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Opinion As hateful rhetoric returns, we’ve forgotten the lessons of 9/11

Peter Klein is a Wall Scholar at the University of British Columbia's Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, and director of the Global Reporting Centre

This week marks two important moments in Muslim relations in North America – one south of the 49th parallel and one north … one loud and one quiet.

Let's start with the loud one, coming from arguably the loudest guy on the continent these days, U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump. He brought his signature brand of demagoguery to a new level on Monday when he called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," and continued defending the move, comparing it favourably with the decision to intern Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

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On the same day, Canada quietly disclosed in its annual Public Accounts report that it had paid $1.7-million to an Arab immigrant named Benamar Benatta – one of the first, and most egregious, victims of racial profiling after 9/11.

In September, 2001, Mr. Benatta presented himself at the Canadian border, seeking to defect from the Algerian military. Since he had overstayed his visa in the United States and had false papers, Canadian officials detained him while launching an investigation. Days later, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place, Canadian officials called their counterparts south of the border and said they had a suspicious guy in custody, and soon enough Mr. Benatta was on a private jet to a federal prison in Brooklyn. He spent the next five years in custody, often in solitary confinement, under harsh conditions that included sleep deprivation, constant exposure to light, and physical abuse.

Mr. Benatta was being detained in the U.S. under the little-known "hold until cleared" rule implemented by then-attorney general John Ashcroft that allowed the government to detain immigrant suspects indefinitely until they were proven to be innocent of any ties to terrorism. In Mr. Benatta's case, he was cleared by the FBI a month after 9/11, but he continued to be held until a federal court ordered all charges dropped. The judge ultimately called the U.S. case against Mr. Benatta a "sham," a "subterfuge" hiding the fact that he was detained and interrogated solely because of his religion and nationality.

In 2006, Mr. Benatta was returned to Canada, where he was eventually granted asylum. He sued the Canadian government, claiming his illegal deportation to the U.S. was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Canadian government finally settled the case.

In the United States, Mr. Benatta continues to be part of a group of plaintiffs suing Mr. Ashcroft and other former high-level officials for rounding up Muslim and Arab immigrants and holding them under false pretenses, often subjecting them to abuse. A U.S. federal appeals court judge recently issued a ruling bolstering the claim, saying Mr. Ashcroft and other Bush administration officials were "caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11," treating people "as if they were terrorists, in the most restrictive conditions of confinement available, simply because these individuals were, or appeared to be, Arab or Muslim."

I spoke with Mr. Benatta this week, and he said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his experiences in prison. "I was labelled a terrorist because I happened to be Muslim … no question," he said. When I asked him about the racially charged rhetoric in the U.S. this week, he sighed and said: "I'm surprised to see this kind of hate speech getting such strong support … After all the investigations about torture and everything else that went on in the U.S., I thought the public was having second thoughts about this kind of behaviour."

What came out of Mr. Trump's mouth this week should not surprise anyone, but the cheering crowds that flock to him are disturbing. After the Paris attacks last month, Mr. Trump said the U.S. should keep a database of all Muslims, and he repeated long-debunked claims that thousands of Muslims in America celebrated as the World Trade Center collapsed and smouldered. His poll numbers went up.

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"Let's not kid ourselves. Racial profiling is real, in Canada and in America," Mr. Benatta said, but he finds what is going on south of the border especially disturbing. "This is hate speech, and it's really surprising that hate speech is acceptable in the United States today, a country that was founded on religious freedom.

"I wonder what the founding fathers would say."

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