Setback for Arab-Americans

On Sept. 11, Muslim leaders were to meet with President Bush about about the civil rights concerns of ethnic Arabs. Now they're more concerned about their physical safety.

Published September 17, 2001 11:29PM (EDT)

Talk about bad timing. At 3 p.m. Sept. 11, President Bush was scheduled to meet with the leaders of a half dozen Arab-American and Muslim organizations. They were headed to the White House to discuss their desire to end ethnic profiling, as well as the policy of "secret evidence" that allows American law enforcement officials to detain non-U.S. citizens based on evidence they are not compelled to share.

The meeting, which had already been rescheduled twice, was of course cancelled after the terrorist attacks that morning. On Monday, members of the delegation that was supposed to have met with Bush expressed gratitude that the president and his administration had been decrying anti-Muslim and anti-Arab actions. Bush met with Arab and Muslim leaders for almost an hour Monday, and again lamented the backlash against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.

But the meeting also had to have been a letdown. U.S. Arab and Muslim leaders came tantalizingly close to seeing their own legislative and civil rights issues championed by the president himself, who gave them his prominent support during the campaign. Now they must wonder how long they must put those hopes on hold.

Or whether -- given the reality that perhaps the most horrific act of terrorism against the United States was committed by 19 men of Arab and Muslim origin -- there will ever come a time when their desire for civil rights will outweigh, in the minds of the American people, the need to take security precautions to prevent it from ever happening again.

"The political assessment is that we have an uphill battle," says Mahdi Bray, national political director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, one of the six groups to have been represented in the Bush meeting. "I don't think people are going to be as cooperative or as easy to push this legislation as perhaps they would have been had this event not occurred."

That's surely an understatement. The more pressing issue seems to be an end to the attacks against members of their community, a cause that the Bush administration has certainly supported from the beginning of this ugliness.

Monday afternoon, Bush visited D.C.'s Islamic Center, where he was given a tour by Dr. Abdullah Khouj, chief imam of the center; it lasted 50 minutes, 15 minutes longer than scheduled. Afterward, Bush quoted from the Koran and made a show of solidarity with the community.

"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," Bush said. "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war." Bush said that those "who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind."

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, was originally supposed to meet with Bush last Tuesday, but he got his chance Monday when Bush met with leaders at the Islamic Center. Calling the meeting with Bush "constructive and useful," Awad was heartened to hear Bush's comments "that terrorism has no religion, no ethnicity, no nationality -- it is only an attitude."

He and his colleagues in the community raised the subjects they had intended to speak about last week, Awad says. When they raised Bush's endorsement of their opposition to ethnic profiling and secret evidence, Bush said, according to Awad, "he believes the same way, but of course we're now dealing with a much more serious issue, in dealing with the terrorist attack." Awad says that he, too, wants the U.S. government to ensure greater security for its citizens. "We are citizens so we are in the same boat," he says. But he sees no "contradiction between security and civil liberties" and still wants an end to those practices that infringe on Arab-American and Muslim citizens' rights, he says.

But how does the importance of those rights stack up when placed next to what now seem like life-and-death issues? Forget racial profiling -- according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans support the notion that all Arabs, including U.S. citizens, should "undergo special, more intensive security checks before boarding airplanes in the U.S." Forty-nine percent think all Arabs, including U.S. citizens, should have to carry a special ID card.

Moreover, with news of various individuals of apparent Middle Eastern descent being detained and escorted from aircraft, it seems as though there is at least some type of ethnic profiling going on, albeit a type that most of us might find reassuring. On Fox News Sunday, correspondent Brit Hume, noting that all 19 of the suspected hijackers were Arab or Muslim, asked Attorney General John Ashcroft if "is it not the case that necessarily innocent people may have to be detained because of certain characteristics about them, not detained in any permanent sense, but given a special measure of scrutiny just in the interest of public safety?"

"Well, we are scrutinizing all individuals who are boarding aircraft," Ashcroft allowed. "And when there are factors that elevate that any suspicion that there's a problem, we take action."

"But," he said, "we are not at the place of saying that people are suspects based solely on their race or ethnic origin."

Asked Monday about reports that in the course of its investigation the FBI has been questioning individuals "based solely on their ethnic background," FBI Director Robert Mueller said that wasn't true. "If that is a perception out there, I would like to dispel it," he said. Individuals selected for questioning are picked "based on predications that the individual may have information relating to the acts that took place last week. We do not, have not, will not target people based solely on their ethnicity, period, point-blank."

But even if law enforcement isn't engaging in ethnic profiling during its investigations, there may be public support for the practice. According to a Los Angeles Times poll released Monday, there is overwhelming support in the wake of the attacks for "allowing law enforcement to randomly stop people who may fit the profile of suspected terrorists," 68 percent in favor, 29 percent opposed.

Of course, that is exactly what leaders of American Arab and Muslim groups fear. "No one traveling should be stopped because he's wearing a beard or kufi or because he has a darker complexion," Bray of the Muslim Public Affairs Council says. "Certainly, I'm a realist, and I realize this is a trying time. I understand we need to strengthen our vigilance in terms of national security," but that needs to be done without giving up "the precepts we find in the Constitution in terms of equity and fairness."

After all, he says, "did we take that same attitude [in the past] when we had domestic terrorism? Did we say, 'From here on out we're going to stop every good ol' boy who might have a militia bumper sticker on his truck'?"

No, but in the wake of the April 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, the U.S. Congress did pass sweeping anti-terrorism legislation that enabled INS agents to detain non-U.S. citizens without the same due process afforded U.S. citizens, citing "secret evidence." The U.S. government has defended the practice, saying that when it comes to international terrorism, law enforcement officials need to keep their information secret in order to protect their intelligence sources.

But until last Tuesday, there was a growing impression among lawmakers -- including conservative Republicans -- that such practices might be an encroachment on the civil liberties of non-citizens who were being detained, most of whom were Arab or Muslim. The House bill against the practice of secret evidence, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and sponsored by Reps. David Bonior, D-Mich., and Bob Barr, R-Ga., has 101 cosponsors and was building momentum, House sources say -- until last Tuesday.

On June 22, 2000, the House passed a measure 239-173 cutting Justice Department funding for the detaining of immigrants based on "secret evidence." But that seems like a lifetime ago. A knowledgeable House source says the bill is not likely to become law in the current climate.

Arab-Americans and Muslims could take some -- some -- comfort in a Reuters/Zogby poll released Monday. Eighty-four percent of those polled said that the U.S. was at war with a small group of terrorists who may be Muslim, as opposed to 8 percent who assessed the U.S. to be at war with Islam in general.

On the other hand, 38 percent in the poll stated that they believed Islam to be a religion that encourages fanaticism, with 42 percent disagreed and 20 percent unsure. Arab-Americans scored higher approval ratings than did their brethren abroad, as did Muslim Americans when compared with Muslims in general.

During the last presidential election, Bush made a big push for the Arab-American and Muslim vote, which is sizeable in the swing states of Michigan and Illinois. In an October meeting with around 30 Arab-American and Muslim leaders in Dearborn, Mich. -- the figurative center of Arab-American life -- Bush expressed support for an end to both ethnic profiling and secret evidence.

Days later, in the second presidential debate on Oct. 11, 2000, Bush endorsed the group's domestic policy objectives, albeit in a rather confusing way, seeming to combine the two issues. "Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called secret evidence," Bush said. "People are stopped, and we've got to do something about that."

Soon after, Bush started receiving endorsements from a number of Arab-American and Muslim groups, many of whom thought of the Clinton-Gore administration as too pro-Israel. (To say nothing of Gore's vice presidential selection.) On Oct. 23, the political action committee of the American Muslim Political Coordination Council -- made up of the American Muslim Council, the American Muslim Alliance, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council -- formally endorsed Bush for president.

Now, members of those four organizations -- scheduled to cash in their endorsement chits last Tuesday -- must be wondering if the most they can ask for is that Bush continue to express support and respect for their right to live free of intimidation and harassment.

"All I can say is, we're sensitive to it," said Justice Department spokesman Dan Nelson when asked about the "secret evidence" provision. Nelson did acknowledge that "since last Tuesday things have changed," but couldn't say how the new paradigm would affect the problems some have with the practices of ethnic profiling and secret evidence, concerns that probably couldn't be more remote for most Americans right now.

Monday afternoon, Ashcroft outlined a number of law enforcement measures he feels are needed to combat terrorism -- making it easier to obtain wiretaps, for instance -- all of which are on the side of security in the civil liberties vs. security debate. Which to most Americans is more than fine. According to the Los Angeles Times poll, 61 percent of the American people think that curbing terrorism will necessitate the average person giving up some civil liberties. And 84 percent think that the U.S. government should toughen restrictions on visas for foreign students and others.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council's Bray says that he remains concerned about the issues he was hoping to speak with the president about last Tuesday, but he recognizes that now is not the time to push for these items. "As it says in Ecclesiastes, 'there is a season for everything,'" Bray says. "We're not so pressed. Our concerns are urgent, but we have to juxtapose our concerns with what the nation is going through."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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