'We Have Rights and a Voice'
"Flying While Brown"

At Va. Convention on Bias, Arab Americans Put Faith in System

Washington Post
9 June 2002
By Emily Wax

Flying While Brown - ADC

Muhammad Ali, an engineer from Ashburn who was removed from a flight, shakes hands with supporters who had just heard him, and his attorney, Christy Lopez, speak during a discussion on "Flying While Brown".

   The small pamphlets filled with the large words of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were grabbed up at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination (ADC) convention in Arlington this weekend as quickly as the complaint forms for airline profiling of Muslims.

The line to talk to FBI agents about jobs and the table to chat with the American Civil Liberties Union were as busy as the booths giving out information on the bloodshed in the West Bank and the Palestinian territories.

In post-Sept. 11 America, where the Justice Department announced plans last week to track visa holders from five Middle Eastern countries, about 3,000 Arab Americans attended the largest gathering to date of the nation's most powerful Arab American civil rights group.

And in every corner of the sprawling Crystal Gateway Marriott hotel, from the Syrian American poets who read their work about Sept. 11 to the artsy filmmakers showing their documentaries about checkpoints in the West Bank, there was clear agreement that the most traditional paths of American expression are the most important ways to ease their frustrations and protect their rights.

"This is not Cuba. This is not China," said Greg Nojeim, an Arab American who works for the ACLU. "This is the United States of America, and we have rights and a voice, and we have to use it."

Since Sept. 11, Hayythem Mahmood, 30, said he has been called a terrorist. Muhammad Ali, an engineer from Ashburn, said he was kicked off a plane because of his brown skin. And Trinity College student Nora Ziegenbagen said she has watched friends lose jobs because of their Arab heritage.

Despite those things, however, they all said they put their faith in one thing: the American system.

The courts. Congress. Running for office. Capitalism. Lobbying. Holding stock. And the power of freedom of expression in writing, music, film and art. 

Attending a workshop titled "Impact of 9/11 on Civil Rights," Dina Ibrahim, 26, an American Egyptian who teaches journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, said she loves her mellow city, its music and food. But she loves even more the freedoms of the United States and the life she has here.

"Arabs have this tendency to sit back and complain that Jews are so powerful. I say don't complain about it -- emulate it, learn from it," she said. "We will have absolutely no progress unless we utilize the great rights that are afforded to us as Americans just like other ethnic groups have before us."

Normally a festive conference known for its lively dating scene among the single and glamorous set, the talk was more somber this year. Much of it focused on the Justice Department's plans to fingerprint and photograph more than 100,000 visa holders who pose national security concerns.

Officials said they would initially focus on visitors from five countries where terrorists are known to operate -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria -- prompting immediate complaints that the system amounted to racial profiling of Middle Eastern visitors.

"It's belittling and preposterous and humiliating," said Hala Khary, 20, a college student from Cleveland. "And we have ways to go against it in our American system."

She stood with a group of dark-haired friends who held Gucci purses and wore frilly tops, dark jeans and dark red lipstick. 

"I mean, am I a threat?," asked Ziegenbagen, who has curly brown hair and smiles a lot. "It's really hurtful. I mean, you understand it, but only to an extent."

It is not the first time the United States has made civil rights a lower priority in situations of war and strife, said Mitch Hammer, a professor of international studies at American University. The internment of Japanese Americans and the firing and suspicion of German Americans during World War II are just two examples, he said.

But Hammer said Arab Americans already have an example of how to fight for their rights, from those who went before them.

"In today's United States, ethnic and minority groups have a voice -- and more of a collective voice -- when they join together on issues," Hammer said. The same way African Americans joined the police force when they were angry with the way it treated the black community, said Ruth Ann Shaff, a resident of Northwest Washington, as she strolled up to the FBI table.

"I'm extremely alarmed and disturbed at the rollback of civil liberties and how it defies everything that our country stands for," said Shaff, whose grandparents came to the United States from Lebanon. "But I believe in America. Why not become part of the system? Why not be an even better American?"

At a forum called "Flying While Brown," Ali spoke about what it was like to watch a flight attendant cry because of the color of his skin.

Lawsuits are pending against U.S. airlines in federal courts across the country, alleging discrimination since Sept. 11 against passengers perceived to be of Arab descent. Ali is not part of a lawsuit, but he has retained a civil rights attorney. He said he spoke at the forum because he believes in America.

"I am here because of my 3-year-old son, Haseeb," he said. "I want to teach Haseeb right from wrong and that it is okay to stand up for your rights."

 

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