Black-and-white photo of a Muslim-presenting individual wearing an American-flag-designed headscarf at a protest in New York.

OPINION: Islamophobia Is a Criminal Justice Reform Issue, Here’s Why

by Amanda Azad


Picture a college kid 10 years ago. In addition to the acid-washed skinny jeans and an obsession with Angry Birds, imagine this person is a sophomore pursuing a political science major. They are politically active on campus, participating in protests against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and they love camping. Usually, this student would be seen by law enforcement as just a normal college kid doing normal college kid stuff. Except for one thing: This kid is Muslim. Because of this, they are instead seen as a potential terrorist. 

This is the legacy of the War on Terror: an America where everything about the Muslim identity has been criminalized and that criminalization is embedded in our criminal justice system. 

In 2011, I was attending college in New Jersey when the media broke the story about the NYPD’s multistate Muslim mapping and spying program. As the vice president of my school’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), the details of the story deeply troubled me and the other members. We learned that an MSA at another school had all its members flagged as potential terrorists for going paintballing. Another was flagged because its members went white water rafting. In that case, police made sure to send an informant down the river, diligently noting each time a kid prayed.

These stories made me wonder how law enforcement viewed me and my friends. Everywhere I looked, my life was filled with what police and the FBI called “radicalization factors” — countless unassuming things about me checked their boxes. Because we were Muslim, we were potential terrorists-in-the-making in the eyes of law enforcement, and we knew it.

Like the failed War on Drugs, the War on Terror fueled the criminalization of a certain group of people. Institutionalized Islamophobia has permitted the classification of Islam, a religion, as a threat. In turn, this has allowed a different set of laws, or lack of laws, to govern Muslims’ interactions with police, prosecutors, and the criminal justice system.  

One example of this criminalization is the Radicalization Theory that was developed by the FBI and NYPD soon after 9/11. The theory, which assumes that Muslims are predisposed to violence, consists of four distinct stages that track a person’s path from a non-terrorist to a terrorist. Soon after the FBI and NYPD pushed the theory with reports in 2006 and 2007, Radicalization Theory was widely accepted by federal, state, and local law enforcement across the U.S. 

Here is an example of how the Radicalization Theory process and criteria can work:

Think of a checklist with four stages, each moving the suspect closer to being considered a future terrorist. The first stage is a sort of catchall where everyone from “middle class families” to “successful college students” to “new immigrants” are considered suspect. Basically, anyone who is Muslim checks the first box: your co-worker, neighbor, professor, Uber driver, etc. In the second stage, First Amendment activities become predictors of criminality. The Muslim identity becomes equated with a predisposition for violence. Everything from giving up cigarettes to paying off your mortgage could check the box. Essentially, living life while being Muslim equals a check. Again, your neighbor and at least half the Muslims you have met probably have checked this box. The third stage — not nearly as broad as the first two — includes markers such as withdrawal from a mosque, new political beliefs, criticism of the war in Iraq, or previous incarceration (regardless of conviction or guilt, being imprisoned is automatically viewed as a radicalization risk factor). The final stage of transforming into a homegrown terrorist, according to law enforcement, includes participating in outdoor activities such as camping, rafting, paintballing, or target shooting — qualifications problematic for outdoor enthusiasts like myself.  

You can see how your typical Muslim living in Seattle could easily check off all four boxes.

But Radicalization Theory is just one of many ways Muslims have been criminalized in the last 20 years. From policing practices and prosecutorial tactics to conditions of incarceration — the whole gambit of the criminal justice system has been programmed to criminalize Muslims. 

For example, Muslims have been policed over the years via harmful and invasive “preventative” policing tactics like profiling, surveillance, and infamous knock-and-talk style fishing expeditions. With prosecutions, Muslims have experienced entrapment, excessive and disproportionate sentencing lengths, and an overall lack of fair trial rights. As for incarceration, Muslims have experienced lengthy pretrial confinement, the abuse of solitary confinement, and inhumane conditions.

The belief that Muslims are predisposed to terrorism and violence — a belief crucial to understanding the War on Terror framework and its domestic tools like Radicalization Theory — shapes law enforcement’s interactions with Muslims today and in the foreseeable future. Similar to how the War on Drugs criminalized Black and Brown bodies and launched mass incarceration, the War on Terror has criminalized Muslims, who are also predominantly Black and People of Color, while fueling unwarranted police profiling, excessive sentencing, and extreme pretrial confinement.

Simply acknowledging this as a criminal justice reform issue is a much-needed step.

Terrorism and national security rhetoric allows for Muslims to be sacrificed for the “greater good” rather than seeing us as the undeserving targets of a biased criminal justice system that we are. Acknowledging Islamophobia as a criminal justice issue invokes access to legal rights, such as the right to counsel and the right to remain silent, and highlights the problems of mass incarceration, police profiling, and due process.

The next 20 years must not be like the last 20 years. Our identity as Muslims is not a crime.

The War on Terror has had a lasting effect that still pervades our criminal justice system. As Muslims, we must confront civil liberties violations by knowing our rights, resisting invasive law enforcement tactics, and unifying around criminal justice reform. Likewise, criminal justice reform advocates need to reach out to Muslim communities to understand what has happened to us over the last two decades and to understand that it is still happening. We need to actively work at rolling back laws, policies, and practices that discriminate against Muslims; question the attitudes and biases of those in power; and look critically at how Muslims are treated by the criminal justice system compared to their peers.

I want to take my kid camping in the beautiful state of Washington without worrying about him checking a box. I want to live in an America where Muslims and BIPOC communities are no longer criminalized for simply existing.


Amanda Azad is a dedicated civil rights advocate who recently joined the Seattle-based Muslim civil rights organization CAIR Washinton as deputy executive director. She previously worked as policy counsel at the ACLU of Arizona where she focused on freedom of religion and belief. Besides her advocacy work, Amanda enjoys camping and hiking, reading books and going on road trips, and spending time with her husband and new baby — all while enjoying a good cup of coffee.

📸 Featured image is attributed to B.C. Lorio (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

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