While the Department of Justice fights terrorism, the Arab American Institute (AAI) is making sure that John Ashcroft faces as many obstacles as possible in his task.
Naturally, the AAI does not announce this side of its activities. In terms of its public face, the organization pretends to have as its priority the protection of Arab-American civil liberties -- in the face of what it would call Ashcroft's new "reign of teror." But AAI's real agenda is obvious to everyone but the severely deluded: to protect the platform and interests of the Democratic Party.
From the AAI's rhetoric, it sounds as if Ashcroft's storm troopers are due to arrive any minute to persecute innocent Arab-Americans. “Since 9/11,” says the AAI’s Jean Abi Nader, “Arab-Americans have watched their dream of being fully a part of American society subject to the stresses of federal initiatives — new laws, policies and procedures — that produce fear and intimidation in their community.”
It’s not just fear and intimidation, either. “Being an Arab has become a liability in this country. We are being told, essentially, that we are not good enough. . . . The civil liberties of Arab-Americans and American Muslims came under attack, and we have been treated increasingly as second-class citizens in this country.”
Second-class citizens? Abi Nader isn’t referring to measures on the order of those in Islamic law (Sharia) that guarantee second-class citizenship status to non-Muslims: higher tax rates, the wearing of distinctive clothing, and the like. No, he’s just annoyed about getting his baggage searched at airports — a practice he sees as part of a larger nefarious plan: “Not only do we see it at airports in terms of profiling, but also in a whole series of federal initiatives that in any other circumstance would not have been acceptable but are now acceptable because this country is at war.”
After hearing charges like these, common as they are from Abi Nader and other spokesmen from the Arab American Institute (as well as from numerous Arab and Muslim advocacy groups), to listen to a Justice Department spokesman on the situation of American Muslims since 9/11 is like stepping into a different universe. Jorge Martinez of the DOJ said — with a dash of diplomatic politesse — that the Department didn’t think that those who made charges like Abi Nader’s were “completely informed or correct.” He pointed to the Department’s record in aggressively pursuing backlash cases and working with Arab and Muslim community leaders to make sure that victims of such crimes knew where to turn.
Among these leaders were AAI representatives. “We have worked with the AAI on numerous issues,” said Martinez, “although we don’t see eye-to-eye on all issues.”
One beneficiary of the DOJ’s aggressive pursuit of backlash cases was the AAI’s president, James Zogby himself. On September 12, 2001, one Zachary Rolnik left Zogby a message: “Jim, all Arabs must die. I’ll slit your throat and murder your children.” According to Zogby, “Washington’s police provided us with immediate protection, posting two cars outside of my building for 10 days. . .The Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI also took this threat seriously. The heads of both divisions had publicly committed that they would act to defend the rights of Arab Americans and they did.” On August 28, 2002, Rolnik was fined $5,000 and sentenced to two months in prison.
Zogby’s was not an isolated case. “Overall,” he said last Fall, “the DOJ and the FBI have been true to their word. They have made an unprecedented effort to find and punish those who committed crimes of hate against Arab Americans. Thus far they have opened over 350 investigations. In 80 cases they have apprehended and charged individuals and are actively prosecuting them. Seventy of these cases are in state courts.”
Still, Zogby agreed with Abi Nader that “the USA Patriot Act and initiatives launched by the Attorney General, in the aftermath of September 11, have endangered basic constitutionally protected rights of due process and judicial review.”
In fact, Zogby asserted that “Arab Americans can feel more, not less, secure. . .While many concerns remain, it seems clear that the hate criminals are being prosecuted and Americans across the political spectrum are standing tall to defend both their Arab American fellow citizens and the constitutional rights that they deem are at risk.”
Martinez disagreed that anyone’s constitutional rights were at risk. The Patriot Act, he said, took legal principles that already existed and adapted them to the 21st-century world of email and cell phones. Racial profiling? “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.” The DOJ, he said, was not targeting people of any particular race or religion, but only those who registered a high national security threat. Such individuals have been identified, he pointed out, from over 150 countries. As this represents all but a handful of the nations of the world, how could anyone say that one racial or religious group is being singled out? Abi Nader, of course, pointed out that in practice most people who have run afoul of new visa regulations and other new laws are from Muslim countries; but is this a consequence of their status as Muslim states or as terrorist states?
“The Arab-American experience,” Abi Nader declared, “is a warning to everyone about the need to balance civil liberties and our legitimate homeland security concerns.”
But what exactly have Arab-Americans suffered that can be instructive to civil libertarians?
Abi Nader outlined several grievances. Chief among them was the “systematic degrading of Islam by conservative Christians, neoconservatives and the right wing.” Of course, most Muslims are not Arabs, and most American Arabs are not Muslims, but that doesn’t stop groups like the AAI from positioning themselves as defenders of Islam. In that role Abi Nader seems somehow to have missed the systematic degrading of Islam perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and other terrorists — as well as by suicide bombers and the legions of imams and other Muslim leaders around the world who declared their support for various acts of mass murder in the name of their religion.
Certainly these don’t represent all Muslims, but Abi Nader wasn’t even placated by those who pointed out this fact, up to and including the President of the United States. He said that those who characterize Islam as a “religion of liars and terrorists needs to be challenged, and unfortunately this has not been done by the administration itself, which draws so much support from this constituency.” Of course, in the marketplace of ideas it’s up to groups like his, not the government, to challenge these characterizations of Islam, but in any case the DOJ’s Martinez might say that he’s “not fully informed or correct” about this either: apparently he also missed George Bush’s famous rebuke of the Christian leaders who spoke out against Islam.
Abi Nader also complained that the Bush administration was equating dissent from its policies with lack of patriotism. “The price of supporting core U.S. values on the administration’s terms is a weakening of our ability to have free speech, encouraging people to be informants on the community, and diminution of the ability to dissent.” He seems to be having no problem dissenting; as of this writing he hasn’t received any knocks on his door in the dark of night from the secret police.
But let that pass. Abi Nader has more troubling evidence of the sufferings of his people: “We are seeing this in such diverse ways as the attack on affirmative action. They are going to bring back the ‘English as the national language’ movement.”
The English as a national language movement! Can gas chambers be far behind? “We in the Arab-American community,” declared Abi Nader, “have been fighting these developments, along with many other groups — the civil liberties and ethnic organizations with whom we have a common cause.”
I can think of a good many civil rights and ethnic organizations that would be happy to make common cause with the Arab American Institute in portraying opposition to affirmative action and English language initiatives as crimes of discrimination and racism. But if that’s what the AAI means by an erosion of civil liberties, they’re just playing politics, not reporting real injustices.
“I’m not saying everything is bad,” Abi Nader affirmed. “But it feels that way.” Maybe Abi Nader would feel better if he joined his colleague Zogby in acknowledging the DOJ’s unstinting efforts to fight the war on terrorism while protecting civil liberties for all — and more importantly, if he devoted the AAI to aiding the Department in rooting terrorists out of the United States. Open, unfeigned, and energetic cooperation with anti-terror endeavors would go a long way toward dispelling the suspicions toward Muslims about which he complains.