Posted on July 20, 2009 in Speeches and Appearances

The story of Arab Americans coming of age, as an organized community, is a classic American tale—a story of immigrants seeking opportunity, benefiting from America’s freedoms, but also experiencing, at times, the dark side of exclusion and discrimination that has, for so many, haunted our nation’s history.

Although most Americans of Arab ancestry are descendants of that wave of immigrants who came to America in the pre- and post-World War One era—our development as an organized community is more recent, for several reasons.

As a result of The National Origins Act of 1924, quotas for Arabs were near zeroed out, and maintained at low levels until the 1960’s.

Partly due to this growth-stunting exclusion, and the intense pressure of assimilation that characterized the American scene between the two great wars and into the post WWII era, the impetus to move toward becoming a self-conscious organized community did not take hold until the late 1960’s, early 1970’s—in many ways a bi-product of the transformative power of the civil rights movement.

The upheavals of that period not only secured passage of critical civil rights legislation, but also awakened new consciousness and possibilities for all Americans.

As Arab Americans, we too marched and sat-in and celebrated great victories, as America was changed for the better. But as the civil rights movement morphed into a cultural nationalist awakening—there was an additional impact that was quite profound.

For many it was the TV series “Roots,” that crystallized this broader cultural change. As we watched, there came the realization that we too had “Roots”—and we were now enabled to acknowledge them, encouraged to discover them and give voice to their importance in shaping our identity.

As we came together, on college campuses, in neighborhoods and communities, Americans of Arab descent discovered a shared pride in a common heritage and began the task of creating organizations and institutions that could empower us to give voice to our concerns while advancing our community’s rights.

Here we encountered difficulties, in part due to those who sought to silence our emerging voice and also the negative stereotypes, that had long been propagated in the popular culture, presenting an enormous hurdle to our acceptance as well as our efforts at self-definition.

It is no accident, therefore, that our first major national organization was the AADC cofounded in 1980 by a former US Senator James Abourezk and myself. AADC was devoted to combating negative stereotypes and defamation, fighting discrimination and providing important services to our underserved community.

Let me be clear, during this period, law enforcement agencies not only did not help, they were a problem (in fact it was the FBI’s ABSCAM Initiative that was one of the reasons we formed AADC in the first place). From FOIA discoveries, we have learned the extent of harassment—from Operation Boulder in the Nixon era, and the broad surveillance of Palestinian student organizations in the 70’s and 80’s, to the extensive intelligence files on Arab American activists maintained by the FBI with the cooperation of outside groups, that were used to harass and blacklist members of my community.

At the same time, too little was being done to defend our rights. I had been subjected to death threats and my office was fire-bombed in 1980. AADC’s offices were targeted in a spate of attacks in the mid-1980’s one of which resulted in the murder of my friend Alex Odeh in October of 1985. During all this time, there was not a single indictment, not a single arrest. I remember going to the FBI in 1982 with over one-hundred affidavits complaining of harassment and 12 reporting threats (including a few from Alex)—I asked then “why so much effort was expended harassing my community and so little at defending our rights.”

In 1983, when Senator Abourezk and I were invited to participate in the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, some groups threatened to withdraw unless we were removed. It was painful, but we stood our ground, and with the support of strong allies in the civil rights leadership, we were there at the Lincoln Memorial, in force.

The Jesse Jackson Presidential campaigns of ’84 and ’88 provided Arab Americans an important opportunity to participate and be counted as a political constituency—our first as an organized community. We registered voters, mobilized GOTV efforts, ran and won delegate slots to the conventions and formed political clubs. It was out of that experience that our AAI was born as an empowerment project to continue our progress into the mainstream of American politics.

Problems, however, didn’t end, and some new ones began. Some candidates felt pressure to return our contributions, in some instances our endorsements were rejected and some political leaders and elected officials shunned association with Arab Americans.

Still we persisted, and with the help of allies, our advance continued. I say Jesse Jackson helped us knock on the door, Ron Brown opened it, and Bill Clinton welcomed us in and sat us at the table.

Access was important, as was the responsiveness of the Clinton Administration to our concerns. When, in the 1990’s, we experienced problems with wide-spread subjective airport profiling, the use of secret evidence and felt the need to build better ties with law enforcement agencies around the US, it was Al Gore, Janet Reno, Eric Holder and Bill Lan Lee who brought us in for a series of meetings that helped us work through and resolve many of these critical issues.

If it had not been for the advances we made during the 1990’s—the access we gained, the empowerment we experienced and the allies we developed—I do not think we would have been able to withstand the challenges we faced in the aftermath of 9/11.

The horrific terrorist attacks of September 11 were a profound and painful tragedy for all Americans.

The attacks were a dual tragedy for Arab Americans. We are Americans and it was our country that was attacked. Arab Americans died in the attacks. Arab Americans were also part of the rescue effort. Dozens of New York City Police and rescue workers who bravely toiled at Ground Zero were Arab Americans.

