Arab Discrimination and the State

A History of Sanctioned Violence

By Laura Lyons and Steve Carr
April 1991; pages 6-7, 15; Volume 2, No. 5

US troops are out of harm's way, but the Gulf conflict is far from resolved. Bush's New World Order has destabilized the region, driving a wedge into Arab unity and undermining the autonomy of numerous Arab states. Kuwait and Israel now actively scapegoat Palestinians in their respective countries, making them the real losers in this war.

Out of these conflicts, however, another war has emerged here in the United States. This "war at home" is often framed in economic terms - the cost to our economy, to our social programs, and to the free flow of information.

Yet too often overlooked is the cost this war will have on our own civil liberties. In the aftermath of the Gulf crisis, we are witnessing an increased acceptance and tolerance of racism, as well as an erosion of some of our most cherished and fundamental human rights.

Terrorism - American Style

On Wednesday, 27 February 1991, FBI Director William Sessions told CNN that 20 acts of terrorism have been committed against Arab-Americans since the war began. By contrast, the FBI reports no known incidents of Arab terrorism. When an oil refinery exploded in Virginia, the media quickly prophesized a wave of domestic terror. As it turned out, this act was no more than a manifestation of the American entrepreneurial spirit, designed to scam the insurance company at the outbreak of war and blame it on Arab-sponsored terrorism.

While the West accused the Arab world of unchecked violence and terrorism, incidents of terrorism against Arab-Americans flourished.In Blissfield, Michigan, pro-war supporters burned down a fast food restaurant. The owner, a Palestinian-American US Army veteran, had opposed US intervention. In Detroit, numerous stores have been firebombed since the outbreak of war. In Cincinnati, a Jordanian-owned store was bombed twice in four days.

To the FBI, terrorist acts include bombing, arson, hijacking and hostage-taking. According to Charles Kearney, FBI Special Agent and Media Spokesman for the Houston Field Office, terrorism constitutes "unlawful" force and violence. Intending "to intimidate or to coerce a government or civil population," such actions ultimately seek the "furtherance of political or social objectives. "

One has to wonder whether the more mundane, day-to-day incidents of random beatings, death threats, bomb scares and boycotts levied against Arab-Americans would qualify as a form of terrorism as well. Such actions often involve unlawful force and violence, they intimidate and coerce, and they further the political and social objectives of the United States government at war.

A recent posting to the Activist Mailing List, a computer mailing network, gives some idea of how terrorism singles out innocent, law-abiding citizens - regardless even of their stance on the war. In Houston, Rick Dahu regularly receives death threats at the doughnut shop he owns. Rumors spread throughout the community; the Jordanian-born American citizen allegedly predicted that the US would lose the Gulf war. Putting up US flags and yellow ribbons didn't help - Dahu still receives the threats. When asked if such actions constituted a form of terrorism, FBI Agent Kearney said he could "neither confirm nor deny" them.

Samar Sakakini, Austin chapter coordinator for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), expressed little surprise over this incident, although she could not personally confirm it. In larger metropolitan areas like Houston, many Arab Americans own their own businesses. "People know where they are from," she said. Because they maintain a high profile within their community, they are therefore susceptible to this kind of harassment.

Scott Easton, media coordinator for ADC's national office, also could not confirm this particular incident. Easton instead read off an incident in which a family "in a small Texas town" received three phone calls, beginning at 2 AM, threatening to "shoot them to death." The ADC maintains a database of hundreds of reports like these, some worse. And these are just the reported ones.

The Gulf War has also provided a rationale for pro-war supporters to vent their xenophobic rage on any person of color. In Florida, an Indian family received death threats - like "I'm gonna kill you with a SCUD missile" - over the phone. Eventually a pipe bomb exploded in their home. At Grinnell College in Iowa, two men attacked an Asian-American student before speeding off in their car. The student had to be hospitalized. His companion, a white person, was untouched.

At another Midwestern college, an Afghani woman was severely beaten, simply because of her Arabic T-shirt. These incidents of Gulf-related terrorism, directed against anyone who is not white, regardless of their stance of the war, point to the ease with which many white Americans conflate black and brown people into a single racist image of the enemy.

Nor do these incidents take place only in the backwater towns of America. Austin, like other communities throughout the country, has had its share of down-home bigotry. In separate incidents during the first week of war, two UT students, one European and the other Indian, were apparently mistaken for Arabs and told to "go to back where you came from." The same week, an Iranian American woman inexplicably had her job interview cancelled. Although she offered to reschedule the interview, she was told that it would no longer be necessary. Since the beginning of the conflict, many Arab women in Austin who choose to wear the veil have had to endure being called "Mrs. Saddam Hussein." A member of New Jewish Agenda recently received a phone call threatening her with rape. The justification: her participation in the peace movement.

