Ten days ago we observed the one-year anniversary of the terrible attacks on our country of September 11th last year. We remembered the victims and grieved with their families.
There has been much talk about how September 11th “changed everything,” but that statement rings especially true for Arab and Muslim Americans. As the Arab American organization dedicated to defending the rights of the entire community, ADC stands on the front lines of the new challenges we now face.
No one was prepared for the unprecedented assault on everything related to Arabs and Muslims following September 11th. Our community, which generally had been happy to slowly ease itself into American society and was reluctant to engage in many crucial aspects of its civic, educational, cultural and political life, suddenly found itself thrust center-stage. A spotlight of suspicion, fear and ignorance was trained on us. All distinctions were blurred as Al-Qaeda, Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis, Muslim and Christian Arabs, Arab Americans, and Arab culture and history all became collectively cast as “the enemy.” The previously marginalized discourses about a “clash of civilizations” became a common script.
In the first few days following the attacks, cases of violence, discrimination and bigotry, not to mention countless death threats, deluged the ADC headquarters in Washington. Just as alarming and potentially much more dangerous in the long term has been the erosion of civil liberties, with Arab Americans and Muslims, particularly foreign nationals in the United States, bearing most of the burden. While all of us are passionately committed to the security of our country, new policies and laws such as the USA Patriot Act have shown how easily concern for security can be translated into discrimination against Arab and Muslim immigrants, and even American citizens.
It would be understandable to feel overwhelmed with outrage and helplessness. Discrimination and stereotyping have scarred our community. Newspapers and TV talk shows are filled with often unchallenged defamation against Arabs and Islam. Israeli violence against Palestinians increases daily, while the US and the international community turn a blind eye. The Iraqi people wait anxiously for the much-proclaimed American assault.
But is the situation really so hopeless? Can we, the Arab American citizens of the United States, rise collectively to the many challenges we are facing? Can we overcome the impulse to retreat inward, lacking confidence in our ability to make a difference?
I am here today to tell you, without a shadow of doubt, YES! Yes we CAN, and yes we MUST.
As Americans, we are endowed with the same rights and privileges as all other citizens, no matter their ethnicity. More than any other, this nation provides us with tools of empowerment, if only we use them, not as individuals, but collectively.
As ADC members, you are well aware that the vehicle for such an organized effort exists in the form of our organization. While the challenges are daunting, we have had our share of successes thanks to an extremely committed professional staff, and to the many active and dedicated ADC members who work tirelessly on issues of critical importance to our community in addition to the responsibilities of their jobs and families. I will mention tonight some examples of the successes that have come as a result of organized grassroots action, which I believe in the final analysis is where our empowerment lies.
As many of you know, in June, ADC joined three individuals as a co-plaintiff in three lawsuits against American Airlines, Continental Airlines, and United Airlines. The lawsuits concern the ejection of these three men from their flights after they had passed all security checks and had taken their seats on the plane simply because either fellow passengers or flight crews “felt uncomfortable” with them on board because of their appearance. Continental Airlines responded by filing a motion to dismiss us saying that we did not show that ADC members were affected.
At that point the ADC national office legal team worked overtime in attempting to save our case. With the coordination of our Organizing Department, which contacted chapters and members nationwide and by posting our request on ADC.org, you, our members and lifeblood, responded in numbers and have allowed the case to go forward. We very much look forward to winning.
Another success has come in education. September 11 actually opened up opportunities for us in that field as many educators were awakened to their need to understand the Arab and Muslim world. We are finding educational institutions open to our message about Arab Americans and Arab culture and some of our chapters have been effectively engaging with schools. In the last school year, the ADC’s Philadelphia chapter, for example, worked together with local Human Relations Commissions and set up teacher training workshops for the school systems in several counties. They developed an excellent PowerPoint presentation on Islam, which we put on the ADC website, so others can use it as well.
Education benefits everyone: Your children benefit when their cultural background gains respect. Their classmates benefit when their education is broadened. And teachers benefit when their professional skills are strengthened. In the long term, a community which has been properly educated about the Arab world will be less susceptible to cultural stereotyping, less prone to discriminate against Arab Americans, and less willing to support a foreign policy hostile to the people of the Arab world.
Our communications department has been on the frontlines combating defamation and vilification, and putting our case to the American people with logic and composure. Our team of lawyers has provided legal advice and counseling to hundreds of Arab Americans who faced hate crimes, discrimination and detention following the September 11th attacks. They are building through our network of civil rights legal teams across the nation, an edifice for the defense of the liberties of all Arab Americans. We were delighted by the August 2nd ruling by federal District Court Judge Gladys Kessler in another case in which we were co-plaintiffs, ordering the government to release the names of all the detainees it has held secretly since September 11th.
