“Arab Americans are Defended”

James Zogby’s Column

Much has been made of the ugly crimes that have been committed against Arab Americans, Muslims and Sikhs in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Hundreds have been reported and those acts have created real concern, especially among the most vulnerable members of our community.  But this is not the whole story of what is going on in the US today.

Attention should also be given to the countless acts of goodwill and generosity being shown to the community.  All across the U.S. and right here in Washington, Americans have been reaching out to show support for Arab Americans and American Muslims. 

While many of these gestures are spontaneous, it should also be noted that the context for them has been created by official statements and actions of our nation’s leadership.  Because these statements are so strong and so impressive in their recognition of our community, they deserve to be reported.

This effort to support Arab Americans and American Muslims has, of course, been led by President Bush.  During the past two weeks, he has led several events with Arab Americans and American Muslims, and has spoken out forcefully against hate crimes against the community. 

Immediately after the President made his initial comments defending Arab Americans and American Muslims, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the nation’s highest law enforcement official, elaborated, noting, “…the Justice Department has received reports of violence and threats of violence against Arab-Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. We must not descend to the level of those who perpetrated Tuesday’s violence by targeting individuals based on race, religion, or national origin. Such reports of violence and threats are in direct opposition to the very principles and laws for which the United States of America stands, and such reports of violence and threats of violence will not be tolerated.”

The FBI Director, Robert Mueller, has established a national effort to investigate and prosecute any acts against Arab Americans.  At a meeting late last week with community leaders, Mueller announced the first two arrests of perpetrators of these crimes.  He also noted that the FBI has now initiated 90 investigations of hate crimes.  He said “I want to make it very clear: Vigilante attacks and threats against Arab Americans will not be tolerated. The FBI and the Department of Justice are committed to aggressively investigating and prosecuting violations of the federal hate crime laws.”

The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has regularly met with community leaders since September 11, and has set up a number of national outreach programs designed to: facilitate hate crime reporting; assist Arab Americans in providing educational material about Arab culture and the Islamic faith to our nation’s schools; and build better relations between Arab Americans and law enforcement agencies. 

In this regard, the Secretary of Education has also been helpful sending out a directive to U.S. schools saying in part “…I urge you to make sure that assemblies, classroom discussions, and other school activities held to honor victims of the tragedies, do not inadvertently foster the targeting of Arab-American students for harassment or blame… [W]e must emphasize during this difficult time in our nation’s history that our feelings of anger and sadness must not be directed at innocent Arab Americans, or other individuals having no connection to last week’s events.  Working together, we can make sure that our children get a good education in a safe environment that does not tolerate violence and hatred.”

The Congressional leadership has also sent strong messages of support to the community.  A concurrent resolution, passed unanimously by both the Senate and House of Representatives, put the legislators on record noting that the Congress:

declares that in the quest to identify, bring to justice, and punish the perpetrators and sponsors of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, that the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans, including Arab-Americans, American Muslims, and Americans from South Asia, should be protected; and

condemns any acts of violence or discrimination against any Americans, including Arab-Americans, American Muslims, and Americans from South Asia.

Equally important in this effort was the Minority Whip of the Congress, David Bonior, who initiated the bill in the Congress and has also convened meetings with Arab Americans and American Muslims, both in Washington and in his home state of Michigan, to discuss both the problem of the backlash and the danger to civil liberties that might arise from overzealous law enforcement and misguided “anti-terrorism” legislation.

As the President has met with Arab Americans and American Muslims, so has the Senate and Congressional leadership.  The Majority and Minority leaders of the House convened a meeting last week with the community to show support, as did the bipartisan leadership of the Senate.  At the Senate event, the Majority leader, Tom Daschle, made an especially strong appeal, noting “The overwhelming majority of people understand instinctively that the way we get through hard times is by turning to each other, not on each other.  Unfortunately, not everyone understands that.  In the last couple of weeks, hundreds of crimes in dozens of states have been reported against Muslims, Arab-Americans, Sikhs, and others.  Just as the terrorists betray the peaceful teaching of Islam, the people who commit these hate crimes betray our ideals as a nation.”

In an effort to deal with problems of discrimination that may develop in the workplace, both the government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the AFL-CIO, the U.S.’ umbrella organization representing labor unions, issued strong statements. 

The EEOC statement read, in part: “In the midst of this tragedy, employers should take time to be alert to instances of harassment or intimidation against Arab-Americans and Muslim employees.  Preventing and prohibiting injustices against our fellow workers is one way to fight back. . . against the evil forces that assaulted our workplaces Tuesday morning…Our laws reaffirm our national values of tolerance and civilized conduct.  At this time of trial, these values will strengthen us as a common people . . .”

These comments represent only a few of the outpouring of statements from both officials and civic organizations.  It has been a remarkable display of the best qualities of our fellow Americans coming to the defense of Arab Americans and American Muslims.  Some of our polling data shows that all of this support is having a positive impact on public attitudes.  At week’s end, a daily tracking poll conducted by Zogby International showed that by a 63-11 margin, Americans have favorable attitudes toward Arab Americans, and an almost identical 61-12 favorability margin exists towards Muslim Americans.

To be sure, problems remain.  Americans are confused about how to react to proposals to begin profiling Arabs at airports.  While a clear majority of Americans reject such a proposal, there have been a handful of reports of pilots asking Arab and Muslim passengers to leave their aircraft because their presence made some of the other passengers uncomfortable.  So far, both the Department of Transportation and two airlines (Delta and American), have issued strong statements rebuking this type of action.

As the conflict continues to unfold, we must remain vigilant.  Terrorism must and will be fought, but bigotry too must also continue to be fought.  The early signs, however, point to the fact that despite some difficulties and some criminal acts, Americans are unified in facing both challenges.  And three weeks after the horrific attacks on New York and Washington, the nation’s resolve is strong and Arab Americans and American Muslims are being both respected and protected by our nation’s leaders.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.