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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

BLITZER: Welcome back to Late Edition.
President Bush insists the war against terrorism not directed at Islam or Arabs in general, but many American Muslims and Arabs aren’t convinced, and they’re concerned about discrimination and a growing number of hate crimes against them.
Joining us now, from New Orleans, California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, he’s a member of the House International Relations Committee; in Los Angeles, Hussein Ibish of the American- Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee; and here in Washington, Michael Weisskopf, senior correspondent for Time magazine who’s reported extensively on this issue.
Gentlemen, welcome to Late Edition.
And, Hussein Ibish, let me begin with you. How serious of a problem is this discrimination, hate crimes against American Arabs and American Muslims?
HUSSEIN IBISH, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, AMERICAN-ARAB ANTI- DISCRIMINATION CMTE: Well, I think it’s pretty serious. I think, in terms of ethnic hatred and a community, an ethnic community, which is under suspicion and which is, you know, treated differently in the United States, I think the Arab-American and American Muslim communities are clearly the most egregious case of that right now.
Following September the 11th, we confirmed over 700 violent incidents involved in the backlash against Arab-Americans. And that number has been steadily declining, but we still face a major problem with employment discrimination and profiling, a major problem with the kind of discourse in our society. The way in which Arabs, Arab culture and Islam is discussed in our media, in our society, I think, often does sort of promote fear, suspicion, sometimes even hatred.
And I think, also, the government has sent a mixed message. I mean, on the one hand, the government’s been very good about fighting hate crimes and discrimination when committed by private individuals or by corporations. But some of the government’s own policies, particularly immigration-related policies, have sent a mixed message, because some of these policies are clearly discriminatory. And so I think that that’s another element of the problem that’s making life very, very difficult for a lot of people.
BLITZER: Congressman Issa, you are an American, of course, of Arab ancestry, of Lebanese ancestry. You were profiled and prevented from getting on a plane shortly after September 11. There was an FBI investigation of a JDL, a Jewish Defense League, plot personally against you; arrests were made.
How serious is this problem, from your vantage point?
REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: Well, first of all, I think the one thing that we are seeing, Wolf, is that the incidence of behavior which is very inappropriate are going down. They peaked in September, they’ve been going down steadily. So, from 10 a day, they’re now less than 10 a month in California. And I think that’s a sign of the leadership President Bush applied to saying this is not about Islam, this is not about residents of the United States, this about a small group of zealots that committed an atrocity against America.
I think that we have to separate, though, most importantly, the difference between prejudice and discrimination. The president is fighting prejudice, by helping people to understand that this is a group of ideologues and not, in fact, a religion. Discrimination is a law-enforcement job, and I believe the attorney general and all law enforcement are being applied pretty fairly to go after discrimination, when it crosses the line from free speech of being upset about September 11, to actions which are illegal or inappropriate.
BLITZER: Michael Weisskopf, you’ve done a lot of reporting on this. Now where does it stand? Has there been a significant decline in these hate crimes against Americans who are Muslims or Arabs since September 11?
MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, “TIME” MAGAZINE: That’s true, and the records reflect that.
We need a little historical perspective here, though, Wolf. Of course, every hate crime, every act of prejudice is intolerable. But historically this is a very different period than other times in this country when we have felt under attack. We don’t see internment camps, as the Japanese suffered in World War II. As far back as the ’20s, after World War I, we had an attorney general who was leading the campaign against people of Asian descent, called the “yellow peril” at the time. We have now on the books strong laws, hate crime laws. And we have in office people making unprecedented remarks about the need for tolerance and no hate crimes.
These are all benchmarks of a society that needs to be credited with a little bit more elasticity and tolerance.
IBISH: I’d like to agree with Michael on that. I mean, I think one of the lessons that we can draw from the post-September 11 experience is that the vast majority of the American people have proven once again their basic decency, their commitment to tolerance and essentially living together as one people, regardless of race and ethnicity and religion et cetera.
But there is still a minority that does indulge in hate crimes, that does express discrimination through employment discrimination and other forms of discrimination.
And there is a problem, there really is a problem with our discourse about the Middle East, about Arabs, about Islam. The kind of hostility that is permissible as legitimate commentary in the mainstream media, in some of our major newspapers, on some of your cable news competitors, Wolf, is really extraordinary. There seems to be a license in American media, for example, to say hostile and abusive things and to express not just prejudice, but even hostility, toward Arab- Americans, especially when it comes to issues of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, that is quite extraordinary.
