Posted on June 12, 2006 in Washington Watch

It is worrisome to note that “Arab-baiting,” once favored as a weapon by some politicians in the 1980’s and a regular feature in election campaigns, appears to be making a comeback, albeit in a slightly different form.

Current manifestations of “Arab-baiting” can be distinguished from the way this crude ploy was used two decades ago. Back then, it was both a weapon used to attack an opponent and as a way to disenfranchise Arab Americans. Candidates were hounded for having accepted contributions from Arab Americans, having Arab Americans on staff, or, in a few instances, having connections with “Arab” banks or businesses.

One effect of this assault was that candidates kept their distance from and gave short-shrift to Middle East issues, not wanting to appear “pro-Arab.” The more serious victims, of course, were Arab American communities who, as a result, found themselves being marginalized in US politics.

The community fought back. By registering to vote, organizing themselves politically and working with fair minded political leaders, Arab Americans made inroads into the political mainstream.

The most recent incarnation of Arab baiting is more issue focused as politicians in both parties use Arab scapegoating as a substitute for substantive debate on real issues of concern.

The troubling bipartisan hysteria created over Dubai Ports World’s bid to run six US ports is a case in point. Instead of debating the real problems of port security (i.e. the lack of funding and personnel needed to ensure security at US ports) politicians instead exploited anti-Arab sentiments to defeat the deal. In the end, serious damage was done to the image of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates in the US and to the US-Arab relationship–but because the issues of port security were never seriously raised in the debate, US ports remained as insecure as before. Only after the deal was scuttled, did Congress begin a discussion of the steps to be taken to improve the ability of US Customs and Coast Guard to do what needed to be done.

Much the same is occurring in the debate over the high cost of US energy. As oil prices have risen, so too has the penchant of many political groups and leaders to resort to Arab-baiting. In one instance, the Missouri Corn Growers Association seeking to promote the use of ethanol as a petroleum substitutes erected billboards showing a US farmer and the late Saudi King Fahd. Between the two were the words “who would you rather buy your gas from?” (After I and others protested their “bigoted demagoguery,” a number of newspaper articles appeared critical of the billboards.)

More dangerous still are the equally demagogic efforts of populist Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer to promote “coal-to-fuel” technology as a petroleum substitute. Using coal, Schweitzer says would free the US from “the sheikhs, the dictators, the rats and crooks around the world who are bent on destroying our way of life.” On another occasion, the Governor noted that with the exception of Canada, the single largest source of imported oil, “most of the countries [that export to the US] do not share American values.”

This is all especially disturbing since Schweitzer first emerged on the national stage in 1999 with his widely covered rebuke to Montana’s Senator Conrad Burns. Burns had criticized US dependency on foreign oil referring to Arabs as “rag heads.” In response, Schweitzer, who had worked for a decade in Saudi Arabia began his press conference with “Alhamdulillah, Salam Alaykum” and chided the Senator for using an anti-Arab slur saying “Senator Burns, please quit calling Montana’s customers names.” Now, sadly, it appears, the Governor has embraced Burns’ Arab-bashing ways.

Popular New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has joined the fray equating buying Arab oil with supporting al-Qaeda. And politicians in both parties, including President Bush, now regularly refer to “ending our dependency on foreign (or “Saudi” or “Arab”) oil”–a mantra that is at least 30 years old and without substance or merit.

My concerns here is that this bashing in no way addresses either the realities at work in the world-wide energy situation or the problem of high prices.

Contrary to assumptions fed by this scapegoating, Arabs are not the cause of high prices, nor are they the source of US energy woes. In fact, Arabs only account for about 1/5 of US oil imports. And world-wide skyrocketing prices are due, not to Arab evil-doers, but to rising demand (not only in the US, but more significantly in China and South Asia), and to limited refining capacity here in the US.

Even the immigration debate has not been spared its share of Arab scapegoating. Some groups on the far-right wing of US politics have regularly made use of the “Arab terrorist” threat to bolster their arguments for national ID cards, increased detention facilities, and more rapid deportation proceedings, and enhanced border security. While for all these groups the real targets have been “undocumented” workers, Arabs provided a more convenient and frightening symbol with which to make their case.

Add to this Justice Department initiatives that have specifically targeted Arabs and Muslims and Congressional actions that have compromised civil liberties and demonized all things Palestinian and it becomes distressingly clear that Arab-baiting is back and in full flower.

While this new form of Arab-baiting has not yet resulted in renewed political exclusion of Arab Americans, there are warning signs on the horizon. Each new incident of issue-based scapegoating has generated a flood of hate mail to Arab American organizations. And there have been a few incidents already this year where Arab American political candidates have been unfairly targeted. It is, by no means, widespread, but still worrisome.

This story, however, is not over. With patience, determination, and hard work, Arab-baiting can be defeated. As political organizing and coalition-building succeeded in defeating the last outbreak of this virulent disease, its most recent manifestation can be turned back by education and outreach to those of good-will.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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