Arab-Americans feel US backlash from TWA hijacking

When Trans World Airlines Flight 847 was hijacked over Athens last month by two Lebanese Shiites, the news traveled through American Arab neighborhoods like a rifle shot. In close-knit communities from New York City to Dearborn, Mich., to Los Angeles, American citizens of Arab descent were troubled by the hijacking.

``My fellow citizens were being held hostage by people of my heritage. That is an uncomfortable bind,'' says Arab-American activist James Zogby, president of the ``Save Lebanon'' campaign and director of the Arab American Institute.

``The terrible tragedy of an American sailor killed at the hands of an Arab shocked us,'' says David Saad, executive director of the National Association of Arab-Americans. ``Every responsible person condemns hijacking and terrorism.''

Such condemnation was virtually unanimous among Arab-American leaders and organizations nationwide following the recent hijacking.

The condemnations came as Arab-Americans shared a sense of remorse and frustration over the brutal hijacking. It was seen as an attack carried out against innocent people whose only ``crime'' was their American citizenship.

Today, many of these same Arab-Americans are receiving harassing telephone calls and threats in what appears to be a racist US backlash to the hostage crisis -- a backlash being carried out against a segment of American society whose only ``crime'' is their Arab heritage.

It is a type of ``anti-Semitism'' not often publicized. (Arabs as well as Jews are descendants of the Semite tribe, from which the word derives.) But according to Omar Kader, executive director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), such bigotry is not new. It shows up routinely, he says, in newspaper editorial cartoons depicting Arabs as greedy oil sheikhs or unshaven, gun-toting terrorists.

``There is a lot of anti-Semitism in this country, directed not just against Jews but Arabs as well,'' Mr. Kader says.

Recent acts against members of the American Arab community include the bombing of a mosque in Houston, broken windows at mosques in San Francisco and Potomac, Md., and threats received by Arab-American groups in New York, Dearborn, Mich., Allentown, Pa., Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

Iranian Americans faced a similar backlash in 1979-80, when American Embassy employees were held hostage in Tehran. Some Arab-Americans recall that at the time they frequently found it prudent to explain to other Americans that they weren't Iranian.

``We [Americans] are frustrated,'' Kader says. ``Look at Rambo [a popular new macho war movie]. People in America are itching for a fight.''

Kader's organization has led the battle against discriminatory treatment of Arabs in the US, heading a national letter-writing campaign designed to make offenders aware that anti-Arab harassment and bigotry will not be tolerated.

One target of the ADC has been the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, which the group says defames Arabs. The thesaurus lists as synonyms for ``arab'': ``vagabond, clochard, drifter, floater, hobo, roadster, street arab, tramp, vag, vagrant.''

The roots of anti-Arab prejudice have been traced by some to Hollywood's propensity to portray Arabs as violent desert raiders in adventure films or as buffoons in desert comedies. It has been the rare exception, according to one study, when Arabs have been portrayed as heroes or in a positive light in American films.

Others see political events and a general ignorance of the Mideast as contributing to a negative stereotype of Arabs.

The stereotype of greedy oil sheikh is tied to the emergence of the Arab oil cartel and widespread anger among motorists in the West at the oil-producing Arab states for driving up the price of gasoline. The image of Arabs as terrorists is linked in part to repeated airline hijackings carried out by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1970s.

These images have not helped pro-Arab lobbyists in Washington, who are pushing for what they describe as a more balanced United States foreign policy in the Middle East. Nonetheless, Arab-American officials say the recent hijacking of TWA Flight 847 may have actually given a boost to their efforts.

Saad says that if there is a silver lining to the recent hostage crisis, it is that the American public and US officials ``may have learned that when the chips are down, there are important friends we need among the Arab countries, and we've got to start working harder to develop these friendships.''

He adds: ``It is becoming acceptable -- and once it wasn't -- to debate US Middle East policies and complain that Israel isn't serving US interests. Public-opinion polls slowly but surely are starting to show results in our direction.''

``I think that if the Americans knew all the details, they would see our point of view,'' says Khatmeh Osseiran, a graduate student at McGill University, who was raised in a Shiite family in Lebanon before coming to the US at age 11.

She says the two Shiites who hijacked the plane should be captured and tried for their crimes, and that Israel, too, should be tried for having taken some 700 Shiite ``hostages'' in violation of international law.

From the point of view of Arab-Americans, the past 10 years have been marked by a growing frustration over ever-increasing amounts of military and economic aid to Israel. They are also dismayed over what they see as an apparent hands-off US foreign policy concerning Israeli military operations in the Mideast, including an invasion and occupation of Lebanon.

And they are frustrated, they say, over a US Congress growing increasingly hostile toward the interests of even pro-US Arab states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Arab-Americans say they have long been warning that unless the United States adopted a more balanced approach to Mideast affairs, America would become a prime target for terrorists.

According to Mr. Zogby, the US could cut down considerably on potential terrorist attacks against Americans simply by distancing itself from Israel and treating the various forces of the region as equals.

Zogby is not optimistic that US officials will take his advice. ``Right now we are a voice in the wilderness.''

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