I think it was a remarkable moment when the House Republican leader, Dick Armey, called for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. I can’t see that as separated from an overall climate that allows a certain high level of negativity about Arabs and Muslims that isn’t usually applied to other groups.
ISSA: Wolf?
BLITZER: Congressman, go ahead.
ISSA: Well, Dick Armey personally sought me out on the floor to express his regret for those statements and to express how he shouldn’t have done it, and he regrets it. He has apologized repeatedly. I think human failures that occur, when we’re talking as we’re doing here today, need to be understood in context.
I think I’d like to comment, though, on this constant perception we have that somehow the media is being biased. The media is exercising the First Amendment rights we are all given. And I think that if we try to go too far in saying, well, one station is doing one extreme and the other is being biased the other way, if we don’t encourage both sides to be expressed, then what happens is we say, well, we have to have what we think is right.
There are people on television and radio today who are saying things I object to, and there are people on television and radio saying things that the other side objects to. And that’s what America is about. That part of the First Amendment we have to hold on to, while in fact making sure that beyond free speech, actions are limited to those allowed under the law.
BLITZER: Hussein, do you want to respond to that?
IBISH: Yes, I agree with that. I’m certainly not calling for censorship. I think, you know, everyone is free to express their views, and commentators are paid to do so. What I’m saying is that we hold different standards for different groups of people. And there are standards that editors and people who run various different television companies and different magazines and different newspapers are using that are really being differently applied in the case of Arabs and Muslims. Things can be said about Arabs and Islam and considered legitimate commentary in mainstream publications that purport to be responsible and that usually are responsible that wouldn’t be allowed in other cases.
So what I’m — I’m not asking for, you know, censorship, but for responsibility. I am saying that there is a problem with our discourse in this country that we need to be self-critical about, I think.
BLITZER: Michael, there’s no denying that the 19 hijackers, all of them were Arabs, all of them were Muslims, all of them fit a profile, if you will — young, men, single, here in the United States on visas, maybe here illegally.
What’s wrong, as, for example, Congressman Scott McInnis, a Republican of Colorado, saying what he said to me late last year? He said, “These hijackers, we knew that they were all in a certain age group. We knew that they were all male. We knew that they were all Arab. We knew that they were of the Islamic faith. When you put all those factors together, you are darn right, you better pull those people aside and start asking some questions,” in defense of profiling, if you will.
WEISSKOPF: Those kind of comments lead to stereotyping, and that’s what we want to avoid. All those facts may be accurate, but they have to be enforced with a certain amount of discretion. When Attorney General Ashcroft seeks to interview all visa holders from that part of the world, as he did months ago, this further leads to the stereotype.
Unfortunately, we have to, in a war footing, as we’re now on, have to exercise a certain amount of enforcement, and it’s a question of how — to what extend it’s enforced, the degree of it.
BLITZER: All right, stand by. We’re going to take a quick break. We’re going to continue our conversation with the congressman also. Please stand by.
For our international viewers, special coverage of the French elections is just after the break.
For our North American viewers, we’ll continue our conversation with our panel, take your phone calls.
Late Edition will be right back.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: Welcome back to Late Edition.
We’re continuing our conversation about anti-Arab sentiment in the United States with Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Michael Weisskopf of Time magazine.
We have a caller from Texas. Go ahead with your question, please.
CALLER: Hello.
BLITZER: Go ahead.
CALLER: Yes, this is for Mr. Issa and Mr. Ibish. I lived in California for a while, and I was familiar with the media, lived in Malibu for 30 years. And the media, as far as I can see, definitely has a pro- Israel tilt. Like Wolf Blitzer, for instance. He’s not elected like Darrell Issa. Darrell Issa is a…
BLITZER: All right. I guess, he just — we either cut him off or we lost him. But I have to confess, I have not been elected to any job.
(LAUGHTER)
Let me start off with you, Congressman. What do you think about the pro- Israel tilt, supposedly, in the mainstream news media?
ISSA: Well, first of all, I think America — there have been polls, Gallup polls just out today — America has a tendency to be pro-Israel. So if the media somewhat reflects what’s going on with its constituency, there’s nothing unusual about that.