"These kind of things," said Sakakini, "you don't want happening. They're happening."

"Legitimate" Racism

State-sanctioned racism has played its own role in terrorizing the Arab community. Northwest and Pan Am airlines have taken the lead in openly discriminatory policies. According to The New York Times, for instance, Pan Am "has refused to carry any Iraqi passengers ... regardless of whether they presented signs of threat." The ban would include "Iraqis who are legal resident aliens of the United States." Meanwhile the FBI has announced its intention to conduct interviews with innocent, law-abiding legal resident aliens and naturalized citizens.

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has filed Freedom Of Information Act requests with the FBI to obtain the criteria by which they determine who will be visited. According to Gregory T. Nojeim, ADC Director of Legal Services, three times the standard processing time for such information has passed without FBI response. The FBI did, however, tell the ADC that the majority of the decisions on who to interview are left to the district office rather than the central operation. Nojeim explains that if district agents are making the decisions about who to interview, it is likely that they will target those Arab-Americans whose political activities give them a high profile.

Under the guise of protecting the Arab community, the FBI questions individuals of their political opinions on Palestinian rights, the Bush administration's handling of the Gulf crisis, and asks them for information on alleged terrorist activities on the assumption that people of Arab heritage either know terrorists or are terrorists themselves. Store owners, students, members of the mosque, the politically active and the quiescent, all are targeted.

This ongoing FBI investigation dates back to the early stages of the U.S. intervention. In September of this year, the FBI and CIA approached officials at the University of Connecticut asking for the names of all foreign students, their country of origin, major and the names of their academic advisers. The officials were told that these agencies would be opening files on these students and that they were particularly interested in students from the Middle East.

Peace campaign needing direction
A Palestinian, under strict 20 hour curfew, shows his ID to an Israeli soldier. Many Palestinians have lost their jobs as a result of the curfew and cannot buy food and other necessities.

This kind of racism is not mutually exclusive of the seemingly random, homegrown harassment that Arab Americans and other people of color face. Mira (not her real name) has had to confront racism in her neighborhood, in the school her child attends, and in the visit an FBI agent paid to her own home. "This is a very racist neighborhood," she says of her outlying Austin community. "There are signs, you know those white superiority signs. The swastikas, I mean, you see them all over the neighborhood. Just posted on the stop signs."

In the height of pro-war fervor, a group of teenagers tried to run Mira down as she walked in her neighborhood. Although she is not Arab American, one of the passengers in the van yelled for her to "go home." After contacting one of the parents, Mira was told that the boys "didn't mean anything by it."

When Mira's son came home wearing a yellow ribbon, she protested: "I did not like the yellow-ribbon symbol. To me it was symbolizing the war." The son's teacher had told him he would have to wear it until all of the troops came home. Mira wrote a letter to the school requesting her son no longer be required to wear the ribbon.

Mira's troubles with the school district ran deeper than the ribbon, however. She had also complained to the school about what she called a "de facto segregation policy" separating minority children, including Mexican Americans, from Anglo children. "My son was put in an ESL [English as a Second Language] class, and his only language is English. His mother tongue is English." When Mira complained to the president of her local PTA, she was told to "face reality. Racism is here to stay." The president then suggested that her children "get used to it."

When the FBI visited Mira in her home, shortly after the war ended, she was scared but also amused. "I'm a housewife who has nothing better to do," she said, "except looking after the children." He asked her if she knew anybody at the capitol or the airport. "I said, 'no, I frequent the capitol and the airport quite a lot, but no, I did not know anybody down there.'" The agent then asked her if she belonged to any terrorist organizations. "After he left," she said, "I realized: would a terrorist basically confess and say 'yes, I am a terrorist and I'm planning to bomb everything'? What did he expect?"

Mira believes she received the housecall from the FBI, either because of a quote she made to an Austin paper calling the American government stupid, or because of her outspoken stance on her child's education. "I asked him, 'does this mean that every time a citizen opens one's mouth, that somebody will be asking her or him questions?' And he just looked at me. He thanked me, I thanked him, and that was that."

Incidents like these need to be viewed in the context of a long history of harassment against the Arab community and people of color, perpetrated by both American citizens as well as the FBI. As early as 1972, the Nixon administration initiated "Operation Boulder," an extensive investigation of all people of Arab-heritage residing, visiting and studying in the United States. According to a report in the Spring 1990 newsletter of the Committee for Justice to Stop the McCarren Act Deportations, by using wiretaps, burglaries, surveillance and harassment, the FBI, INS, CIA and State Department coordinated information which led to the review of over 150,000 visa holders for excludability and possible deportation.

