Posted on March 20, 1995 in Washington Watch

Arab Americans and American Muslims are launching a national campaign in the U.S. to oppose President Clinton’s Executive Order “Prohibiting Transactions with Terrorists who Threaten to Disrupt the Middle East Peace Process” and the newly proposed legislation known as “The Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act of 1995”. This legislation was introduced in the U.S. Congress, at the behest of the Clinton Administration, but will not be considered until April.

The principle concerns which Arab and Muslim Americans have with both the Executive Order and the proposed legislation is the danger that they present to the constitutionally protected rights of both U.S. citizens and foreign residents in the U.S.

It should be clear from the outset of the discussion of these Administration initiatives that the overwhelming majority of both the Arab American and American Muslim communities do not support terrorism in any form. There is, however, a wide range of opinion within our communities about the peace process and there is some support for the charitable activity and the political beliefs of some Middle East groups which oppose that process.

The efforts by some pro-Israel activists here in the U.S. to link this charitable or political activity with support for terrorism amounts to a claim of “guilt by association” – something which is unacceptable.

While the work of Arab and Muslim American charities is small in comparison with the efforts of many other charities, they do provide support for many worthwhile humanitarian institutions in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian lands. At no time has any U.S. law enforcement agency suggested that any Arab American or American Muslim charity was directing its funds or using contributions for any but humanitarian purposes. Even in the wake of the campaign of early 1994 by some in the pro-Israel community to claim that Hamas was headquartered and primarily funded in the U.S., such law enforcement spokesmen who spoke to neutral newspapers were unequivocal in their denial of this or any related charge.

Arab Americans and American Muslims would support legitimate and non-discriminatory efforts to strengthen the tools available to combat terror. But the extent of the problem, from the U.S. point of view, should not be overstated. It is important to note that according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) own statistics, there have been only two acts of international terrorism committed in the U.S. in the past ten years and no acts of domestic terrorism in the U.S. in the past year and a half.

It is, therefore, the concern of leaders in our communities that the intent of the Executive Order and proposed legislation is more political than it is a real effort to stop terrorism in the U.S.

It appears, therefore, that in order to send a message – mainly to the Middle East – the Administration and Congress have embraced this legislative effort without concern that in the process they are threatening to violate a wide range of civil rights guaranteed in the U.S.

The endangered rights are found in what is known as the “Bill of Rights.” These are the first ten amendments to the U.S. constitution and have been the basic law of the U.S. since 1791. In fact, the U.S. Constitution would not have been approved without a guarantee that these basic rights would be added to it.

The Bill of Rights is a unique document valued around the world for the individual and groups rights which it guarantees. For example, the Bill of Rights provides for the following:
· The First Amendment prohibits the government from making any laws which limits freedom of speech, the press, and or which seek to limit the people’s right to freely assemble.
· The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of people to be free from unreasonable searches or seizures of their property by the police unless the authorities show that they have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed, and must show this proof to the courts to secure permission to conduct a legal search.
· The Sixth Amendment guarantees that any person accused of any crime has the right to a trial by a jury of their equals, the right to be presented with all the legal charges against them, and the right to face all those who present evidence against them.

While these rights and others are guaranteed in theory, they have not always been upheld in practice. In some dark periods of U.S. history there were efforts to abridge these freedoms. But, eventually the courts have always overturned laws that denied or limited people’s rights, and in every instance the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been victorious. Prior to those victories, however, innocent people have sometimes suffered.

The “Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act of 1995” is another one of these challenges to the Bill of Rights. Several sections of the proposed legislation present clear challenges to guaranteed freedoms. If passed in its present form, the bill would:

· deny the “presumption of innocence” to those under investigation;
· allow for “secret trials” and the introduction of secret evidence;
· allow the government to conduct surveillance against individuals purely on the basis of their beliefs and associations; and
· deny to citizens the unfettered right to contribute to lawful and charitable humanitarian activities.

As I have said, Arab Americans and American Muslims support legislative efforts to combat terrorism and would support some parts of the currently proposed legislation that provide useful tools to law enforcement agencies dealing with some of the new technologies used by terrorists. But Arab Americans and American Muslims are so concerned with the challenges that the legislation presents to basic freedoms that we have launched our nationwide effort to remove these dangerous provisions from the legislation. This national campaign is called “Protecting America’s Freedom.”

“Protecting America’s Freedoms” is an effort to build a national coalition to educate public opinion, build broad public support, and lobby both Congress and the Administration on this important issue.

Our effort will be supported by most U.S. civil rights and civil liberties groups and by many U.S. ethnic and religious institutions. A recent poll sponsored by the Arab American Institute showed that most Americans will oppose any efforts to weaken the U.S. Constitution, even to combat an alleged terrorist threat to the U.S.

Even if passed through the Congress, most of the offending sections of the legislation will most probably be challenged in the U.S. courts and found unconstitutional. However, as I noted above, such challenges will require someone who has been arrested, charged, and convicted under the law to appeal that conviction – a lengthy process which will unfairly leave that person in prison until the law is overturned. So while such protection is nice to have, we cannot wait for the courts to do the job.

Arab Americans and American Muslims are committed to this effort to defend the U.S. Constitution and its guarantees of political rights. We know that these proposals are wrong. They can and will be changed.

In many ways this cause is critical to Arab and Muslim Americans. We have spent our political lives in the U.S. fighting for political issues that were viewed as unpopular by the foreign policy establishment – support for Palestinian statehood, opposition to Israel’s invasion and bombing of Lebanon, and many more – all of which were, at times, denounced as “support for terrorism.” Despite fierce opposition from pro-Israel groups, harassment by some government agencies and defamation in the media, we persisted because we knew that our concerns were important not only to the Arab world but to U.S. policy as well. And despite efforts to silence our views or lock us out of the political process, we continued – and we won because the constitutionally protected freedoms guaranteed to all Americans defended our right to be heard.

In the past 25 years we won visibility, recognition and support. Now we will use whatever recognition we have won to support the Constitution that provided us with those rights.

At the same time, we will continue to mobilize our communities to vote and deepen their political participation in U.S. politics. In the end, the best way for any group to preserve its guaranteed freedoms is to become full and active partners in the political process.

As Arab Americans and American Muslims approach the 1995 legislation battle, we do so with a focus on the 1996 Presidential elections. Defending the Constitution, defending our rights, gaining more political power, raising our voices about the need for a more active and balanced U.S. Middle East policy – those are our agenda points. We believe that they are necessary and important, now more than ever.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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