In addition, the past year has seen our membership almost double as our community has begun to respond to our call for collective action. Your generous responses to our fundraising drives have allowed us to hire more attorneys to do the critical civil rights work needed.
Such collective efforts must not however be isolated cases, where we come together only in response to a crisis situation. What is needed is sustained involvement at all levels. The Arab American community is made up of successful and productive citizens — doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and businessmen — at rates far higher than the national average. Where we fall far below the norm is in social, civic, and above all, political participation.
So what exactly does participation entail?
It runs the gamut from Parent Teacher Associations and civic clubs, to cultural activities and festivals at the local and national levels. We have the capability to influence every senator, representative, newspaper and community organization. We have to pay attention to our local papers, and they need to hear from us. We have to be registered voters, and use our power and right to vote to achieve justice and equity.
We have to master the intricacies of local and municipal politics. These are the building blocks of political power in this country. We can never hope to influence Congress without first influencing local party offices, city halls and state legislatures.
We also need to contribute financially to candidates and parties, and this is where we need, perhaps, our most basic change of mind-set. Donating to election campaigns is not part of our way of thinking yet, for a great many reasons, and that is a terrible handicap.
Campaign donations are as American as apple pie. They are a critical aspect of our citizenship, and equally important, of getting our voices heard. A recently released study has shown that Jewish-Americans and pro-Israel interests contributed over $41 million to federal candidates and party committees since 1989. The same report puts Arab-American money at under $297,000 – a ratio of roughly 140 to 1… 140 to 1, and we ask ourselves why our government takes the positions it does!
In order for our voices to be heard and for our concerns to be given serious consideration as opposed to lip service, that ratio has to change. Our absence from the arena of electoral politics must and will end. This demands commitments to both financial activism and a sense of political realism that we have not traditionally embraced. Especially as we get started, we cannot demand perfection from candidates we support and cannot allow the ideal to be the enemy of the good.
I am here to tell you tonight in no uncertain terms that ADC is growing, ADC is healthy, ADC is open and transparent. Some people have taken issue with our aggressive program to seek empowerment. Yes, it’s true — we believe in working within the system, because that is what will produce the change we seek. Even when we find ourselves in opposition, and we all too often do, we must still use the tools provided us as American citizens WITHIN this system to express that opposition. Let’s be clear: ADC is not a social movement nor is it a political party. It is an umbrella civil rights organization that seeks to provide a home and a voice for Arab Americans of all religious affiliations, political opinions, social classes and lifestyles, and successfully advance our collective consensus views on the most fundamental issues of concern to our community. ADC is here to bring us altogether to achieve our most important goals.
So as you go back to your cities and towns tonight, I would like to leave you with some thoughts to consider. We all need to engage in the civic, political, cultural and educational life of our communities. We need to know our community and local political leaders, and they need to know us. We have to give support and to withhold support where appropriate. We need to be a source of help to our senators and congressperson, or a source of headache. He or she needs to feel your presence and miss your absence. The November elections are just around the corner, and 2004 is not far behind. Let us coordinate, plan and deliver our votes as the precious commodity that they are. Let us contribute to our PAC, the NAAA-ADC PAC, to make our mark. Let us put an end to the era of taxation, without representation, that we ourselves volunteered for by not participating.
Our strength can only come in numbers. We need to increase our membership and I would like to therefore alert you to a membership campaign we are initiating in the very near future. It is called “The Power of One,” and simply asks every ADC member to take the responsibility of adding one new member. Information will be mailed to all of you asking for your participation and our website will be announcing the launch of the campaign soon. Increasing our membership is critical for many reasons, but let me offer a critical one you may wish to ponder: Our community has obviously been harmed by Arab and Muslim voices of extremism and intolerance. These voices have been eagerly seized on, promoted and exploited by their hate-filled counterparts in United States who would seek to portray all of us as the enemy. We cannot allow the fanatics on both sides to define the overwhelming majority of us who believe in moderation, openness, reason and tolerance. Unfortunately this majority is for the most part silent. That cannot continue. We must all rise and reclaim our voice and identity. That is why it is so important that our membership reflect the size and scope of this majority, and “The Power of One” campaign will help us, by our sheer size as an organization, to demonstrate the dominance of this majority in our community. The battle has only just begun. I urge you to join us, and recruit others to join us, in this battle. We can only win it with your support. Discrimination and stereotyping of our community will not disappear on its own. US foreign and domestic policies will never change based on the justice of our cause alone. Over 50 years of frustration and despair have taught us that. It is time to take matters into our own hands, stand up as a united community of Arab Americans, demand and utilize the many rights this great nation bestows on us, and seriously begin the process of empowering ourselves.