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After 9/11, Arab Americans Struggle for Civil Rights — and for Palestinians

June 11, 2002
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The Friday afternoon schedule for the annual convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee presented participants with a tough choice.

In one room, they could discuss the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks on the civil rights of Muslims and Arabs, many of whom feel they must constantly convince other Americans that they are not terrorists.

Across the hall, families of both Arab and Jewish victims of Israeli-Palestinian violence discussed the human perspectives of the conflict.

Both sessions were filled.

The scheduling structure at the conference, held over the weekend, mirrors the dual focus of this Arab advocacy and lobbying group. The organization faces two major battles this year in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States and the ongoing Palestinian intifada.

Arab Americans are attempting to fight what they view as gross infringements on their civil liberties, including ethnic profiling at airports and other public places — and proposed restrictions on immigration.

At the same time, they are trying to tell the Palestinian side of the story to a strongly pro-Israel Congress, a White House that repeatedly has welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon while shunning Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and what they view as an anti-Palestinian media.

“We’ve been presented with a truly unprecedented set of challenges,” said Hussein Ibish, the ADC’s communications director. “We couldn’t choose and we don’t choose.”

In many ways, Ibish notes, the Arab American lobby’s focus mirrors that of American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. Those groups grapple with how to delve into both domestic and foreign policy issues, fighting anti-Semitism while seeking international support for Israel.

“In founding ADC, we really took a page from the Jewish community,” he said.

Domestically, the organization is attempting to counter the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks, when Arabs living in the United States boarded airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

American Arabs complain that they are greeted with suspicion almost every place they go, and that the government is taking what they say are illegal steps to single Arabs and Muslims out.

“The image of Arab Americans has been severely damaged by the acts of maniacs,” Ibish said.

Just last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced plans to increase monitoring of immigrants from suspect countries, including several in the Arab world.

“It’s a real challenging signal that we are moving toward a trend where our country considers immigrants as a class as suspect,” Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the audience in a civil rights session. A forum later in the day addressed the topic, “Flying While Brown.”

The ADC has hired two full-time lobbyists to handle the domestic issues — which they compare repeatedly to anti-Semitism — and Ibish says the legal department has been working harder than ever.

Jewish leaders say they have seen the ADC mainstreaming itself since the Sept. 11 attacks, gaining legitimacy by focusing more on the plight of American Arabs.

“They have jumped into a leadership role in the civil rights community since 9/11,” said Stacey Burdett, assistant director of the ADL’s government and national affairs office. “They have a better seat at the table.”

Ibish himself has appeared often in the media to discuss the discrimination Arabs allegedly face. On CNN’s “Crossfire” last week, Ibish debated a Florida congressmen on Ashcroft’s new initiative.

When the focus of the show changed to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ibish stayed in his seat and a new challenger was brought in to debate him. Ibish was able to shift gears quickly to the Middle East conflict, much as his organization has been able to do this past year.

Many participants at the ADC convention said that despite the discrimination they say they face at home, the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is the larger issue.

“As an Arab American here, I don’t feel as much of a threat from other people,” said Neezar Samara, 25, from San Francisco. The Palestinians, he said, “are the ones actually living in terror.”

To that end, ADC’s board of directors met last Friday with Secretary of State Colin Powell and heard from numerous experts on the Middle East conflict.

Ibish and others say the organization’s two fronts do not need to be completely separated.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they say, has led to a negative perception of Arabs, which has contributed to the alleged infringement of their civil rights. And the Sept. 11 attacks, they believe, have moved U.S. policy in the Middle East against the Palestinians.

“We have always felt from the beginning that the discrimination we faced and the discrimination in the media is inextricably tied to differences in opinion on the Middle East between the Arab American community and those in media and government,” Ibish said.

Nisrine Barakeh, a 28-year-old Palestinian who moved to the United States a year ago from Great Britain, said it is important for Arabs’ civil rights to be protected, so that they are free to voice their opinions on the Middle East.

“They help each other,” she said. “The view Americans have of us largely comes from stereotypes the American media has portrayed of terrorists in the Middle East.”

As ADC members lobbied Congress on June 6, some spoke of the domestic issues while others expressed their views on the Middle East conflict.

Each participant spoke of the issues he or she felt passionate about, Ibish said, but were particularly careful when lobbying Jewish legislators.

He also notes that some Jewish lawmakers who disagree completely with the group on the Middle East still are advocates for Arabs in their civil right battles.

Arab American groups also have been garnering support on the civil rights front from American Jewish groups who sit with them on the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

But while Arab Americans see similarities between their struggles and the previous and current fights of Jewish lobbyists, they say protecting their rights and making their voices heard will be a harder for them than it has been for American Jews, who have established fund-raising networks and possess decades of political experience.

“It doesn’t feel we hold the cards they seem to hold,” Barakeh said.

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