In 1979, with US hostages held in Iran, a request was made under the Carter administration by these same agencies to eject all Iranian students in the U.S. Throughout the early 1980's, anti-Arab sentiment escalated with Arab-American clubs and associations subject to bomb threats, arson attacks, vandalism and break-ins. FBI agents again began to visit the employers and neighbors of prominent Arab-American families insinuating connections between the community's leaders and terrorist organizations.

Dr. James Zogby, Director of the Arab American Institute, presented the FBI in 1982 with "12 documented instances of threats of physical violence and/or acts of violence against Arab Americans by Jewish extremist groups," as well as "dozens of affidavits from Arab-Americans concerned with FBI harassment." In a March 22 interview, Zogby stated that not one of the incidents he reported to the FBI or presented to the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee in July 1986 has ever been investigated. Although the FBI was thorough in its investigation into the activities of the Arab-American community, it did little to protect them from outside attackers as it originally claimed to be doing.

Zogby explains: "When I appeared before the House I asked the FBI, 'Why do their efforts seem more directed at infringing on the civil rights of Arab Americans than on protecting their rights?' I know the quotation by heart I've had so many recent occasions to ask them the same questions again."

The answers to Zogby's questions are of life and death consequence, especially if one considers the unresolved murder case of Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the ADC. After repeated harassment and threats, Odeh was assassinated in 1985 by a bomb rigged to the door of his office. Although no one has ever been arrested and indicted in this case, Zogby claims that an independent investigation by Robert Friedman as well as leaks from the Jewish Defense League and those inside the government's investigation confirm that Odeh's killer now safely resides in Israel.

The L.A. Eight: A Test of Civil Liberties

On January 26, 1987, when the Reagan Administration was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, six Palestinian immigrants from Jordan, two of whom were permanent residents of the U.S., and the Kenyan born wife of one of them, were arrested in their Los Angles homes. The raid involved 60 members of the FBI, INS and the LA police force. The following week a seventh Palestinian was arrested. All were charged under provisions of Section 241(a) (6) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

This section of the act, known as the McCarren-Walter Act of 1952, was adopted during the McCarthy era and allows for the deportation of alien residents who are affiliated with an "organization that causes to be written, circulated, distributed, published or displayed, written or printed matter advocating or teaching economic, international and governmental doctrines of world communism." In an effort to portray the defendants as "security threats" they were shackled during court appearances. Because bail was set exorbitantly high, the eight remained in maximum security facilities until February 17.

An Afghani woman was severely beaten because of her Arabic T-shirt. Incidents of Gulf-related terrorism, directed against anyone who is not white, point to the ease with which many white Americans connate black and brown people into a single racist image of the enemy.

Although the FBI had hoped to prove a security threat by the eight defendants' membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a faction of the PLO, the INS attorneys were ordered by then Attorney General Edwin Meese not to reveal their evidence in an open courtroom on grounds of national security. Due to lack of evidence the government dropped its charges. Throughout the lengthy court history of the L.A. 8, the government has been unable to present such evidence, which calls into question its existence. Six resident aliens were instead charged with technical visa violations. Still, two permanent residents were charged with "membership or affiliation with a group that advocates property destruction" under another section of the McCarren-Walter Act.

Peace campaign needing direction
No Comment. Austin American Statesman toon.

Throughout two years of deportation and appeals hearings, INS officials repeatedly failed to appear in court to testify on the connection between the arrests and the INS document, "Alien Terrorists and Other Undesirables: A Contingency Plan" (discussed below). Moreover, in February 1989 it was disclosed that the government had used electronic surveillance to eavesdrop on defense/client consultations. A lawsuit over this breach of privacy is still pending.

In two separate decisions - January 26, 1989 and November 17, 1989 - U.S. District Judge Stephan Wilson ruled in a countersuit, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee verses Meese, that the McCarren-Walter Act and section 901(b) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (FRAA) of 1987 were unconstitutionally broad in its restrictions of first amendment rights.

Section 901(b) of the FRAA, specifically allows the government to exclude from entry or to deport aliens who "for reasons of foreign policy or national security" pose a threat to the government, or who are "likely after entry to engage in a terrorist activity" or who "seek to enter in an official capacity as a representative of a purported labor organization where such organizations are in fact instruments of a totalitarian state." In addition, this section of the FRAA specifically allows for the deportation and refusal to grant asylum to both those who "assisted in Nazi persecutions" and "members of the PLO." For this reason section 901 (b) is known as the "PLO Exclusion."

The ADC argued on behalf of six of the L.A. 8 that the existence of such law, effectively "chilled" their ability to exercise first amendment rights and that were it not for these acts, they would indeed be engaged in free speech and assembly activities as members of the PFLP.

In a truly convoluted line of argument, the government contended that since in its thirty-six year history the McCarren-Walter Act had rarely been invoked it posed no "real and immediate threat of prosecution" generally, and further claimed that because McCarren-Walter charges had been dropped against six of the LA 8 it was unlikely that they would face similar charges in the future.

In his decision, however, Judge Wilson cited the government's charging of Hamide and Shehadeh, the other two defendants, under a new set of McCarren-Walter charges as evidence of "the government's desire to utilize the McCarren-Walter provisions against PFLP members."

Although Judge Wilson's rulings extend first amendment rights not just to citizens but all people visiting or temporarily residing in the United States, the government could challenge those rulings in other cases and neither of the acts in question has been officially struck down.

The McCarren-Walter Act, for example, has been used to keep writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Dario Fo and Margaret Randall out of the country, as well as actors Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. Not surprisingly, the government appealed the district court decision and the case remains in the appellate court. The L.A. 8 must live with the unfortunate possibility that the next round of court appearances could end with their deportation.

The INS as a Security Branch

After the L.A. 8 case, judicial scrutiny left most of the McCarren-Walter Act eviscerated. The way in which the United States government would enforce the McCarren-Walter Act escaped relatively unscathed, however.

Designed to facilitate the "expeditious deportation of aliens engaged in support of terrorism," the INS proposed that the Executive Branch implement a Presidential Executive Order "invoking the provisions of the [McCarren-Walter Act] directing the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies to immediately provide INS with lists of names, nationalities, and other identifying data and evidence relating to alien undesirables."

This proposed Order was the first step in a contingency plan designed by INS investigators to aid in the control of terrorists. Because an Executive Order has the power to circumvent previous court rulings on civil liberties, it remains an effective tactic for continuing covert operations, far from the maddening purview of public scrutiny. During WWII, for instance, Japanese internment camps were set up under a presidential executive order. Moreover, an executive order would allow the INS to avoid the problems associated with the general registry of Iranian aliens during the Iranian crisis of the late 1970's.

Called Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan, the 1986 document specifically targets "undesirables" from Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Iran, Jordan, Syria, Morocco and Lebanon. Iraq is noticeably absent from this list. At the time, the U.S. looked more favorably on Iraqis and their leader Saddam Hussein, whom the US supported in his war against what was then our mutual enemy, Iran.

The proposal further recommends that law enforcement "routinely hold any alien [charged with engaging in terrorism] without bond." If an appeal is introduced, the document recommends that "the alien shall remain under the conditions of release imposed by the government pending final resolution of all appeals." As with other proposed actions, the document recommends that these "be immediately published as final rule, without delays inherent in the proposed rulemaking process."

Perhaps most horrifying are the steps outlined to detain resident aliens. If apprehensions reach 500-1000 cases, the INS advises "notification ... to BOP [Bureau of Prisons] of intent to activate the 1,000 bed Oakdale Alien Detention Center for emergency occupancy." Should arrests exceed 1,000, the plan calls for the "Immediate notification, as well in advance as possible, to the Department of Defense as to need for assistance in logistics and facilities."

In other words, the U.S. military would be involved in operating "a site sized to house up to 5,000 aliens in temporary quarters suitable to that southern climate. Once triggered by an emergency, after it has been developed to stand-by readiness, site can be fully activated in 2-4 weeks depending on degree of development."

As discussed above, much of the McCarren-Walter Act that would allow for such flagrant violation of civil liberties was struck down in district court; however, the larger question of whether the L.A. 8 were a test case for the feasibility of some of the suggestions outlined in the contingency plan remains officially unanswered. The uncomfortable fact remains that when the contingency plan was leaked to the press one week after seven of the LA 8 had been arrested, the United States government was caught with its pants down.

The massive detentions and deportations this document proposes paint a bleak picture, reminiscent of both Nazi Germany and WWII concentration camps for Asian-Americans. The incipient anti-Semitism against Arabs, directly following the United States bombing of Libya, showcases how such racism becomes institutionalized. Can the United States government take action in the interest of national security at the expense of our civil liberties? Apparently, through a series of executive orders and post hoc rules, it still can.

In the eyes of the West, terrorism is the last refuge of some desperate Third World fanatic. Yet the United States excels in terrorizing innocent, legal residents and citizens, simply on the basis of their ethnicity. In some cases - the death threats, the beatings - these acts of terrorism seem frenzied and random; a dark by-product of fighting the so-called just war.

The covert actions of the United States government, however, implicitly sanction these seemingly random acts. While the government rebukes this form of terrorism on the one hand, its policies encourage it on the other. If we have anything to learn from the past, this cynical, two-faced approach hardly protects people, but edges ever closer to the wholesale denial of everyone's civil liberties.

Mira, the woman who was visited by the FBI in her home, has already had her first-hand experience with this denial. "If you open your mouth," she said, "you better be prepared for someone to call and question you."