Posted on March 23, 1998 in Washington Watch

Arab Americans have made significant progress in all areas of American life. A review of official U.S. statistics shows that Arab Americans have one of the hightest rates of educational accomplishment of any U.S. ethnic community and a personal income level well above the national average. Arab Americans also have one of the U.S.’s highest levels of business ownership and participation in all of the professions.

A recent brochure written by the popular television and radio personality, Casey Kasem, on Arab Americans, highlights the accomplishments of more than 100 famous U.S. entertainers, athletes, business leaders, fashion designers, screenwriters, and politicians–all Arab Americans. It is an impressive list and, when put together with economic and social data mentioned above, represents a tribute both to the hard work of Arab American and to the freedom and opportunity provided by American democracy.

Despite these successes, however, there are also difficulties. Problems of discrimination remain. America, with all of its greatness, also has its dark side where intolerance and ignorance reign.

Arab American and American Muslim organizations publish annual reports detailing instances of discrimination and even violence against people of Arab descent. Despite increases in these incidents in times of crises, the numbers remain somewhat lower than those affecting other victimized communities. Arab American and American Muslim organizations continue to be vigilant and determined to challenge this problem through education and, when necessary, political and legal action.

The most serious discrimination issues facing some Arab Americans and Arab residents in the United States, however, are not those resulting from personal or group discrimination and bigotry. More dangerous is the targeting of the community by official agencies of the U.S. government.

The Arab American Institute (AAI) has recently submitted a report to Janet Reno, the Attorney General of the United States, requesting that the Justice Department investigates abuses of the rights of Arab Americans by agencies of the government.

The report specifically calls attention to the activities of three of those agencies: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI is the national law enforcement agency of the U.S. government. But far from protecting the rights of Arab Americans, the FBI has, for at least three decades, been involved in a systematic violation of those rights.

The same FBI that has failed to apprehend even one individual suspected of hate crimes, including murder, against Arab Americans, has since the 1970s orchestrated campaigns of surveillance and harassment directed against Arab Americans leaders, activists, and organizations.

During the Nixon Administration, for example, the White House ordered “Operation Boulder” which targeted Arab American leaders and activists. After three years of intimidating and harassing hundreds, the “Operation” was suspended.

Beginning again in the late 1970s and continuing throughout the 1980s, the FBI maintained intense surveillance against a number of Arab American organizations and leaders. In every instance, the activities being investigated (and at times disrupted by FBI actions) were peaceful, legal and constitutionally protected. Throughout this entire period not one Arab American or Arab resident was found to be engaged in any illegal pursuit.

During the 1990-1991 build-up in the Gulf, the FBI’s harassment campaign reached the level of absurdity. In a public press release, the agency announced that is would visit over 200 Arab American business and community leaders to determine the extent of a terrorist threat to the United States. Among those visited were elected officials. Outrage at this patently discriminatory practice was universal, from major newspaper editorials to legislation sponsored in the Senate and Congress. The FBI stopped its program, but refused to apologize for the embarrassment it had caused.

Federal Aviation Administration

In recent years airport profiling has become a major concern of Arab Americans. “Profiling” is the system that has been put into place at U.S. and some international airports in order to enhance air security. Passengers intending to travel are judged by airport personnel against a list of characteristics and traits, drawn up by the FAA in order to identify individuals most likely to pose a terrorist threat. Individuals who fit the profile are separated from the other passengers and investigated more closely before being allowed to board their flight.

U.S. law specifically prohibits the use of any racial, ethnic or religious characteristic in making up the profile and the FAA denies that these characteristics are used in the profile. Nevertheless Arab American organizations have developed a compelling case that demonstrates that Arab Americans and American Muslims are being singled out for special discriminatory treatment. Hundreds of affidavits and complaints from Arab Americans have been forwarded to the FAA establishing this case. To date there has been no satisfactory response.

Immigration and Naturalization Service

Many immigrant groups have reported difficulties in dealing with the INS and Arab Americans are no different in this respect. Treatment by local immigration officials can often be harsh and discriminatory. But Arab Americans have a unique concern with this agency.

In 1996 Congress passed anti terrorism legislation which allows “secret evidence to be used in deportation cases of suspected “terrorists.” Arab American and Muslim American rights organizations have appealed this legislation since it violates the U.S. Constitution which guarantees the right of every defendant to see all evidence and confront any witnesses in an open court.

In addition to this constitutional issue is the concern with the selective and even discriminatory application of this legislation. At present “secret evidence” is being used in a number of pending deportation cases–all of them involving defendants of Arab descent. No other ethnic community is currently being targeted. In a few of these cases, when the judges have actually reviewed the “secret evidence,” they have found the INS’s case to be so insubstantial or politically motivated that they have ruled against the agency. The INS has appealed each of these cases and continues to press for deportation.

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What concerns Arab Americans is the level to which all three government agencies appears to have fallen prey to anti-Arab prejudice and politically motivated efforts designed to weaken Arab American advancements.

For example, for decades the FBI has had a close working relationship with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an American Jewish organization with an anti-Arab agenda. The ADL has spied on Arab American organizations, maintains intelligence files on these groups and shares their information with the FBI and other government agencies.

The Arab American complaint to the Attorney General questions the extent to which the behavior of these government agencies toward Arab Americans is motivated by the prejudiced assumption that Arabs and Muslim are a “suspect group.”

A senior FAA official acknowledged as much during a discussion with Arab American leaders. He indicated that in fact, the agency did view Arabs and Muslims as more prone toward terrorist activity than any other group.

This assumption is directly contradicted by statistics issued by the FBI and the State Department. In the two decades that the FBI has been collecting data on terrorism in the United States, Arabs or Muslims account for only three of the almost 200 reported terrorist incidents. In contrast, Jewish groups accounted for 18 incidents and Hispanic groups account for over 50. On the international scene, annual State Department terrorism reports show that the region of the world where the greatest number of anti-U.S. terrorist attacks occur is Latin America. The Middle East is a distant third.

Despite this data, some government officials continue to make the unsubstantiated assertion that Arabs and Muslims represent the U.S.’s number one terrorist threat. It is this attitude that accounts for the biased behavior government agencies have demonstrated toward Arab Americans and Arab residents in the United States.

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In the complaint to the Attorney General, Arab Americans charge the FBI, FAA and INS with a pattern of biased behavior. It is important to note that this behavior has an impact beyond those targeted by the agencies. Ultimately the community as a whole has been effected. Victims of FAA profiling, for an example, have included: doctors, university professors, elderly grandparents, and prominent second-generation businessmen. All have been stopped and harassed at U.S. and international airports. And the only common characteristic shared by this disparate group of victims of profiling, was that they were Arab Americans.

Arab Americans thus are challenging these discriminatory government practices because they present a direct threat to the community’s further empowerment and advancement in the United States.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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