Arab Americans and Law Enforcement: Rights at Risk

I testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights this week on the relations between law enforcement agencies and the Arab American and Muslim American communities. This provided an opportunity to lay out the problems that exist and an agenda that would allow us to move forward.

In a democratic society based on constitutionally guaranteed rights, the role of law enforcement ought to be to help secure these rights for all citizens. This, for decades, has not been the case for Arab Americans.

We have experienced problems as far back as the 1970s. From released government files we have learned of the extent of harassment of Arab Americans and Arab student activists during this period — from Operation Boulder in the Nixon era, and the broad surveillance program against Palestinian student organizations in the 70s and 80s, to the extensive intelligence files on Arab American activists maintained by the FBI, sometimes in collaboration with outside groups, that were then used to harass members of my community.

At the same time that law enforcement agencies were violating our rights, too little was being done to protect us when we needed it. Many of our community leaders, myself included, received repeated death threats from the early 1970s onward. My office in Washington, D.C., was fire-bombed in 1980. And the offices of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were targeted in the mid-1980s. One of these attacks murdered my friend Alex Odeh in October of 1985. During this entire time, there was not a single indictment or arrest.

During the Clinton Administration, my community’s access to the White House improved, as did official responsiveness to our concerns. For example, in the 1990s, we experienced problems with wide-spread airport profiling and the use of "secret evidence." In response, the Department of Justice convened a series of meetings with our leadership that helped us resolve many of these issues.

Then came the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11. They were a dual tragedy for Arab Americans. We are Americans and it was our country that was attacked. At the same time, because some assumed our collective guilt, Arab Americans and Muslims — and others perceived to be Arab and Muslim — became victims of hundreds of hate crimes.

But something important happened, making it clear that despite the enormity of the crime that had been committed, a new dynamic was at work. Many Americans rallied to our defense. President Bush spoke out against hate crimes, as did the Senate and the House of Representatives which both passed resolutions condemning bias against Arab Americans and Muslims. Federal and local law enforcement investigated and prosecuted hate crimes, and ordinary citizens defended and protected us, refusing to allow bigots to define America. As before, my family and I received death threats. But for the first time, the perpetrators were arrested by the FBI, prosecuted by the DOJ, and convicted and sentenced for their crimes.

The Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, at our request, restarted the inter-agency problem-solving meetings we had begun during the Clinton years.

But all was not well during the Bush years.

At the same time that these positive developments were occurring, an entirely different message was being sent by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. In addition to mass deportations and the shameful "special registration" program, Ashcroft issued new profiling guidelines that created a loophole allowing ethnic, religious, and racial profiling, leading to wide-spread singling out of Arabs and Muslims by a number of law enforcement agencies.

It is important to note that these profiling initiatives made no contribution to making our country more secure. FBI and other officials with whom I have spoken have questioned the effectiveness of profiling, telling me that it wasted time and resources, produced little useful information, and damaged outreach efforts, alienating communities whose cooperation law enforcement needs.

With the election of Barack Obama, we had hopes that we would see an end to these abusive practices. But policies that we had believed would change have not. We had hoped to see an end to the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. This did not happen. The Justice Department profiling guidelines remain in place and continue to be used by a number of agencies to the detriment of my community. Arab American citizens who have family in Canada or who conduct business in Canada are routinely profiled, experiencing disgraceful and humiliating treatment at the hands of Customs and Border Patrol. And we are also deeply disturbed by press accounts of the NYPD/CIA surveillance program. As the details of this program have come to light, we have been horrified by the use of coerced informants, wide-spread "ethnic mapping", and spying and reporting on innocent people going about their daily routines.

Additionally, we have been troubled by reports that the FBI has used their community outreach programs to "collect and illegally store intelligence information on Americans’ political and religious beliefs" — a clear violation of trust. And finally, we are deeply disappointed by the FBI’s failure to take decisive action in dealing with the scandal over their use of bigoted anti-Arab and anti-Muslim training materials. We have asked for greater transparency and full disclosure in explaining how these materials were developed, how many agents have been trained with them, and we have asked the FBI to apologize. For the FBI to not understand the damage they have done, the hurt they have created, and the trust they have broken, is incomprehensible.

There can be no doubt that during the past several decades we have made gains and developed relationships with agencies of government that are important to our personal security and the security of our country. In all of this, the work of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division remains a shelter in the storm. And we remain indebted to those FBI agents and civil rights attorneys at DOJ who have investigated and prosecuted hate crimes and have worked to ensure our safety.

But the negative practices I have noted here threaten to undercut these gains. They create fear in my community and create suspicion about us in the broader society. This, in turn, leads to alienation and has the potential to radicalize some. It also leads to an atmosphere where suspicion can grow — making us more vulnerable to hate crimes.

I have long argued that Arabs and Muslims were the weak link in America’s civil liberty chain. When the rights of vulnerable minority groups are threatened, we must demand a halt to abuse. It is worrisome that in the post-9/11 era the challenge to constitutional rights has often been met with silence — because it was Arabs and Muslims who were the targets. What we have failed to recognize is that if the rights to assemble, to speak freely, to be secure from unwarranted search, and to be guaranteed due process are put at risk for any group, then these rights may ultimately be threatened for all Americans.