In the Aftermath of Gulf War, Arab-Americans Assess Standing

Experts debate effects of FBI questioning, 'villainization' of Saddam

MIDDLE East experts and Arab-American leaders are concerned about the long-term negative effects of the Persian Gulf war on the image and status of Arabs living in the United States. On one point, however, they are certain: The way Americans perceive Arabs in the Middle East directly affects the 2.5 million Arabs in the US.

Arab-American leaders express concern that:

The Bush administration's demonization of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein not only affected the way Americans perceive Arabs, but has also fueled existing prejudice against Arab-Americans.

The FBI's questioning of Arab-Americans about terrorism enhanced suspicions among Americans about the community.

"Any time there's a crisis in the Middle East, there's an increase in hate crimes [against Arab-Americans]," says Albert Mokhiber, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

"There's no differentiation being made between Iraqis, who are the perceived enemy, and Arab-Americans. Once there's a villainization of an Arab leader, we all become targeted."

Others, however, disagree.

"We haven't seen the build-up in the US of fury toward the Iraqi people," says Yahya Sadowski, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.

"President Bush has been very careful to say we're not at war with the Iraqi people. At the same time you also have the related phenomenon of portraying the good Arabs, the Saudis and Kuwaitis."

"I think Arab-Americans will do quite well," says James Zogby, executive director of the Arab American Institute. "The media have been so extremely sensitive. Every newspaper, TV, and radio has done repeated stories about Arab-Americans and their civil rights."

"Arab-Americans are now the interpreters of the Middle East," he adds, referring to Arab-Americans hired as network consultants during the crisis.

Of concern, however, is the FBI's program to interview Arab-Americans.

In early January, the bureau began interviewing Arab-Americans to gather information about terrorist plots against US targets.

"The FBI's error was that it thought Arab-Americans had special information about terrorism," says Mokhiber. "The FBI created an even greater possibility that people 201> would attack Arab-Americans, under cover of law."

The ADC says there were more so-called "hate crimes" against this community in January than in all of 1990.

Spokesmen for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the ADC say that the bureau is continuing to question pro-Palestinian activists and Palestinian-Americans. Both the ACLU and the ADC are considering litigation.

"To investigate people on the basis of their political views is a violation of their civil liberties," says Kate Martin, director of the ACLU's National Security Litigation project in Washington.

Bill Carter, a spokesman for the FBI, says that any continuing interviews are "related to ongoing investigative responsibilities" of the bureau, but he refused to go into specifics.

Meanwhile, the first lawsuit related to alleged discrimination has been filed by the ACLU on behalf of Mohammad Ghonoudian, an Iranian-American who was pulled off a recent Pan Am flight and questioned for three hours in Miami, apparently because of his Middle East origins.

Ever since the early 20th century, when Arabs first came to the US in large numbers, their status has been closely linked to the status of their nations of origin.

Unlike the British, who romanticized the Arabs as noble Bedouin, the US did not have a historic or warm relationship with the Arab world. Because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Americans have held a negative attitude toward the Arab Middle East.

The exception, maintains Sadowski, was during the Arab oil embargo that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

"In the mid-'70s," he says, "the respect we had for Arabs rose. They did something adult in the oil embargo. And [then-chief of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] Sheikh Yamani appeared urbane."

"That evaporated fairly quickly," Sadowski continues. Soon Arabs came to be seen here as terrorists and fanatics, an image solidified in the 1980s as a result of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Lebanese civil war, and Lebanese hostage-taking.

Aware of the link between the image of Arabs in the Middle East and the status of Arab-Americans, Arabs in the US began to organize in the early 1980s.

Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last August, a spate of initial - and inaccurate - press reports depicted Arab-Americans as sympathizing with Saddam. The hate crimes started. And the FBI's questioning of Arab-Americans only intensified attacks.

The grass-roots organizations have now taken the offensive, appealing to the media and lobbying the Justice department and the FBI. But Middle East specialists say it will take much more to give Arab-Americans their just due.

"The US has an absolute 'us-or-them' attitude," says Sadowski. "Those that hold back from our values we hold in contempt."

Poignant TV pictures of Kuwaitis rejoicing over the liberation of their homeland will not alone reverse America's negative image of Arabs, he says.

"It takes more than a semi-benign image to expunge the negative image," Sadowski says.

"It's the responsibility of Arab-Americans to make the change," Mokhiber says. "We must work to re-humanize Arab-Americans by pointing to their contributions to this country and of Arabs to civilization."

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