Second of all, please, Wolf, do not come to my district and run against me. It could be quite a challenge.
(LAUGHTER)
BLITZER: There’s no such threat.
Let me ask Michael Weisskopf. He’s a respected member of the national news media. Time magazine a critically important publication in the United States. How much of an anti-Arab, if there is an anti- Arab, bias is there?
And I got to tell you — and I’m sure you get the same kind of e- mail I get — we’re hammered all the time that we’re either pro- Israeli or anti-Israeli or pro-Arab, anti-Arab. We get hit from all sides.
WEISSKOPF: American reporters, like rest of society, are somewhat culture bound, and we reflect, often, popular views. Often, those views are wrong. And this — we are learning the rules engagement as we go along, about the Arab and Muslim community, just as we did about the evangelical community or, years ago, about the Jewish community. There’s certain sensitivities that come up, and we learn about them and check them.
However, I have to say, although you weren’t elected, you served in the Middle East. And American reporters in the Middle East generally begin to identify with the underdog in this story. Ask the Israelis, for instance, what kind of a pro-Israel tilt there may be in American reporters, or pro-Arab tilt, and you you’ll hear, probably, from them that American reporters are, by and large, overly critical, they scrutinize us too much and they hold…
BLITZER: All right.
WEISSKOPF: … them against our standards.
BLITZER: Hussein Ibish, as you know, the Israelis are always complaining that the mainstream American news media is anti-Israel.
IBISH: Yes, because there are basically professional reporters, who are doing the reporting and are reporting most of the basic facts, and some of those reflect negatively on Israeli policies and people don’t want any negative news about Israel.
Right now, I think there are a lot of supporters of Israel who regard any criticism of any Israel policies or the mention of any facts that reflect negatively on Israel as kind of a sign of a deep abiding anti- Semitism or hostility to Israel. That’s not fair.
But on the broader point about anti-Arab sentiment in the American media, I’d like to say, it’s sort of reflective, I think, of a growing alienation between Arab societies generally and American society generally. And you see same kind of effect in Arab media, with a lot of irresponsible commentary and reporting about the United States.
And I think we’d really like to appeal to both the American press and the Arab press to be more receptive to each other’s point of view and take a more responsible role. I think that they are, in a sense, fueling a growing and very dangerous alienation between the Middle Eastern and American societies that frightens me a great deal.
ISSA: Wolf?
BLITZER: Go ahead, Congressman Issa.
ISSA: Yes, one of the things that — because I do meet so often with both Arab-American and Lebanese-American groups, and, as you know, about three quarters of America are Lebanese Christians. And more often from all these groups, but maybe more often those who have been here a little longer, what I’m seeing from these groups is almost the same thing that America is asking for, which is, don’t unfairly profile people, but hey, just because I’m a Lebanese-American doesn’t mean that I’m not concerned on an airplane, looking around, wondering if there’s somebody there who means to do us wrong.
And so I get a lot of positive support from within the American community of Lebanese and other Arabic descent that they don’t want to be treated wrong, but they don’t want to be left unprotected. And I think it’s that balance that the administration’s trying to achieve.
IBISH: I strongly agree with that. We want security too.
(CROSSTALK)
BLITZER: I just want to bring in Michael Weisskopf on this other issue that developed this week, but it’s part of a continuing pattern. The justice department, U.S. attorneys out there, going after charities, supposed charities, alleging that these are really — mostly Islamic or Arab charities — front groups for what the State Department would regard as terrorist organizations, whether Hezbollah or Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
How much of a problem is this, though, for legitimate Arab and Muslim charities out there, when they have the Justice Department really going in and taking such a close look at all these various groups?
WEISSKOPF: It’s pretty simple. All they have to do is open their books and show where the money goes. In these cases, there was a money trail leading to terrorist groups or terrorist supporters, and this justified, in the eyes of the Justice Department, these type of activities.
This goes to the issue of discretion again, and I believe this Justice Department is using a great deal of it before it makes decisions like that. BLITZER: All right. Unfortunately, we have to leave it right there. Michael Weisskopf, Congressman Darrell Issa, Hussein Ibish, thanks to all three of you. An important discussion on this very important issue this week. Appreciate it very much.
When we return, your letters to Late Edition, plus Bruce Morton’s essay.