The aftermath of September 11, 2001: The targeting of Arabs and Muslims in America.

Author:Akram, Susan M.

Words and images [run] together like watercolors on a child's easel--Arabs, mosque, terrorism, Muslims, extremists--making it hard to tell where one began and another left off. (1)


THE DEMONIZING OF ARABS AND Muslims in America began well before the terrible tragedy of September 11, 2001. It can be traced to deliberate mythmaking by film and media, (2) stereotyping as part of conscious strategy of 'experts' and polemicists on the Middle East, (3) the selling of a foreign policy agenda by US government officials and groups seeking to affect that agenda, (4) and a public susceptible to images identifying the unwelcome 'other' in its midst. (5) Bearing the brunt of these factors are Arab and Muslim non-citizens in this country. A series of government laws and policies since the 1970's have steadily targeted Arab and Muslim non-citizens for selective interrogation, (6) detention, (7) harassment, (8) presumption of terrorist involvement, (9) and removal from this country. (10) The Patriot Act, (11) recent round-up and detention of over 1,000 (12) and list of interrogation targets of 5,000 individuals, (13) and the Presidential Order to establish quasi-military 'tribunals' (14) exacerbate the selective targeting of Arab and Muslim non-citizens in a climate of fear that completely sanctions blatant racial profiling. (15)

  1. The Stereotype of Arabs as Demonic Terrorists and Religious Fanatics

    Commentators fit anti-Arab, anti-Muslim animus into various 'racist' theories, from anti-immigrant sentiment that targets whichever group represents the most recent immigrant population (16) to a more dynamic process of 'racialization' that focuses on a social-political order that requires a marginalized 'other.' (17) The former only partly explains the demonizing of Arabs and Muslims in America, especially as Arabs (not necessarily Muslims) in particular have been part of the fabric of United States society since the late 1800's. (18) The latter, Omi and Winant's characterization, is more helpful, but does not precisely delineate the very specific factors that have come together to 'racialize' Arabs and Muslims in the United States. Still, the reasons for defining race as a process are particularly valid, as they indicate both the severe damage 'racialization' can do to the communities and individuals affected, and that the process can be reversed. (19) Social or historical analysts focusing on the problem h ave identified how and why Arabs and Muslims in particular have been racialized in America:

    Anti-Arab racism does not emanate from a single source, and certainly is not limited to passions stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Several types of anti-Arab racism and violence can be discerned. The first, and most obvious, is the political violence of Jewish extremist groups, which is correctly viewed as emanating from the Arab-Israeli conflict.... The second is a more nativistic violence which is xenophobic and local in nature.... The third is a form of jingoist hostility and violence usually associated with international crises involving U.S. citizens.... (20)

    Nabeel Abraham is not alone in identifying these sources of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, but his work is particularly helpful in marshalling evidence to corroborate each factor. (21) His second factor is better viewed as including xenophobia fed by film and media stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. His third factor is also more accurately broadened to include hostility and violence related to foreign or domestic crises in which U.S. citizens are seen as victims. To his list, however, must be added a fourth factor, which is deliberate misinformation, distortion and institutionalized racism existing in government, law enforcement and influential institutions that target Arabs and Muslims both within the U.S. and abroad. Evidence on each point is discussed below.

    Politically-Motivated Violence And Intimidation

    The Arab-Israeli conflict is a consistent thread in the stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims as 'terrorists' in the United States since at least the 1970's. According to Abraham: "Jewish extremist groups constitute an undeniable source of anti-Arab hate violence not discussed in conventional accounts of racist violence in the United States." (22) In the 1980's the Jewish Defense League (JDL) was "one of the most active terrorist groups in the United States." A 1987 study published in an FBI Bulletin indicated that Jewish extremist organizations committed "approximately 20 terrorist incidents and numerous other acts of violence, including extortion or threats..." representing about one quarter of the total terrorist acts in the United States in the 1980's. (24) Yet well-regarded hate crimes listings and studies do not separately identify Arab ethnic origin in their victim classifications, (25) and others completely omit Jewish extremist groups from the categories of perpetrators. (26)

