Posted on May 10, 1999 in Washington Watch

The attacks being directed at Arab Americans today are in response to the successes we have achieved. Some extremists are frightened that Arab Americans are more respected in political circles. They are desperately seeking to reestablish the old policy of exclusion that for decades kept Arab Americans out of politics.

It might be considered ironic that on the same day last week that the New York Daily News ran an editorial urging First Lady Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to shun Arab Americans (and, in particular, me) if they wanted to win in 2000, I was flying with Vice President Al Gore on Air Force 2. I had been invited to accompany him to Michigan to participate in a meeting with Arab American leaders in that state.

Only three days earlier, the Arab American Institute (AAI) had arranged another meeting in Michigan. This meeting was with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

Both meetings point to the increased respect being shown to Arab Americans and to the higher level of organization achieved by the community. It is because we are in this improved situation that we are in a position to present our issues and concerns and to be heard. It is this access that those who oppose us are attempting to end.

The Reno meeting, for example, gave Arab Americans an opportunity to discuss a number of important civil rights concerns with the United States’ top law enforcement official.

This meeting grew out of a series of meetings that the AAI has had with the Department of Justice during the past 18 months. These sessions, with Reno’s Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, came in response to a comprehensive report complied by the AAI on “The Civil Rights of Arab Americans”. The report dealt with the use of secret evidence in deportation cases, the practice of airport “profiling’ (the disproportionate screening of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans as potential security threats at U.S. airports) and complaints by Arab Americans and American Muslims of harassment by law enforcement agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

In response to each of these issues the Attorney General was most forthcoming. She acknowledged “wrongdoing” in the practice of profiling and in the use of secret evidence and she pledged to set up a formal review of both practices. While some improvements have already been made in both areas, the Arab Americans in attendance welcomed the Attorney General’s willingness to move even farther to rectify abuses of civil rights.

Reno also indicated her continued commitment to improving the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the Arab American and Muslim American communities.

As evidence, both of the importance of the meeting and the increased respect shown to Arab Americans, the session was attended not only by 15 Arab American leaders, but also by Michigan’s two Senators, Spencer Abraham and Carl Levin, and six of Michigan’s Congress Members.

Abraham, commenting on the meeting, praised Reno for coming and the AAI for organizing the session. He also went on to express how pleased he was that the Attorney General was open to “review” Justice Department practices to ensure that “no one’s civil rights are violated”.

The Gore meeting was equally successful. For this session, the AAI brought together 24 Arab American leaders representing all of the major component groups in the community. Also participating in the session were U.S. Congressman John Dingell and U.S. Secretary of Transposition Rodney Slater.

The Arab Americans addressed a broad range of domestic and foreign policy issues, briefing the Vice President on topics that included: discrimination and civil rights concerns; the stalled Middle East peace process; the occupation of south Lebanon; the impact of sanctions on the people of Iraq; and peace and democracy in Yemen.

In Gore’s opening comments, he made it clear to the group that it was his intention that this be the first of many such sessions. He indicated that he wanted to get to better know the community and their concerns. He eloquently addressed the importance of respecting diversity in the United States saying that each community brings to America a unique history and each in turn makes a unique contribution to the country.

He spoke at length about the enormous contributions made by Arab civilization to the West and the need to understand and build on that legacy.

Explaining his commitment to building “One America” the Vice President said that while some have suggested that we needed to ignore our differences, he felt that the only way to achieve unity was if all Americans first appreciate and understand and respect our unique diversity. Only after that, he said, can we move forward to transcend the differences and become one people.

In addressing Middle East concerns Gore indicated that Middle East issues could not be discussed as a “zero-sum” game. He indicated full support for the President’s approach to the Middle East peace process. He noted that he wanted to learn more from the Arab American community and expressed his commitment to being fair to the needs of all.

The Arab Americans left the meeting pleased with the Vice President’s openness and candor. Said one, “it was a good start. There is nothing better than sharing and discussing our points of view, regardless of whether we agree or disagree. We just wanted to make clear that Arab Americans and Muslim Americans want to be part of his agenda.”

Following on the heels of these two efforts, the AAI will bring together Arab American leaders in Washington to meet with State Department and White House policy and personnel officials to discuss issues related both to the Middle East peace process and the need to hire more Arab Americans at both the White House and State Department.

And so, despite the attacks leveled against Arab Americans by those who want to deny the community its rightful place in U.S. politics, we continue to make progress.

It is, of course, no accident that the first two meetings with Attorney General Reno and Vice President Gore took place in Michigan. While Arab Americans have matured nationally and built important political institutions, it is the success of Arab Americans in Michigan, California, Ohio and a few other sates that has really succeeded in solidifying the Arab American role in politics. Those are the “battleground states” in U.S. elections–the key states that a political party must win if it is to capture an election. Recognizing this fact, Arab Americans have focused on building their voter strength and political involvement in these and other important states.

This is why our continued political progress is so vitally important. It is to the extent that we are successful, that we will be recognized and heard. And paradoxically, it is to the extent we are successful, that we will be attacked by those who fear our progress.

The stakes are very high. Arab Americans have no choice but to continue to move forward.

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