Last updated: Thursday April 10, 2008, EDT 7:32 AM
— AREF ASSAF, PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN-ARAB FORUM
ONE DAY, not long after the Sept. 11 attack, the news reported a call to the FBI from a waitress at a highway diner who said that she just served three men speaking Arabic who were planning a terrorist attack. The FBI eventually located and stopped the men on the highway, as they were heading to Florida. As it turned out, however, the men were actually medical students on their way back to their campus, not terrorists.
The real question resulting from this false alarm was why this otherwise good woman would assume these Arab men were planning a terrorist attack, when she doesn’t even speak Arabic. The answer is self-evident: there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the Arab people.
With increased understanding comes decreased animosity and mistrust. That is particularly true for issues associated with race. In this post- Sept. 11 world, it is fair to say that the largest amount of animosity and misunderstanding is centered on the people of Arab ethnicity. That’s probably true not only because of the Sept. 11 attack, but also because this country has not had much exposure to the Arab culture, since the largest wave of Arab immigrants did not come to the United States until the late Sixties.
Establishing a commission
For those reasons and more, it’s crucial that New Jersey establish the Arab-American Heritage Commission. The idea is to establish a commission within the state government through which the Arab heritage can be shared with the rest of the state organizations and private entities, similar to other commissions established for the same purpose (including those for the Asian, Jewish and African-American communities).
Governor Corzine has publicly stated that he supports the creation of the Arab-American Heritage Commission, something leaders in the Arab-American community have been pushing for.
“It would be an important milestone for our community because we will be able to disseminate information about our community and culture to different state organizations and also to public and private schools and corporations,” said Aref Assaf, president of the American-Arab Forum and resident of Denville.
Those who support the commission, like Assaf, say the focus will be on cultural and historical variables to promote better understanding of the Arab culture, and vice versa. Supporters also hope to use the commission as a gateway through which to build cultural exchanges with the Arab world, where they can invite speakers and scholars to come here to the United States.
But support for the idea has not been unanimous.
“We have received support from several towns and cities, but we also received opposition as well,” said Assaf. “It’s our right to ask for it, and we’re willing to volunteer our time to make sure it’s a successful endeavor. We think there will be many issues that need to be addressed on a continuing basis.”
Establishing a commission such as this can only be a positive step for New Jersey, and the governor should be applauded for his support. After all, had such a commission been established prior to the Sept. 11 attack, Arab-Americans who contribute in many ways, including doctors, police officers and teachers, may not have been mistaken for terrorists.
Ahmed Soliman’s column appears Thursdays. Send comments about this column to The Record at email@example.com.