25 - 31 July 2002
Issue No. 596
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Fear and loathing in AmericaNyier Abdou talks to American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee President Ziad Asali about hate crimes, secret detentions, playing by the rules and the American way
The Washington offices of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) are bustling with activity ahead of the group's annual conference which draws activists, luminaries and ordinary Arab Americans to a series of seminars and events focusing on everything from racial profiling and the local political scene to Palestine. ADC, the most powerful Arab-American civil rights force, has seen the weight of responsibility it carries mushroom amidst the fallout of 11 September.
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For a fairly small space, ADC's offices are surprisingly labyrinthine, replete with several doors opening onto a somewhat dismal outer corridor -- a wayward journalist might easily take the wrong turn. But behind one such door lies the spacious and tastefully-furnished office of Ziad Asali, ADC's president. As with most prominent figures, Asali is both stately and engaging, his earnest dedication to civil rights and race issues swathed almost imperceptibly in a sense of quiet satisfaction. He is warm in his welcome, unhurried in his attentions -- the voice of prudence to ADC's brasher public persona, Communication Director Hussein Ibish.
A doctor by training, Asali was born in Jerusalem. Though many of ADC's programmes focus on the nuts and bolts of fighting discrimination in America -- from inaccuracies in schoolbooks to launching several legal suits against American airlines for ejecting passengers from flights based on their perceived Arab ethnicity -- it is hardly surprising that the ADC also turns its attention to the explosive issue of Palestine. When I spoke to Asali, the United Nations fact-finding committee set up to investigate Israel's violent operation in Jenin had recently been disbanded due to unacceptable Israeli demands. A high-level ADC committee, including Asali, had met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan not long before and was assured by him that he was certain the mission would go forward quickly.
But news came the next day that there would be no mission. Asked if he felt betrayed by the development, Asali insisted that Annan was not to blame. "I want to state, for the record, I do not feel betrayed by Secretary Annan," Asali said. "I know that he tried fully and that he was sincere in his efforts to get this mission to go through."
Many have suggested that the disbanding of the mission was a straight exchange: burying the demons of Jenin for the release of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from his besieged compound. Asali disagrees, saying that there are many factors at play. Having only returned from the region a week before, he stressed that the inclination to view events through the prism of a "conspiracy theory" is rife among the disaffected. He denounced the allure of pinning everything on foreign plots and the fatalistic attitude that is the inevitable result of such beliefs. "This is completely self-defeating and takes away the responsibility of people for decisions that they make and analyses that could help them forward their cause." It also robs people of any sense of empowerment. "If you are the subject of a conspiracy somewhere else, which is so powerful, then you might as well just watch TV and go to bed. This is not how it should be, at all."
Following 11 September, reports began to circulate that Arabs were being racially profiled in airports and on airplanes. This phenomenon was addressed during the conference in a seminar titled "Flying While Brown". There was also a surge in incidents of hate crimes in the US against persons believed to be of Arab origin. Asali says that in terms of the numerous individual cases of "anger-based" crimes against people of Arab or Muslim appearance -- from cases of vandalism, to discrimination in the work place, to murder -- that have been reported to ADC, "we have had tremendous support from the government in confronting this sort of thing and we still do." In fact, instances of individual hate crimes are back down to pre-11 September numbers.
But Asali also maintains that the numerous measures that have been implemented by the US government since 11 September -- from secret detentions of Arabs due to technical visa problems, to the government's decision to track visa holders from certain Arab countries, to the singling out of young Arab males as a possible security risk everywhere from campuses to aeroplane cabins -- amount to a "subtle but insidious" reintroduction of ethnic discrimination in America's immigration procedures and law enforcement. Admitting that the government is grappling with a potent fear of further threats to national security -- "I must say that it is a genuine fear ... I know that in the Arab world they think this is nonsensical" -- and noting that this fear has become embedded "deep in the psyche of the American individual and [that of] the American government", Asali went on to note that this vigilance should translate into stepped-up security across the board and not a focus on any specific ethnic minority or group.
Such profiling will, in all likelihood, prove fruitless, Asali suggests. Those who plotted the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were well-organised and clever. It follows that their next move would not be so predictable as to fit a pattern similar to 11 September. "We think this [racial profiling] is wasted time, money and effort," Asali said. "And also, we think it is unconstitutional; it generates a lack of cooperation with the government and lack of sympathy at a time when more cooperation is needed."
Being heard: the ADC board meets with US Secretary of State Colin Powell photo: courtesy of ADC
Asali notes that when it comes to the literature from the Department of Transportation, the guidelines for airport security are completely "politically correct". The application, he says, "leaves something to be desired". People must still endure "subjective and 'unenlightened' behaviour on the part of the airlines and [their] agents". Under these unofficial biases, any Arab or Muslim male, aged 18 to 40, is worthy of suspicion.
The ADC does not know if less foreigners are being given student visas, but even a false perception within the Arab world that this is the case is enough to make Asali's worse fears come true. "I worry very much that this may intimidate Arab men from coming to study in the United States," Asali said. "I think it would be a strategic setback for the Arab world." When I mentioned that many Arabs have been deterred from applying for visas, Asali was adamant: "I think they would be wrong," he says. "I think they'd be wrong," he repeats. Noting that there are indeed political forces within the US who would like to see a halt to young Arab men travelling to the US as students -- among them Senator Dianne Fienstein -- Asali insisted that to indulge these forces is only to the detriment of the Arab world itself. "The future of the world, unstoppably, is going to be for more integration and higher communication. And the Arab world cannot keep itself insulated and unconnected with a country that is the only standing superpower -- except at a great price, a huge price, to the Arab people and democracy." Besides, he adds, "People must understand: if you are here legally, the laws of the United States apply to you. And we at the ADC can promise protection."
