Arab Americans’ Double Jeopardy

— interview with Anan Ameri

ANAN AMERI IS Cultural Arts Director at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Michigan, which serves the Detroit-area Arab community, the largest anywhere outside the Middle East. A native of Palestine, her reflection on Jerusalem, Can I At Least Have My Scarf?, appeared in the November–December 2000 issue of Against the Current (ATC 89). She is a longtime leading activist in the Palestinian-American community and served as the first president of Palestine Aid Society.

David Finkel of the ATC editorial board interviewed Anan Ameri two weeks after the September 11 attack.

Against the Current: Let’s begin with the impact of the crisis on the Arab American community in general. From your vantage point, how are people in the community feeling both about September 11 and about its impact on their own lives and families?

Anan Ameri: I think the Arab community feels that they are going to be victims more than anybody else.

We live in this country. As Americans we share the sadness that so many civilians have died unfairly. You see just how horrible it is, you’re shocked and disbelieving of the magnitude of it. So you share in that sense the vulnerability of the society.

On the other hand, people are worried by the finger—pointing at them in two ways. The ones who did the attack were Arabs, so you’re guilty by association; and then, although the government says it won’t tolerate reprisal hate crimes, they arrest Arab Americans in big numbers and stick their pictures in the papers.

Even if they’re released a week later, and they clearly had nothing to do with it, that’s not as big news as it is when they’re arrested. So people are scared by abuse from the public, and by how widespread the government arrests will be. And they are upset by the practices of the airlines in taking Arabs off the planes.

There’s also a kind of split between Arabs and other communities that comes about when, for example, a Sikh is attacked and says “I have nothing to do with the Arabs.”

ATC: How do you assess the scale of the attacks on Arabs that have taken place? It seems to me the situation is bad but might have been much worse. There are numerous individual attacks but I’ve only heard of one case of mob violence ...

A.A.: I feel that there is so much racism in the public that waits for an opportunity to come out. People seem to take to heart and accept the diverse reality of this country; but when something like this happens you realize there is more racism and prejudice than you had thought.

On the other hand, we received (at ACCESS) so much support mail and messages that it’s really heartening. People have told us, we want you to know that you have friends and supporters. But that’s because we are activists, we’re in touch with our network of friends. I don’t know how much of that support gets through to other Arabs who aren’t part of this broad activist milieu.

There have been Arabs killed—one in Detroit. [The circumstances of this crime have been variously reported, sometimes as a case of the killer’s jealous rage against his former girl friend’s new partner, but this hasn’t been confirmed.] It’s very frightening because Arabs don’t know how far this is going to go.

Sometimes people’s perceptions become their reality. If someone gets killed going to work or a kid is attacked, every Arab or every mother thinks they or their kid will be next. After the Detroit killing, rumors were flying around that five people had been killed. There’s lots of fear, especially among first-generation immigrants.

I was shocked yesterday that on Salina Street, in a 90% Arab neighborhood in Dearborn, a man taking his daughter to school—where 98% of the students are Arabs!—was taken out of his car and beaten.

Remember also that the largest sector we have here, in terms of recent immigrants, came as a result of the Lebanese civil war, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon or the Gulf War—even many of the Yemenis who got kicked out of Saudi Arabia in the Gulf crisis. So these are people whose lives have already been shaken by war—I don’t think that most Americans have any idea what war is really about.

I think about the two buildings in New York, destroyed. All of Iraq is like that! So if you go through all that, and make it over here, and now you think the government is after you, your paranoia becomes all the greater, as well as the fear of what could come next.

People feel that if the United States were to attack any Arab country, the anti-Arab sentiments here would increase; the fear is that this is just the beginning.

ATC: What kind of organized response is coming from the Arab American community in general, and specifically from those of you at ACCESS?

A.A.: A number of organizations in the Arab community are having meetings with government officials, from police to FBI to the State and Justice Departments, to tell them that what is happening is really unacceptable and to make them realize the fear and despair their actions are creating.

Specifically at ACCESS with our cultural arts, health and other services, we are contacting schools to try to reduce tensions, especially among the Iraqi kids who have already been traumatized by the experience of that war.

First of all, if teachers have their own prejudices or biases against Arabs, this will reflect on their relations with them in the classroom. So we are trying to develop relationships—historically we have organized workshops for teachers, now we are trying to intensify our efforts.

We’re concerned about kids in public schools being subject to harassment from other kids, especially where the number of Arab American students is small. So we want to see how we can help both teachers and kids, Arabs and non-Arabs, to deal with this. Prejudice is learned, not in-born.

ATC: Can you say something about the impact of these events on Palestinians in particular?

A.A.: I believe the U.S. government is going to use these sad events in a way to try to settle accounts—as when some among them say this time we are going Saddam Hussein.

They say on the one hand that they’re going to solve the Palestinian issue. But then you see Netanyahu (right-wing former Israeli prime minister) talking to Congress and equating what happened in New York to “the terror we in Israel have gone through for years.”

Even in the last year there are five Palestinians killed for every Israeli! And one-third of the more than 600 Palestinian civilians killed were children.

To compare Hamas in Palestine, or Hezbollah in Lebanon, who have never carried out attacks outside those areas, to the attacks in New York, is absolutely unacceptable. I’m afraid by Bush saying “we are going to settle accounts with all terrorists,” it may mean putting the Palestinian movement on that level.

Israel may also feel free of all restraints. Just yesterday (Sept. 27) they killed five people in Gaza. [This interview was conducted prior to the most recent violent Israeli incursions into Bethlehem, Beit Rima and other population centers—ed.]

The United States in its policies toward Third World countries has been very violent and unprincipled. Bush says, “They hate us because we have democracy.” In fact, U.S. policy all over the Middle East protects oil, not democracy—is Kuwait a democracy? Saudi Arabia? Maybe people hate you because you don’t allow them to have democracy!

If you look at the history of the region, there were two countries where there were Communist parties that were large enough to contend for power—Sudan and Iraq. These were the places where the United States intervened to crush these movements. Whatever you may think of Communism, what do we have in Iraq and Sudan today? And what do we have in Iran, or in Afghanistan?

ATC: Following up on that point, it really seems that fanatical movements have benefitted precisely from this great success of Western and especially U.S. policy in preventing the development of democratic or radical politics.

A.A.: These fundamentalist groups have their connections today because every fanatic in the region, especially from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was recruited by the CIA to go fight in Afghanistan (in the 1980s). The United States has been able to crush many popular or left movements—but it’s harder to crush religion, so that’s where people go instead.

Look at the civil war in Algeria—it’s about secular vs. fanatic Muslims, not against Christians or whatever. So the Muslim world is the most victimized by the rise of the fanatics. The Islamist movements can’t be lumped together either. As I said, you can’t compare Hezbollah to bin Laden.

You know what really worries me now: When I grew up in the Arab world of the 1960s or ’70s, people were talking about Arab nationalism, about socialist ideology. But now the West has created a fight between itself and the Muslim world. That’s not the fight I want to see—and to see a president who is stupid enough to use the word “crusade” without knowing what it means!

ATC: I suspect they’ve got a muzzle on Bush so you won’t hear that again. But this raises the question of the coalition the United States is organizing. Do you think it is going to be stable?

A.A.: This crisis is very different from the Gulf War, for two reasons. First, at that time the Saudi and Gulf regimes all felt directly threatened by Saddam Hussein. Second, the goal was clear: Go to war, defeat Iraq and then leave.

If they had it to do over again, I don’t think these regimes would do the same thing. For one thing the United States promised them it would deal with the Palestinian issue, and failed to do so, or did it in such a biased way that it solved nothing.

The other thing right now is that we don’t really know what the United States wants to do, or even that they’ve decided themselves. And when they say the war is going to have so many phases, it makes it harder for governments in the region to go along in an open-ended fashion. They’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, scared both of the United States and of the terrorists.

I am one of those who believe very strongly that what happened in the Gulf War, and the number of people including children and women who died in Iraq from the past ten years of sanctions, is something the Arab world greatly resents—and so is the Palestinian issue.

America emerged as such a superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and never confronted the Iraqi army except to drop bombs from the sky. And people deeply resent it.

There is so much anger—and the Arab governments know that, and I think that they will want a solution before they sign up to go along with the United States this time. You can push people into a corner just so far.

ATC 95, November–December 2001