9-11 Backlash Against Arabs Continues

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9-11 Backlash Against Arabs Continues

As we commemorate the two year anniversary of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, our Arab and Muslim communities remain most affected by negative backlashes and pervasive discrimination. The violation of our country’s sovereignty brought about severely undermined to our sense of supremacy, and our disproved our immunity from attacks on our soil. I will forever remember that fateful morning because I was supposed to be near the vicinity of the Trade Center for a business meeting but fate has it that our bus was delayed by half an hour. If there was a divine intervention that I am still alive, I am thankful. But what is rarely told is that among the victims of the attacks were hundreds of Arabs and Muslims who perished in the rubble. Our community feels doubly victimized: first by the tragic loss of our fellow citizens and more so by the acts of murder, discrimination, and maltreatment our people endured after the attack. Suddenly an entire community of over 8 million people became suspect, vilified and its loyalty questioned simply because 19 people, none of whom a US citizen, but who spoke Arabic, committed an unspeakable crime.

Our organization, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), recently compiled a comprehensive hate crimes report. The suffering and bitter legacy of 9/11 lived on. “In spite of numerous expressions of support for the community from public figures and thousands of private citizens, Arab-Americans remain exceptionally vulnerable to hate crimes, discrimination and extreme vilification by prominent persons,” said the report. It added that the civil rights and liberties of Arab-Americans had suffered severely. Arab-Americans remain “exceptionally vulnerable to hate crimes, discrimination, and extreme vilification …”

Our community still faces two types of discrimination: one based on stereotyping, the other promoted by the US government and justified by its war on terrorism. Our findings point to a persistent pattern involving the practice of hate crimes, employment discrimination and a wave of new self-appointed Arab or Muslim experts permeating the airwaves, media, and schools. Victims of this discrimination need not be Arab or Muslim: they just need to look Arab or Muslim, whatever that image is. Since 11 September 2001, there has been a 1700% increase in reported hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims in the US.

Fortunately, here in New Jersey, such acts were far below the national average. Governor McGreevey and his entire administration reached out to our community offering assurances, assistance and pronouncements which made it clear that all citizens are to be treated fairly and that acts of bigotry would not be tolerated. Acts of kindness, expressions of concern and interfaith meetings flourished throughout the State.

But the most far-reaching impact on our daily lives has been committed by our own US government which has instituted a series of policies aimed at cracking down on Arab immigrants and terrorism suspects. Just 45 days after the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act. The USA PATRIOT Act stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” It was enacted by Congress virtually without significant debate, without detailed committee reports, without a conference committee, and with little floor commentary. It passed the House on October 24, 2001, by a vote of 357 to 66, and passed the Senate the next day, October 25, 2002, by a vote of 98 to 1. It was signed into law by President Bush the following day, October 26, and is now the law of the land.

Many parts of this sweeping legislation take away checks on law enforcement and threaten the very rights and freedoms that we so cherish. For example, without a warrant and without probable cause, the FBI now has the power to access your most private medical records, your library records, and your student records. And most frighteningly, the FBI can prevent anyone from telling you it was done.

The Department of Justice under the control of Attorney General Ashcroft is currently drafting legislation designed as a sequel to the first PATRIOT. Proposed changes would include allowing the government to spy on First Amendment-protected activities such as peaceful protests or gatherings.

In addition, the act would terminate court-approved limits on police spying, which were initially put in place to prevent McCarthy-style law enforcement persecution based on political or religious affiliation. Moreover, the new act would greatly curtail personal privacy by removing checks on government power. It would permit, without any connection to anti-terrorism measures, sensitive personal information about U.S. citizens to be shared with local and state law enforcement. In addition, the government could gain secret access to credit reports without consent and without judicial process. Additionally, the new bill would increase government secrecy while diminishing public accountability. It would authorize secret imprisonments in immigration and other cases, such as those involving material witness warrants, where the detained person is not criminally charged. The act would allow for the sampling and cataloging of innocent Americans’ genetic information without court order and without consent. And, incredibly, the act would shelter federal agents engaged in illegal surveillance without a court order from criminal prosecution if they are following orders of high Executive Branch officials.

Recently, ADC joined other civil rights organizations in filing the first legal challenge to the USA PATRIOT Act, taking aim at a section of the controversial law that vastly expands the power of FBI agents to secretly obtain records and personal belongings of innocent people in the United States, including citizens and permanent residents.

Unquestionably, the FBI has increased its targeting of Arabs and Muslims. There is no doubt that the main victims of the new rules will be members of this community who came to this country seeking freedom and equality and who by and large are law-abiding and productive citizens. It is a traumatic period for our people. I should know for I was twice interviewed by FBI simply because I was an American citizen of Arab descent. Racial profiling has become the law of the land. While I was never charged of anything, their uninvited and unprovoked violation of my rights, left me forever feeling bitter that my rights were trampled on and that my ethnicity and not my deeds will be the judge of my character and good citizenship. I do not recall the FBI interviewing every Irish Catholic after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Omaha, Nebraska in 1995. Expanding the unchecked powers of the FBI authority to monitor the activities of innocent people is an invitation to abuse, a waste of resources, and is certainly not making any of us any safer here at home or abroad. Most troubling is that most of these powers do little to increase the ability of law enforcement or intelligence to bring terrorists to justice but, they do much to undermine the Constitution and violate the rights of both immigrants and American citizens alike.

I believe the Arab and Muslim communities in the U.S will survive these unconstitutional attacks on their liberties. It is now evident that 9/11 was not prevented not because of inadequate antiterrorism laws, or “too much freedom”, but because of intelligence agencies’ own internal procedural failures. As we continue to make the case that other communities will not be immune from Aschroft’s abuses, more Americans will join the fight to repeal the PATRIOT ACT. Over a hundred and fifty cities and three states nationwide have passed resolutions to repudiate the legislation and protect their residents from a perceived abuse of authority by the federal government. Of note are the assurances we have received from many Congressional representatives that they will support measures to restrict the infringements of the ACT onto our fundamental freedoms and to dispel the illusion that the ACT has made America safer. If there is a silver lining, it is the rise of a new cadre of leaders committed not only to defend our beleaguered Arab and Muslim Americans but also to position them at the forefront in the fight for the restoration of The Bill of Rights. If there is one guaranteed loser in this game, it will undoubtedly be President Bush who received the majority of Arab and Muslim votes in the 2000 Presidential elections. Now that he has failed our expectations here and abroad, one can only speculate if he will be able to regain our trust, votes, and money.

In the words of Ben Franklin, those who forsake liberty for the sake of security deserve neither.

Respectfully,

Aref Assaf

The writer is the Media Director of the NJ Chapter of ADC, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee