Posted on January 30, 1995 in Washington Watch

On January 24, 1995, President Clinton issued an Executive Order which has generated significant unease among Arab Americans and American Muslims.

The Order is entitled “Prohibiting Transactions with Terrorists who Threaten to Disrupt the Middle East Peace Process.” It is viewed with concern because of the perceived danger it could pose to civil and political rights in this country.

One Arab American leader noted that if the purpose of the Order were specifically designed to outlaw groups which carry out violent actions against civilians and to prohibit U.S. citizens and residents from joining or directly financing such activity, that would be acceptable. But, the leader continued, “the order as it is written can be interpreted quite loosely by U.S. law enforcement agencies who may, in their efforts at enforcing it, catch innocent U.S. citizens in their web. That could pose a real danger to legitimate political rights.”

The Clinton Administration has been under pressure from a wide range of sources to stop the flow of support for Middle East terrorist activities which allegedly comes from the U.S. Most notably, Israel and pro-Israel U.S. Jewish groups have waging a campaign to identify U.S. opponents of the peace process with an international network of “Islamic fundamentalist funding for terrorism against Israel.”

Two years ago, following Israel’s expulsion of the alleged Hamas supporters in December of 1992, I wrote about a campaign waged by these same sources. That campaign was centered on the Israeli charge that the funding and organizing of the Islamic opposition in the West Bank and Gaza was directed from the U.S.

The bombing of New York’s World Trade Center in 1993 played right into the hands of Israel by legitimizing their campaign in the eyes of some in the media. Within weeks of the bombing, Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin visited the U.S. and, speaking before a New York audience said, “So now you know what it’s like [to suffer terrorist attacks].” Some U.S. Jewish groups joined the campaign, as did a number of U.S. media personalities.

This campaign caused some panic in the American Muslim community. Hitherto virtually unknown to the U.S. public and unrecognized by the U.S. media, the Muslim community in this country suddenly became the topic of press coverage – not for their contributions as citizens or for their piety, but for their “possible links” to international terrorism.

Their campaign has continued.

One Jewish group, the American Jewish Committee, issued a “Policy and Action Plan on International Terrorism” in December of 1994. In part, the plan says:

“Private terrorist groups, from whatever source, must be interdicted by governments committed to the fight against terrorism; in the United States and other countries, fund-raisers and propagandists for Hamas, Hezbollah and other militant Islamic extremist groups must be identified and, to the extent permitted by law, their activities shut down.”

In pursuit of this objective, the AJC plan: “Urges the President to issue a National Security Directive setting forth a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy and to assure that his statements about the urgency of the threat posed by terrorism are heeded throughout the government;” and “through multiple media, educate and inform the American public about the universality of the threat of militant Islamic extremism, to keep terrorism a central issue of public concern until this scourge no longer exists.”

Not only were Israel and U.S. Jewish groups behind this effort to cut alleged U.S. ties to Islamic opposition groups, but several Arab governments and some in the Palestinian leadership became involved as well. They were concerned, on the one hand, with what they considered “confusing aspects” of U.S. behavior towards Islamic opposition groups, and also by verified reports of substantial wire transfers of funds to these groups emanating from third countries, passing through U.S. banks and then ending up in their countries.

One point needs to be made clear. Wire transfer of funds from other countries are one thing, but to allege that Arab Americans and American Muslims groups are involved in funding terrorism is something else entirely. There are, to be sure, some Muslim Americans and Palestinian Americans who oppose the current peace process. Some of them, through their mosques and charitable groups, have raised money to support specific and well-known institutions in the West Bank and Gaza. The amounts they raise are notable, but not substantial (and are in no way equivalent to the amount Jewish groups raise to support privately funded settlements in the West Bank.)

The danger that many of these legitimate Muslim and Palestinian American charities feel is that their activity (which is being attacked by some Jewish groups) may be held suspect by law enforcement agencies and that members of their communities may become too frightened to contribute to their work.

It is therefore ironic to note that Arab Americans and American Muslims also inadvertently played a role in pushing the Administration to issue the Executive Order.

After the massacre in the Tomb of the Prophets mosque in Hebron, many Arab Americans and American Muslims were outraged that the perpetrator was a U.S. citizen who had links to the U.S.-based group of the late Meir Kahane. Some pointed out to the Administration that the group Kahane founded, the Jewish Defense Leagues (JDL), and its Israeli successor groups Kahane Chai and Kach, had strong U.S. roots in recruitment, fundraising and training. They called on the Administration to crack down on these groups and to pass laws to eliminate their U.S. connections – without realizing that, if they weren’t careful, the sword they asked the Administration to use could cut two ways.

It should be clear that the Executive Order includes these Jewish groups as well as the Palestinian and Arab revolutionary groups that are well-known for their opposition to the peace process. But, of course, the Arab American and American Muslim groups feel that they will be receive the brunt of the Order’s attention.

The danger inherent in the Executive order is not its effort to freeze the assets of these groups or to eliminate their recruitment, training and fundraising bases. The danger, as perceived by Arab Americans and American Muslims, could come if the FBI (which is charged with implementing the Order) is given too great a license.

The Arab American and American Muslim communities experience with the FBI has not been a healthy one. Going back to the 1960s, the FBI has been engaged in periodic campaigns of surveillance and what some have described as harassment and intimidation against activists in the communities. On a number of occasions, hundreds of Arab Americans and American Muslims have seen their civil and constitutionally protected rights violated by the agency of the government which is charged with protecting those rights – the FBI.

Most recently during the Gulf War, over 200 Arab American community leaders, including high-ranking elected officials and respected community spokespeople, were visited by the FBI and questioned about their knowledge of anti-American activities. In many cases, these visits were public and caused many well-known leaders a great deal of embarrassment. This FBI effort was so wrong-headed that over 50 major U.S. newspapers wrote editorials demanding that the FBI cease and desist its questioning of Arab Americans. City councils and state legislatures across the country joined in the call as did scores of U.S. Senators and Members of Congress.

That FBI campaign stopped, but the fear of abuse by that law enforcement agency remains alive in the Arab American and Muslim American communities.

Another case fresh in the minds of many, and not only in the Arab American community but also in the U.S. civil rights community, is the harassment of the group known as the “L.A. 8.” They are seven Palestinians and one Kenyan woman who were arrested in 1987 by the FBI and held for deportation. They were charged with the “crime” of distributing literature of the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” – the magazine Al-Hadaf.

The L.A. 8’s case attracted the support of all the major U.S. civil rights and ethnic groups because it is unacceptable in the U.S. to threaten anyone with punishment for political literature they receive or distribute. The case, which has been stalled in the U.S. courts for 7 years, may resurface since the Executive Order lists the PFLP as one of the “terrorist groups.” The question asked by U.S. civil liberties advocates is, “Does the distribution or even sale of such a newspaper constitute a violation of the Executive Order,” since the Order, in effect, bans acts that:

“assist in, sponsor, or provide funds, material or technological support for or service in support of such acts of violence;”

and prohibits:

“making or receiving of any contributions of funds, goods or services to or for the benefit of such forces (i.e., groups which engage in violence in opposition of the peace process).”

Of equal concern to some Arab American and Muslim Americans groups is the announcement by Secretary of State Warren Christopher that the Administration will propose new legislation to the Congress which will tighten U.S. immigration laws to inhibit “terrorists” from coming to this country. Of concern are these reported sections of the legislation which will deal with:

· increased scrutiny of “sham marriages” designed to bring aliens into the U.S.;
· further restricting student visas and visa waiver programs; and
· making asylum requests more difficult.

Once again, the major concern is with the application and implementation of such measures because, if they are interpreted too loosely, they could adversely affect many innocent people whose rights will be effectively abridged.

It is significant, as I noted, that the Executive Order includes Arab, Muslim and Jewish groups. But what concerns Arab Americans and Muslim Americans is that the rhetoric used to discuss and justify the Order has been directed exclusively at Arabs and Muslims.

There is virtually no measurable support for “terrorism” among Arab Americans and American Muslims. Those who do support such activities are clearly outside the mainstream of the communities and their actions have caused and continue to cause embarrassment to the larger community and pose some threat to our effort to advance and become empowered.

So, while Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are quite unified in opposition to violence and those who support such activity, we are equally vigilant to respect the rights of those in our community who hold unpopular political opinions. And we have shown our commitment in the past to defend their rights when they are threatened.

Cracking down on violence is one thing, but Arab Americans and American Muslims are resolved not to allow this Executive Order to become a tool to crack down on political dissent – even if we disagree with the views of those who are being threatened.

Our experience is that we can, with the help of our many allies, win protection of our constitutionally protected rights. That is why many of our communities’ groups have joined in coalition to insure that this Executive Order, whatever its original intent, does not become a license for either law enforcement agencies or some pro-Israel groups to spy on harass or otherwise intimidate Arab Americans and Muslim Americans from exercising our rights and U.S. residents and citizens.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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