminar on the Syrian Refugee Crisis and International Human Rights. Under the supervision of Professor Sahar Aziz and Professor Jeena Shah, the students are meeting with various stakeholders in government and nongovernmental organizations to understand the complex political, economic, and social factors that affect both the refugees and receiving countries.
By going on the ground and hearing from persons with direct knowledge of the Syrian refugee crisis, the students can compare the media and political rhetoric in Western media with the facts on the ground. As future lawyers, the students will apply their critical thinking, research, and interpersonal skills to assess a complex set of facts within the broader framework of international human rights.
As a means of informing others with an interest in the Syrian refugee crisis, the students are blogging about their experiences in Jordan. As such, the Race and the Law Profs blog will be posting a daily blog from a student for the next two weeks. Here is the first post. Stay tuned for their daily reflections.
WE MADE IT TO JORDAN: DAY 1
December 13, 2017
We made it to Jordan! After nearly 20 hours of traveling, we are finally in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan known for its hospitable people, ancient civilizations, and central location in the Middle East.
While on the connecting flight from Paris to Amman, I sat beside a kind older woman, ethnically of Serbian descent, who was traveling back to her home in Amman after visiting her daughter in the United States. We spent the entire five-hour flight discussing topics including the Jordanian perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis and potential solutions, the effects of the numerous wars in the Middle East, her family history, and even the best places to eat in Jordan. She also shared with me that her son works for a humanitarian organization, focusing on documenting the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan. Because Jordan has nearly 1 million Syrian refugees and displaced Syrians, it offers a unique opportunity to understand the challenges faced by recipient countries. We look forward to learning more about the complexity of the Syrian refugee issue, and its impact on Middle East countries.
After finally arriving at the airport in Jordan, we couldn’t go to sleep without getting a first taste of the highly praised food in Jordan. The hotel staff members recommended a restaurant that serves grilled meats and appetizers. The meal was delicious, and the staff were hospitable. As we savored the authentic Middle Eastern cuisine, we planned the following day’s schedule and decided to go visit the famous Petra and Wadi Rum.
Our day finally ended at about 12:30 AM. We have a lot of recovery to do for our big day tomorrow that will begin at 7:00 AM.
-- Tamara Anaie, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Professor Stuart Chinn has a timely forthcoming article in the Tennessee Law Review entitled "Trump and Chinese Exclusion: Contemporary Parallels with Legislative Debates Over the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882." Here is the abstract of the article:
"Donald Trump’s presidential victory in November has prompted much public commentary about American political dynamics and about the future of American democracy. Given these inquiries, this paper is timely in aiming to reexamine, through a comparative istorical lens, one of the most prominent parts of Trump’s campaign and one of the biggest points of concern among his critics: Trump’s campaign rhetoric on immigration. Trump’s own flirtation with racist themes is easy to identify in some of his most notable campaign comments regarding Mexican immigrants and Muslim immigrants. And given that these comments were also directed at immigrant constituencies, equally clear is Trump’s flirtation with particularly nativistic forms of racial exclusion.
My aspiration in this paper is to shed some light on the Trump presidential victory and contemporary politics by examining these recent events in light of another significant moment in American immigration history: the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. By interrogating this crucial episode of nativist-influenced exclusion in the nineteenth century, I hope to illuminate certain dynamics that continue to resonate in and influence present-day politics.
In Part II, I offer some preliminary comments on the significance of the legislative debates over Chinese exclusion in the late nineteenth century and set forth the two primary claims of this paper. First, a crucial component of American political community has historically resided within cultural bonds. Second, precisely because cultural bonds have been so significant in defining American political community, they have helped give rise to the presence of statuses in our polity marked by relative inclusion and exclusion. Stated otherwise, we commonly find within historical debates and contemporary debates a conceptualization of minority groups, by political actors, where exclusionary and inclusionary themes are inescapable intertwined.
In Part III, I will demonstrate the validity of these two claims in the context of the legislative debates over Chinese exclusion.
Finally, in Part IV, I return to the contemporary context and demonstrate the relevance of my claims within Trump’s campaign rhetoric prior to the 2016 election. Within his rhetoric, we see both a reliance upon culture in constituting American political community and the articulation of statuses that are characterized by the relative inclusion and relative exclusion of certain minority groups."
You can download the full article here.
Monday, December 4, 2017
When Sayfullo Saipov used a truck to kill eight civilians, New York City’s sixteen-year hiatus from terrorism ended. As happens with every terrorist attack, law enforcement is asking “what could we have done to prevent this?”
While there are no definitive answers, one lesson is worth noting: lone wolf terrorism has become the new normal in international terrorism.
And as a result, more mass surveillance of religious or ethnic communities will not make us safer. Nor will it preserve the free society that motivates our opposition to political violence in the first place.
We are no longer facing groups of conspirators collaborating to effectuate a grand attack, as witnessed in the September 11th attacks. Instead, terrorist attacks are increasingly committed by individuals acting alone and secretly. They plan quietly and without accomplices, leaving few evidentiary traces of their plot. Their communities, neighbors, and even families have no knowledge of their violent plans—by design.
The absence of co-conspirators also makes it difficult for an informant or undercover agent to detect the plot. There are no phone calls to wiretap or meetings to infiltrate. The only person who has knowledge of the forthcoming attack is the perpetrator. And he is careful to create the appearance of normalcy among those who know him best, including his closest family members.
For these reasons, international terrorist groups have turned to recruiting individuals to conduct lone wolf attacks.
The two primary recruitment methods are online direct recruitment or broadcasts to loyalists to plan their own attack. The first is conducted via chat rooms and encrypted one-on-one electronic conversations. The second is through propaganda materials and instruction manuals distributed on the internet and social media.
In responding to the directed online recruiting, government informants and undercover agents stalk chat rooms and social media sites looking for sources of “radical” content as targets of sting operations. Pretending to be members of ISIS, Al Qaeda, or another terrorist group, the government agent looks to identify a potential lone wolf before the terrorists do.
As a result, a steady flow of anti-terrorism indictments has been issued in the past few years. Whether targeted individuals are merely victims of entrapment or a legitimate future threat is unclear.
What is clear, however, is that terrorist organizations have caught on to this strategy and are shifting their recruitment to wide broadcasts encouraging their unknown loyalists to take up arms on their own.
This is where the case of Sayfullo Saipov in New York City is instructive.
Thus far, we have no evidence of co-conspirators or that he had informed anyone of his plans to kill civilians in pursuit of a political objective. News reports indicate he may have planned the attack for a few months. Consistent with the lone wolf modus operandi, there is no evidence yet that his wife, neighbors, or fellow mosque attendees knew of his illicit plan.
New York police officers believe he may have followed the instructions in ISIS propaganda; without making contact with an ISIS member to conduct the attack.
This case and others in Europe demonstrate that it is very difficult to detect lone wolf criminals – whether they kill eight in New York City or fifty-nine in Las Vegas. These cases also prove that collectively punishing Muslims, and Uzbeks in this case, for the criminal acts of one person acting alone is futile and counterproductive.
If a lone wolf makes a mistake, those closest to him are most likely to notice it. But if they are victims of a wide net of suspicion cast over entire faith or ethnic communities, fear will prevent them from contacting law enforcement.
So as we rightfully ask questions on how we can prevent the next attack, let’s learn another important lesson. Muslim communities are allies not suspects.
-- This article was previously published in the Huffington Post. More on this topic can be found at Losing the War of Ideas: A Critique of Countering Violent Extremism Programs