A Clearer Picture

James Zogby’s Column

Much has been written about what is happening to Arab Americans and American Muslims in the U.S.  I have had enough conversations with friends in the Arab world and I have done enough press conferences and teleconferences with Arab press and academics to know how deeply concerned they are with the current environment.

Because we are so gratified by this concern and because we value it and do not want to abuse it, I feel that it is important to make an effort to clear the air in order to present an accurate picture of our situation in the U.S. today.    

On one hand, the situation appears to be quite grave.  Hundreds of hate crimes against Arab Americans and American Muslims occurred in September immediately after the September 11 attacks.  Hundreds of recent immigrant Arab and Palestinians have been detained and ordered deported.  This week, law enforcement officials across the U.S. begin the questioning of 5000 males between the ages of 18 to 33 who entered the U.S. from targeted Arab and Muslim countries after January 2000.  Partly due to this and partly due to the September 11 backlash, thousands of Arab students and visitors left the U.S. in recent months out of fear for their safety.

Additional concern has been created by the announcement that Arab and Muslim males from 26 countries would have to wait at least 20 days for extra security clearance before they could ever apply for visas to the U.S.  And finally, there is the fact that current polls are showing that the overwhelming majority of Americans are supporting the Administration’s policies of questioning Arab males, of detaining visa violators, to hold military tribunals and to give greater scrutiny to Arab Americans.

All of this combined has generated enormous concern in the Arab world about the status of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.

To a point, the above represents a picture of events that have occurred and are still occurring.  But it represents only part of the picture.  The reality is far more complex.  And when one pierces through the clouds of war and the rhetoric of war that shrouds the current situation, the total picture revealed is, in fact, a more promising one.

Despite the abuses that have occurred-and there should be no doubt that abuses have occurred-America remains a nation of law that respects the principles of due process and civil liberties.  And Americans, despite recent polling data, are a tolerant people, respectful of diversity and committed to fairness.

How can this be?

First, it is important to understand the context of the situation we are in.  On September 11, nineteen or so men turned common conveyors of transportation into weapons of mass destruction.  Five thousand Americans were killed and the nation was left in shock.

Ten weeks later, the shock and the anger remains and with it the fear that terrorism may strike yet again.  Because the nineteen participants were all Arabs and Muslims, the expected backlash was ugly.  But it could have been uglier, had it not been for the immediate intervention of the President, the Attorney General, Senators and Representatives, Hollywood stars and civic leaders who acted to defend Arab American and American Muslims.

The country was frightened and demanded action and so law enforcement acted, maybe too zealously, to protect and defend against further attacks.  Congress passed, with too little debate, far-reaching new laws that, I believe, violated basic constitutional rights.

But even as the congressional debate and investigation began, there were champions of civil liberties who spoke out against abuses of rights and offered support to those who were caught up in the broad web cast by law enforcement.

But, now the pendulum has begun to swing back.  This week the U.S. Senate, worried at what they are seeing, called for hearings to question representatives of the Administration about abuses of rights.  And local police departments have served notice that they will not participate in the announced plan to question 5000 Arab and Muslim males.

The press has joined this debate, examining in detail those who have been detained and raising serious questions about the grounds on which they are being held.  I, myself, have been engaged in at least two nationally televised network debates each night on this matter and at least a dozen interviews every day.  And a coalition of 30 ethnic groups have joined with us to protect civil rights.

The hate crimes have died down.  There are, at present, about 200 cases under active investigation by law enforcement and many perpetrators of those crimes against Arab Americans and American Muslims are now being prosecuted.  The individual who threatened my life and the lives of members of my family has been caught and charged.  And others whose threats were milder, though still frightening, have also been apprehended and threatened with action if they did not publicly apologize for their deeds.

On election day, Arab American candidates who were expected to win, did so.  There were only a few instances of backlash, but these were limited.  An Arab American was elected mayor in Michigan and Arab Americans played important roles in the elections of governors in New Jersey and Virginia.

Even a closer examination of polling data reveals a more complex picture.  When questions are asked one way, Americans respond with support for the Administration’s proposed harsh measures.  But when asked if the rights of Arab Americans and American Muslims should be protected and defended, Americans respond in the affirmative.  In fact, we are finding that if we reach out to our fellow citizens, they will support our concerns.  And, they, in turn, have been reaching out to us seeking greater understanding of our communities, our culture and our religious traditions.

I attended an Iftar dinner at the State Department last week.  The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and top State Department officials hosted Arab Americans and American Muslim leaders with Powell speaking eloquently of his commitment to the community and his commitment to a dialogue and to peace.  Attorney General John Ashcroft, earlier this week, was hosted at an Iftar dinner at Washington’s Islamic Center.  He, too, spoke of his earnest desire to work with the community.

Serious problems do exist.  This situation results from terrible acts of terrorism and decades of negative stereotypes that have shaped the definitions of Arabs and Muslims-definitions which were tragically reinforced by the terrorists and their deeds.

But all of this exists in the context of other realities: an emerging Arab American community that has earned respect and won allies.  And an America that, when it sees through its pain, recognizes the need to act according to its higher values.

The picture is complex.  Dark, at times, but with rays of light shining through.  We, all of us, face tremendous challenges and great opportunities.  If we respond to the opportunities, the dark clouds will pass.

We, Arab Americans, like all of our fellow citizens, were horrified by the terror of September 11.  We want to work together to help root out those who seek to perpetuate such evil against our fellow citizens, and so we are committed to cooperating with the national effort.  At the same time we find ourselves uncomfortably, at times, in an adversarial role.  As Americans, we question how the investigation is being carried out and we are concerned with what we see to be violations of rights.  We are convinced that the investigation and the campaign against terror can proceed and succeed without violating cherished constitutionally protected rights.

In a way, we understand that the burden of defending the constitution has fallen on our shoulders.  It is a burden we gladly accept. 

When this conflict began, President Bush told the nation that this was a war for our values and our freedoms.  We believe that this is true.  We will defend these values and that freedom, confident that as we proceed we will win more allies to our side.  And the America that will emerge from this great conflict will not only be safer, it will also be a better place.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.