    Even less known is the phenomenon of politically-motivated threats and intimidation against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. by such mainstream Jewish organizations as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith. The ADL, established in the early 1900's as an organization with the mission to fight anti-Semitism, has gained a reputation as one of the foremost anti-racism groups in the U.S. It has cultivated an image of defending not only the rights of Jews, but also of other minorities, and of promoting racial justice. Unfortunately, the ADL appears to have also had another mission, which began sometime after the establishment of Israel in 1948: to discredit or silence critics of Israel or defenders of Palestinian human rights. (27) In 1983, the ADL released a handbook entitled Pro-Arab Propaganda in America: Vehicles and Voices, apparently planned as the first of a series. (28) Groups or individuals who criticized Israel or Zionism were listed in the handbook, along with quotes and descriptions of their act ivities. All were characterized as 'extremists' intent on eradicating Israel or inciting prejudice against Jews in America. (29) Included in the handbook are some of the most prominent academics, thinkers and writers on issues of the Middle East, from Columbia University's Edward Said to Harvard University's Walid Khalidi. Virtually every human rights and humanitarian organization dealing with the Middle East or Palestine is on the list. (30) Dr. Alfred Lilienthal, himself on ADL's 'blacklist,' claimed "[m]any ADL charges against critics of Israel and Zionism are totally inaccurate, questionable, or based upon half-trths." (31) The handbook was widely distributed through ADL's 31 U.S. regional offices and Canada, in an effort, according to many critics, by Zionist activists to use to challenge, harass and silence groups and individuals on the list. (32) Nor is ADL the only Jewish organization to compile and distribute 'lists' of Arab-American individuals and groups and those working in solidarity with them. T he American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issued two similar lists. (33) Through a campaign primarily on college campuses organized against groups and individuals on these lists, AIPAC and ADL harassed and intimidated academics and activists for years. (34)

    But the full extent of ADL's harmful activities against Arabs in the US did not become public until January 1993, when the results of a two-year FBI investigation against veteran San Francisco Police Department officer Tom Gerard and an ADL-paid undercover agent Roy Bullock, came to light. On December 10, 1992, law enforcement authorities executed search warrants on Gerard and Bullock's homes as well as ADL offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. (35) The search of Gerard's houseboat uncovered computerized files on thousands of Arab Americans, 36 Arab organizations, 33 anti-apartheid organizations, 412 "pinko" organizations, 349 right-wing organizations, and 35 skinhead groups. Bullock's records showed files on 77 Arab organizations, 647 "pinko" and anti-apartheid organizations, 612 right-wing organizations and 27 skinhead groups. The ADL's offices contained identical files to Bullock's. (36)

    Bullock's, Gerard's and ADL's files showed a massive surveillance operation against not only right-wing and anti-Semitic groups, but hundreds of mainstream and progressive groups including anti-apartheid, peace and justice, religious and human rights organizations all over the country. Among the groups targeted for surveillance were the ACLU, the NLG, NAACP, Rainbow Coalition, Greenpeace, Jews for Jesus, Mother Jones, Americans for Peace Now, Asian Law Caucus, United Auto Workers, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal), House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Cal), and former Representative Pete McCloskey. (37) Thousands of Arab-Americans were listed in the files. The information included confidential law enforcement files from the FBI and CIA. By far the most troubling was the discovery of ADL's close ties to Israeli officials and the Mossad, and evidence that ADL, Gerard and Bullock had passed on information about individuals and groups to Israeli and South African intelligence. (38) At least one Arab-A merican whose name was in the files was arrested by Israeli authorities when he traveled to the Occupied Territories. (39) Nineteen groups and individuals charged Gerard, Bullock, Executive Director of ADL's Central Pacific Region, Richard Hirschhaut; and the ADL with violating California laws by collecting and disseminating confidential information. (40)

    ADC et al. v. Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith was settled in December 1999, after nearly six years of litigation. Under the injunction issued by Federal Judge Richard Paez, the ADL is permanently enjoined from engaging in any further illegal spying against Arab-American and other civil rights groups. (41) Information routinely gathered by ADL on groups and individuals is to be removed and...

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