Asali stressed this point repeatedly, noting that so long as students are in the US legally and their actions are lawful, "there is no arbitrary intrusion of government agencies or police that can hurt these students... They just can't -- and they won't, in fact." To wit, they can keep files on them -- "and they will keep files; my own guess is that they keep files on everybody" -- but keeping files is one thing. "Preventing you from getting an excellent education and getting to understand your neighbours, and have them understand you, and you being an ambassador, is something else. Let us not concede this defeat to people who do not want development of the Arab world to take place. Let's not volunteer it."
Asali points to the "hate speech" that has been allowed to "seep into the discourse of [American] TV and radio". This "right-wing wave of anti-Arabism and anti-Islamism" has had a profound effect on the image of Arabs and Muslims in the minds of ordinary Americans, but Asali insists that this wave "has to crest". Asked if he thought this had happened yet, he responded that there are, in fact, "voices of reason" -- though they may not be as loud. "In fact, the polls and the surveys do not support these right-wing crazies," Asali said. "They are the soul mates of Bin Laden, you know. They are the other side, the Western side, the suit and necktie version of Bin Laden."
"Instead of just complaining and saying that it's all hopeless, and the Zionists are in control, and the whole world is against us, and it's a crusade against the Arabs, and there's nothing we can do about it... we think that is something our opponents would like us to conclude... we think there is room for people to agree on some formula for peace."
After 11 September, thousands of people were either detained or questioned, most of them for visa infringements. These so-called secret detentions seem to have fallen off the media radar but the ADC has been following the case closely. Along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and 20 other organisations, they have filed a suit against the government for information on the detainees, who have yet to be charged. Under the new anti-terrorism laws enacted after 11 September, it is not clear whether withholding information about the detainees is illegal. Asali says the case is "borderline". From the maximum of about a thousand detainees, a few hundred are still being held, most on immigration charges. "We assume that these people are innocent until proven otherwise."
Asali underscores the significance of the "political component" of 11 September, saying that security issues are only half the battle. Security and intelligence are intertwined with the political component, he says, and the ADC has told the government "in no uncertain terms" to look into the political issues that have fed resentment in the Arab world against America. "We resist the notion that dealing with the issues that cause discontent is yielding to terrorism; we think this is a crock and a cop-out. We think that it is imperative that the world become a more fair and just place."
For all its flaws in application, Asali is a believer in the American system of justice and government. And herein lies the conceptual foundation on which the ADC was built. The United States, says Asali, is a country with an open system of government. "I wish people would understand this once and for all: decisions in the United States are not made wilfully and arbitrarily by the president when he wakes up in the morning. Decisions are contested, and fought for, and advocated, and undermined by many, many forces inside this country and outside." Eventually, the parties that win out do so because of the stronger power behind them, be it better access to government, the more valid strategic argument, or even an advantageous private agenda. "We, like every other group in the country, have access to this system -- to be able to work within the system. To have the power that eventually could have itself heard at decision-making time."
"Instead of just complaining and saying that it's all hopeless, and the Zionists are in control, and the whole world is against us, and it's a crusade against the Arabs, and there's nothing we can do about it", warns Asali, Arabs and Arab Americans should not be so ready to give up. "We think that is something our opponents would like us to conclude." On the contrary, Asali maintains that there is no overwhelming, unified position on the Middle East crisis. He says he sees divisions everywhere: within the US government, within US society, within the Arab world and Palestine, even inside Israel. "We think there is room for people to agree on some formula for peace." In fact, he says, the formula is fairly well understood by everyone involved. Appearing in various forms, it cropped up in US Secretary of State Colin Powell's policy speech last November, in the Saudi initiative and the peace plan put forward and adopted by the Arab Summit in March. "There are people who do not want these plans to work out. But we should not concede veto power to them."
To see the US as a dishonest broker, a bully, a superpower resting on its laurels -- all this is beside the point to one who wishes to change the tide in his favour, insists Asali. "America prides itself on being a nation of laws, not a nation of men," he says. "In the law, there is no distinction between races and genders, religions, colour, creed... it is absolutely essential for the American government, American society at large, to live up to this ideal, in theory." The government, says Asali, "must uphold the full rights of Arab-Americans, to be consistent internally".
What should Arab-Americans be doing to make their own Arab lobby a formidable force, then? "Arab-Americans should think American, and should act American," says Asali. They should avail themselves of the opportunities offered to them in a system that allows them to organise, associate freely and "climb up the ladder of political and civic empowerment". Arab-Americans, Asali sums up, "have to act like other groups have acted in the past; not to set themselves apart." One of the main mistakes of the Arab-American organisations, says Asali, is that they are overly mistrustful and inward-looking, criticising the system as unjust and biased towards Zionist forces, sublimating the belief that all efforts are hopeless. "This has to change. It must change," Asali says.
Pointing to the efforts of other oppressed minorities in the past, among them the Japanese after the First World War, the Jews after the Second World War, Italian-Americans and African-Americans, Asali insists that as a group, Arab-Americans are facing the same difficulties that these groups encountered. "We're not separate from anybody else, so we need to establish bridges with all these other people -- and now we are. You are now looking at the accumulation of years and years of experimenting with what needs to be done and now we know what needs to be done and we're on our way to doing it. We're on an equal footing with everybody else. We're no better than anybody else, but we're no worse."
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