Bridges over troubled waters

Arab Americans are learning that being politically oriented is an invitation for aggravation in the US.

Al-Ahram Weekly
13 December 2001

By Dina Ezzat

Last week, the American administration froze the financial assets of three Arab American organisations accused of being linked to the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas. Hamas is classified by the US State Department as a terrorist organisation. 

The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, an organisation based in Richardson, Texas, that raised $13 million last year, is one of the largest Muslim charities in the US. The freezing of this and two other organisations on the order of US President George W Bush was due to alleged ties to a Hamas affiliate and a Hamas-linked holding company based in the West Bank. 

In his remarks to the press on 4 December, when he announced the closing of the three organisations, President Bush said with satisfaction that the "net is closing" around those who support terrorists around the world. US Attorney-General John Ashcroft echoed this sentiment, saying the action taken shows that the US is going "beyond the Al-Qa'eda network to target groups whose violent actions are designed to destroy the Middle East peace process." Ashcroft added that the recent string of suicide bombings in Israel and previous attacks claimed by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad over the last few years "leave no doubt about the urgency of stopping terrorism, in all its forms, whether the terrorism emanates from Afghanistan or from the West Bank and Gaza." 

The freezing of the Arab American organisations prompted angry responses from Americans of Arab origins. For some, the action has been taken as yet another form of attack on the civil liberties of a targeted segment of the American public based on ethnicity. For others, the move is an indication of a much more serious problem: the isolation of Arab Americans within their own American community. "We are Americans. That is the long and short of it. We are Americans. We are born here. We live here. And this is our home," commented one Arab American, who asked for his name to be withheld. "Why are we being subjected to this kind of harassment, when Jewish Americans are allowed to act freely, lobby and fund- raise for their political purposes and we cannot. This is serious discrimination." 

The stories of day-to-day discrimination to which Arab Americans are exposed, even those with no political agenda or affiliations, are alarming. A third-generation Arab American teenager complained that he was trying to do some shopping in a mall in Washington, DC, when he was attacked by some local youths, telling him to "go home". "I was perplexed. Go home where? To Brooklyn? Is that what they meant?" he said. 

An Arab American businessman felt the sting of discrimination when he found himself being downgraded on his American Airlines flight from New York to China. Booked for first class, he was placed in economy class because he had "Mohamed" in his name. "I was told that I cannot fly first class, even if I paid for it, and that if I had a problem, I could miss the flight altogether. I had to fly economy, where I am kept away from the cockpit," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. 

Since 11 September there have been hundreds of similar stories, many of which have been documented by Arab American organisations. "We have always thought we could be the bridge between our American society and our counties of origin," commented Khalid Turaani, executive director of the American Muslims for Jerusalem organisation. "We wanted to help both sides approach each other, in the right way, to help them overcome their misconceptions of one another. We still do. But it seems now we are living in a era of McCarthyism." Turaani added that he is concerned about the current culture of isolationism in the US getting worse. "Americans of Arab origins are constantly faced with accusations directed against their culture," he said. 

The promises made by the US administration to protect the civil liberties of Arab Americans, Turaani said, have not been kept. "The US administration speaks out of one side of its mouth," he said, and behaves differently. While many Arab Americans may not face problems in their everyday lives, some argue that there is a general concern that attachments to their countries of origin are being held against them. Some Arab Americans are even trying to disassociate themselves from their countries of origins, Arab American groups claim, for fear of being harassed. 

Incidents of anti-Arab sentiment within the US have been a subject of several conversations between Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and US Secretary of State Colin Powell. "We are not interfering because these are American citizens who deal with whatever problems they may face within the American system that they belong to," Moussa said. He added: "We are just voicing a legitimate concern against what seems to be a trend of discrimination against a whole group of people simply because of their Arab or Muslim connection. This is what we do not accept." 

"Dialogue is the only way to overcome this current situation," commented Nasser Bedouin of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce. "There has to be more opportunities for dialogue among Americans and Arabs so that Americans of Arab origin can be spared the current accusations that their cultural background is faced with." Bedouin believes that creating opportunities for Arab American business cooperation is the right way to approach this problem. "When people do business together, they come to know each other in a better way, and then many of the misconceptions simply fall away." 

The Arab League has a key role to play in this respect. Although plans for the Arab League to open a unit that will follow cases of anti-Arab incidents in the US have been welcomed by aggrieved Arab Americans, insiders like Bedouin and Turaani say it is not enough. This unit, they say, should play a larger role in finding common ground for cooperation on business, cultural and even political fronts. 

To serve this agenda, a group of Arab Americans that met with Moussa in November during his trip to the US argued that there is a need for the Arab League to open cultural centres in several US cities. Such centres would be able to provide more information about Arabs and their culture to the American people. "It is true that there are so many books about Arabs on the shelves of bookstores in the US now that are bestsellers. But this is not enough, because they reach far fewer people than we need to," commented Ahmed Chebbani, chairman of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce. 

The Arab League says it is determined to take all necessary action to build bridges of dialogue with Arab Americans -- a group that, according to Moussa, could be the "hyphen" that links the Arab and American worlds. This would mean addressing the serious miscommunication that has aggravated ties to the West since 11 September and led to the encroachment on the civil liberties of Arab Americans. 



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