Sadly, however, many Arab Americans were torn away from mourning with our fellow Americans because we became the targets of hate crimes and discrimination. Some assumed our collective guilt because the terrorists were Arabs. Arab Americans and Muslims and other perceived to be Arab and Muslim were the victims of hundreds of bias incidents.

But something very important happened—making it clear that despite the enormity of the challenge—and new challenges we would face—a new dynamic was at work. The American people rallied to our defense.

President Bush spoke out forcefully against hate crimes, as did countless others across the nation. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously passed resolutions condemning hate crimes against Arab Americans and Muslims. Federal, state and local law enforcement investigated and prosecuted hate crimes, and ordinary citizens defended and protected us, refusing to allow bigots to define America. My family and I received death threats and, for the first time, individuals were prosecuted by the FBI and convicted for these hate crimes. It was a first—a first I shall never forget. My community and I, personally, will always be grateful that our fellow Americans defended us at that crucial time.

Arab Americans are proud to have played a crucial role in the Post-9/11 era, serving on the front lines of the war on terrorism as police, firefighters, soldiers, FBI agents, and translators. We worked with federal, state and local law enforcement to assist efforts to protect the homeland. We helped to recruit Arab Americans with needed language skills and we served as a bridge to connect law enforcement with our community.

Working with the Washington Field Office of the FBI, we helped to create the first Arab American Advisory Committee, an effort to facilitate communication between the Arab-American community and the FBI. I served as a member of that FBI Advisory Committee, which we still believe should be a model to be copied across the United States.

And the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice began, at our request, and with then Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd’s acceptance, regular meetings with relevant DOJ offices, FBI and other concerned agencies. At these meetings we worked through problems. These meetings have continued.

But all is not well.

At the same time that these positive developments were occurring, an entirely different message was being sent as a result of initiatives launched by the Attorney General. Of special concern were the 2003 Racial Profiling Guidelines that created a loophole allowing ethnic, racial and religious profiling against Arab and Muslim Americans. These guidelines are now used as well by Immigration and Customs Border officials resulting in the subjective profiling of not only Arab visitors, but Arab American citizens.

This Ashcroft era initiative was enlarged upon, in 2008, by Attorney General Mukasey whose new guidelines for the FBI have opened the door to the danger of even greater abuses. These are, of course, deeply troubling because, as law enforcement profiles and as officials issue statements conflating Arab and Muslim immigrants and visitors with terrorism, a cloud of suspicion is cast over the entire community contributing to additional discrimination.

This problem of profiling, and the dangerous conflation of immigration policy and national security policy, took many forms in the post-9/11 era. From the initial roundup of over 1,200 Arab and Muslim immigrants, the call-ups of 5,000 and then 3,000 Arab immigrants and visitors to the NSEERS program, a badly conceived, poorly planned and arbitrarily implemented effort that resulted in thousands of deportation orders, many thousand more immigrants going into hiding, and fear and broken trust between many in my community and law enforcement agencies across the country. Add to this the October Plan launched in the lead up to the 2004 election. Not only did it once again profile Arab and Muslim immigrant communities, but it also had a chilling effect on the participation of some in the election process itself.

FBI and other officials with whom I have spoken question the usefulness of these many initiatives in national security efforts. They told me that these initiatives involved a significant investment of manpower, produced little useful information, and damaged their community outreach efforts.

By casting such a wide net, these efforts squandered precious law enforcement resources and alienated communities whose cooperation law enforcement needs. They ran counter to basic principles of community policing, which rejects the use of racial and ethnic profiles and focuses instead on building trust and respect by working cooperatively with community members. And they threatened to trump many of the gains we had won.

But we are now, I believe, at the start of a new era. Leaders in my community have met with the new leadership at DOJ and DHS, and our relationship with the FBI, though tested at times, has developed and, in many instances, born fruit. In many ways, this conference today marks not only a commemoration of a past victory, but a renewed commitment to building on this past to ensure a freer tomorrow.

Let me close with this thought. When folks in my community express frustration at the problems we face and the all too slow progress they feel we are making, I remind them of a proverb my mother was fond of, “you don’t know where you are or how far you’ve come, unless you know where you started.”

I spoke earlier about the severe limits placed on Arab immigration early in the last century—a confession.

My father fell victim to this, and in order to join his family, he came illegally. For years he lived afraid of discovery until more than a decade later he received amnesty and was put on the pathway to citizenship. All this time, however, he worked hard with his brothers to build a business. My generation are the heirs of the dream that brought my father and his family to America and the beneficiaries of their sacrifices and hard work. My sister was an accomplished teacher, my brother is a pollster of some renown, and I stand before you today the son of an illegal immigrant living proof that despite all the difficulties we may face, and the mountains we must climb, we’ve come a long way. And I know we have the wherewithal to stand down future challenges as we continue on our path.