7th APRIL 2015 - Vol.XXXVIII No.018

Law enforcement rights at risk...

I TESTIFIED before the US Commission on Civil Rights this week on relations between law enforcement agencies and the Arab American and Muslim American communities. This provided an opportunity to lay out problems and an agenda that would allow us to move forward.

In a democratic society based on constitutionally guaranteed rights, the role of law enforcement ought to be to help secure them for all citizens. This, for decades, has not been the case for Arab Americans.

We have learned of the extent of harassment of Arab Americans and Arab student activists from Operation Boulder in the Nixon era and the broad surveillance programme against Palestinian student organisations in the 70s and 80s to intelligence files on Arab American activists maintained by the FBI, sometimes in collaboration with outside groups used to harass members of my community.

Many of our community leaders, myself included, received repeated death threats from the early 1970s. My office in Washington, DC, was fire-bombed in 1980. And the offices of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were targeted in the mid-1980s. One of these attacks murdered my friend Alex Odeh in October, 1985. There was no indictment or arrest.

During the Clinton administration, my community's access to the White House improved, as did official responsiveness to our concerns. In the 1990s, we experienced problems with airport profiling and the use of secret evidence. The Department of Justice (DoJ) convened meetings that helped us resolve many issues.

Then came 9/11 - a dual tragedy for Arab Americans. Because some assumed our collective guilt, Arab Americans and Muslims and others perceived to be Arab and Muslim became victims of hate crimes.

But a new dynamic was at work. President Bush spoke out against hate crimes, and the Senate and the House of Representatives passed resolutions condemning bias against Arab Americans and Muslims. Law enforcement prosecuted hate crimes, and citizens defended and protected us. My family and I received death threats, but for the first time, the perpetrators were arrested, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced.

The Civil Rights Division at the DoJ, at our request, restarted inter-agency problem-solving meetings we had begun during the Clinton years. But during the Bush years, a different message was being sent by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. In addition to deportations and the shameful special registration programme, he issued profiling guidelines that created a loophole allowing ethnic, religious and racial profiling, leading to singling out of Arabs and Muslims by law enforcement.

With Barack Obama's election, we had hopes that we would see an end to these abusive practices. But policies we had believed would change have not. We had hoped to see an end to the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. This did not happen. The DoJ's profiling guidelines continue to be used to the detriment of my community. Arab American citizens who have family in Canada or conduct business there are profiled, experiencing disgraceful and humiliating treatment at the hands of Customs and Border Patrol. We are also disturbed by Press accounts of the NYPD/CIA surveillance programme.

During the past several decades we have developed relationships with government agencies important to our and our country's security. But the negative practices threaten to undercut the gains. They create fear in my community and suspicion about us.

It is worrisome that in the post-9/11 era, the challenge to constitutional rights has often been met with silence because the targets were Arabs and Muslims.

We have failed to recognise that if the rights to assemble and speak freely, to be secure from unwarranted search and guaranteed due process are put at risk for any group, then they may be threatened for all Americans.

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