Posted on May 01, 1995 in Washington Watch
There are three layers to the tragedy experienced by Arab Americans last week in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.
First, there is the pain and horror we felt as Americans witnessing the agony of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
Yet this hurt was compounded for us by the insult and the pain of being ripped from our American-ness by the callous, and in some cases politically-motivated, accusations that Arabs, Muslims or “Middle Easterners” were responsible for the tragedy.
And finally, there were the sixty nightmarish hours we lived through as the accusations continued and our community endured threats and harassment across the country. Only now is it becoming clear how widespread and traumatic these incidents were.
It is also only now becoming clear how important our Arab American response to this crisis was – how important it was that we challenged the conscience of the country and calmed the waters of prejudice and overreaction. As I rushed from studio to studio, from one interview to the next, without a moment to think, it was difficult to estimate what the effect of our efforts would be.
But now that the dust has settled, it is clear that we were able to salvage our honor and create a sense of shame among those who rushed to judgment against our community.
We achieved this not solely because the perpetrators of the horrible bombing turned out not to be Arabs, or because Arab Americans did in fact come under the cloud of unjust accusations, but it was also due to the collective efforts of Arab American and American Muslim organizations in those first three days after the tragedy. We repeatedly challenged the negative accusations and demanded our right to be heard.
As one prominent television personality told me, “There is in Washington today a collective guilt over our rush to judgment. It may not always be publicly acknowledged, but it’s there.” Indeed, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw ended his Friday evening telecast last week, standing in front of the rubble of the ruined federal building, specifically stating that Arab Americans as a group were harmed by the bombing.
That is good, but it is not enough. There is a need to assess this crisis: why and how this rush to judgment came about and what can be done to insure that it does not happen again.
First and foremost among the reasons I see as part of the phenomena is the presence of a deep anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias in the U.S. today. This bias has historic roots, but it has been fueled by pro-Israel groups during the past fifty years. In films and in the media they have created an equation of “Arabs and/or Muslims = terrorism,” and have succeeded in establishing a certain legitimacy to this claim. After all, people tend to believe what they hear over and over again.
Most recently, this claim has been further fueled by a “cottage industry” of so-called “terrorism experts” who have managed to fill the media need to fill the hours of air time devoted to covering such tragedies as the Oklahoma bombing. In fact, some of the “experts” are nothing more than former government officials with an axe to grind or pro-Israel advocates who have found a new way to delegitimize Arabs and Muslims. Both groups are extremely partisan regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict but seek to hide their partisanship under the guise of academic or professional expertise.
It is interesting that the current campaign by these so-called experts is focused on the Muslim terrorist threat in America. The two most prominent and racist images of Arabs over the past thirty years are the oil sheikh and the bloodthirsty Arab terrorist. I documented the prominence of both images in television and cartoons in a study I wrote in 1984. When pro-Israel advocates sought to weaken Arab efforts in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, they raised the specter of Arab oil money coming to take over the country – the theme was “The Arabs are coming to buy up America.” Today, the message has changed, with the new theme of “The Muslim Arabs are coming to blow up America.”
In either case, the image is a racist caricature. The campaign has been somewhat successful, and acquired an aura of truth among the uninformed after the World Trade Center bombing. In fact, this was the only major act of Arab or Muslim terrorism in the U.S. The FBI’s own annual statistics show that since 1982 there have been 169 violent terrorist acts in the U.S., of which 77 were committed by Puerto Rican nationalists, 21 by left-wing groups, 6 by right-wing groups, and 16 by Jewish extremists. In thirteen years, only three of the 169 terrorist acts on this soil were committed by Arab-related groups.
And yet the “terrorist experts” have woven together half-truths, prejudice and fear to create a picture of Arabs and Muslims as the number one threat to the U.S. today. These people receive grants to make their films, write their books and subsidize their advocacy careers, and thus are always available to feed their prejudices to the media – especially at a time of crisis. Worse, their work goes virtually uncontested: while Arab Americans and American Muslims have tried to unmask their propaganda, we are put into the position of always reacting to their work. We have never been able to launch an offensive against them.
Another aspect of this problem is the absence of Arab Americans in policy making roles. There are no ranking Arab American or Muslim foreign policy officers at the State Department or the White House; there are no Arab Americans or Muslims in influential positions in the Justice Department or in leading foreign policy-oriented academic institutions. As a result, policy is made without our direct input and, sometimes, against our interests.
It is no wonder that U.S. policy, whether it is domestic policy toward “terrorism” or foreign policy with regard to the peace process or general Middle East relations, is frequently designed in a way which negatively impacts our community or our interests – because we were not consulted either in its formulation or implementation. Once the policy is in place, the only option available to us is to break into the media to react to such a policy, to explain why it will be hurtful to our community or not work in the service of U.S. national interests.
In light of these realities, what we must do is clear.
We have responded by continuing to build our community’s ability to fully engage in the political process. In fact, the current embarrassment in both official Washington and the media presents us with an historic opportunity to claim our rightful place in the debate. But even with the current willingness to hear our viewpoints, it will still be a struggle.
Powerful forces are still determined to keep this from happening and committed to denying Arab Americans and American Muslims access to decision-making roles.
The effort to push the anti-terrorism legislation through Congress is a case in point. While several American Jewish organizations have publicly claimed that they helped to write the legislation and were consulted by the Justice Department, the FBI and the White House in formulating the draft legislation, no Arab Americans were included in that process. In addition, in the two hearings that have been held on the legislation (one in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives), no Arab Americans were asked to testify on the effects that the bill would have on our community.
But in the wake of the rush to judgment, Arab Americans and American Muslims have received extensive press coverage and governmental attention. Our collective efforts have played a significant role in shaping the national discussion on the “Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Bill.” We have appeared on scores of national television programs and have been featured in every major U.S. daily newspaper. If our views were not heard before – they are being heard now.
This Arab American and American Muslim effort must not stop as the tragedy in Oklahoma City fades into the past. We are determined to let Americans know that we, too, were mourners of the tragedy as well as among its victims. In fact, as part of the effort to move in this direction it is important to note that the one week anniversary memorial service held at the University of Oklahoma campus was led by Muslims. And when Muslim and Arab Americans met with the Governor of Oklahoma they presented him with a check for the victims, and the Governor extended his regrets over the negative attitudes expressed toward the community in the aftermath of the bombing. (It is important to recognize that Oklahoma’s Governor Keating, like President Clinton and Attorney General Reno, urged caution throughout the crisis and demanded that no scapegoating or rush to judgment take place.)
Arab American and American Muslim organizations do face extraordinary challenges today. But in light of our effective collective response during the past week, it is clear that we are strong enough to meet those challenges.
It is important that we continue to build our institutions and continue to play our role in the U.S. But we must now develop the strategies and resources and expertise necessary to take the offensive. We must challenge the U.S. media to include us as experts and we must challenge the Administration to include us in policy making roles. We must finally enter the national debate on the offensive, defining the argument instead of reacting to someone else’s definition – and refuse to accept the defensive and reactive posture which has been imposed on us.
As the last week has shown us, we have too much to lose if we remain vulnerable and defensive; and America also has much to lose if our voices remain outside the debates that shape U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
The battle is far from over. But today, in part due to the shameful rush to judgment and also to the wonderful work done by so many Arab American and American Muslim groups, our community is better understood, better protected and respected, and better positioned to produce needed changes.
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