An Arab Karematsu in the 21st Century?

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It’s never been easy being Arab-American. From the stereotypes in cartoons to TV dramas to Hollywood movies, it feels like we’re always fighting to “humanize” ourselves against popular cultural myths. Even our news media has generally chosen to overlook Arab suffering or our side of the story. One need only look at a European paper to see this sad truth. Then, September 11 happened. The myths resonated. When CNN did a poll, nearly a third of Americans surveyed supported concentration camps for Arab-Americans.

We thought it was an emotion of the times.

In walks conservative attorney Peter Kirsanow of the US Civil Rights Commission. The Bush appointee told citizens at a recent public hearing in Detroit that should there be another terrorist attack on the United States, we “can forget civil rights in this country.” Kirsanow went on to say that a terror attack from the same ethnic group could lead to the round up and mass detention of all Arab and Muslim Americans é much like Japanese Americans were detained during WWII.

It is true that Kirsanow’s comments did not happen in a vacuum. He was, after all, responding to Lansing attorney Roland Hwang’s concerns about widespread civil rights violations against Arab-Americans. But when given the opportunity to clarify his stand on detention camps, Kirsanow retorted that, “not too many people will be crying in their beer if there are more detentions, more stops, more profiling.”

Setting aside the fact that Kirsanow is an African-American and hails from a community that has suffered enormously from racial profiling, it is mind-boggling that any presidential appointee raises the idea of a return to Karematsu and internment camps as being plausible in the 21st Century. Even more astonishing is the fact that Kirsanow was appointed to protect the civil rights of all Americans.

Sadly, there were 20 hijackers of Middle Eastern extraction on that fateful day of September 11. The facts are still coming out in terms of who knew what and how much. But the key here is that there are millions more of the same extraction who are being vilified for the acts of a few. There is good and bad in every culture, and every community has its radicals and extremists. We certainly didn’t hear anyone talking about a return to detention camps in Irish-American communities when Timothy McVeigh bombed an Oklahoma City building in what became the nation’s biggest act of domestic terrorism.

The Arab community has worked hard to be productive members of the great American tapestry. Whether they are doctors saving lives, small business owners, engineers or human rights activists, they make a difference as Americans. The horrors of 9/11 affected us as fellow Americans and human beings. Maybe even more so because the suggested Draconian measures represent a sick sort of collective punishment against us for who we are.

Because of various scare tactics, Arab-Americans are now unwittingly giving up their right to question civil rights violations for fear of being detained; Arab Muslim women who wear the hijab are followed and/or taunted; and there are now cases of Arab men, named “Osama” who are legally changing their name so as not to arouse unwanted attention. Last I checked, the names of Ted, Jeffrey, and David were still popular even though Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and David Berkowitz (a.k.a Son of Sam) were nothing to be proud of.

One cannot read a document in Arabic without looks of suspicion, and the mantle of our judicial system has pretty much been thrown out the window as Arab-Americans are guilty until proven innocent. Arab-American business owner, Abdul Hammuda, put it best when he recently said, “They can break into my house and search it, they can put me under surveillance and bug me without my knowledge. I cannot have a conversation with a lawyer any more and be sure it is private. I sometimes ask myself if I am living back in the old country.”

We understand that there is nothing worse than feeling helpless. A lot of our own relatives in the Middle East feel this helplessness every day. But we, Americans, are in danger of losing the ideals that make our nation so great é freedom for all, without regard to race or religion. Certainly, putting Arab-Americans in detention camps will not ensure anyone’s security.

In fact, when a nation’s security is dependent on discrimination, as well as the physical or psychological confinement of an entire people, it will likely have the opposite effect.

Just ask the Israelis.

Sherri Muzher, who holds a Jurist Doctor in International and Comparative Law, is a Palestinian-American activist and free lance journalist.

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