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Monday, 9 September, 2002, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Arab-American view
New York skyline post-11 September
New York has always attracted immigrants

It is no exaggeration to say that the US has changed in a fundamental way following the attacks of 11 September.

The attacks came as a surprise to most people, and resulted in the loss of that sense of security that their country's geographical position and its military power have helped to foster.

The events showed how a small group of young men, with little material capabilities but with a strong adherence to a chauvinistic ideology, can cause huge damage to the position and the economy of one of the most powerful countries.

The conservatives, who had come to power in the US a few months earlier, seized the moment to reinforce and to buttress their social and national security programmes.

No-one who has lived through the events of 11 September can deny that they have resulted in a wave of hostility towards Arabs and Muslims

The attacks confirmed their belief that safeguarding national security cannot be achieved through defending the country's external borders alone, but that it demands a policy of pre-emptive attacks on any country that harbours or encourages any hostile group that uses terror as its modus operandi, even if this means occupying a country and bringing about a change of leadership.

This represents a complete departure from the founding principles of the United Nations Charter, and from an international system based on the respect of national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Naturally, the nations that are candidates for such an attack, or those which have become actual targets, are the ones that the perpetrators of 11 September came from - all of which are Arab or Muslim countries.

Loyalty conflict

This new approach has had ramifications for members of the Arab-American community. They found themselves the subject of suspicion, and their countries of origin either under constant attack or threatened with war.

The Palestinian question, which has a special status with Arabs, seemed to be unravelling while the rest of the world just looked on.

The consequences of this new situation for the first generation of immigrants were significant. They had never imagined when they migrated to the US that one day they would have to choose between loyalty to their new adopted home and loyalty to their home countries.

I know many of those first generation immigrants who, when faced with this choice, decided to return to their original countries because they could not bear to see their adopted country engaged in a war with their home countries.

The problems arising from this conflict of loyalty had to be faced by those who decided to stay. These difficulties were in turn reflected by the only Arab-American association that operates throughout the US, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

This body represents the largest Arab gathering in the country. Its members differed as to what the Arab community's stance should be regarding the events facing the Arabs and their home countries.

Finding a voice

The leadership of the committee wanted to emphasise the American character of the organisation and to maintain its role to empower Arab-Americans, helping them to be more effective through better organisation.

It wanted to work closely with human rights organisations opposed to the new laws that were being introduced by the Bush administration - laws which gave the authorities the power to detain people without charge and to conduct interrogation without the presence of a lawyer.

Many members of the committee, however, wanted to take a firm and clear position on Arab issues. They wanted the organisation to raise its voice against an attack on Iraq and to object to American policy towards Israel (the Palestinian issue being pivotal issue to all Arabs, especially to those members of the organisation who are of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese origins and who form a majority among the membership).

The leadership of the committee argued that taking such positions would isolate it, strain its relations with the Bush administration and hinder its work in the field of human rights.

Despite the fact that the ADC represents the largest Arab-American organisation, its actual membership is very small considering the Arab-American community is estimated to be more than 3.5 million. Only three of every 1,000 of this population belong to its membership. The majority of the larger Arab-American community are not organised and tend to congregate in local social or sectarian clubs and associations.

Even the larger national Muslim organisations do not seem to attract Arab-Americans, who seldom join them. These organisations are run mainly by African-American or Asian-Muslims. Half of all the Arab-Americans had immigrated to the US during the last 20 years.

Religious intolerance

It is rare to see among the members of any of these organisations second or third generation Arab-Americans, which leads me to conclude that Arab-Americans may be among the first to integrate in the American society. That feeling of dual citizenship and dual loyalties seems to concern only the first generation immigrants.

My family is a good case in point. My grandchildren are more American than Arab. And despite their pride in their Arab heritage, they do not find much that can help them to interact with Arab culture.

Even when they are able to speak Arabic, they invariably cannot read it and they find it difficult to relate to Arabic TV, now available on satellite channels. In this regard, they are no different from other communities that have settled in the US.

No-one who has lived through the events of 11 September can deny that they have resulted in a wave of hostility towards Arabs and Muslims. However, it is fair to say that a lot of work went into containing this and limiting it, despite the attempts of the conservatives and Israel's supporters to fan the flames.

Range of backgrounds

The latest in this area is the response of the neo-conservatives to a call by the teachers' union, issued at the start of the school year, for racial and religious tolerance when discussing the events of 11 September. The union argued that Muslims should not be blamed for what happened that day.

Immediately a statement signed by a former US education secretary and by the wife of the US vice-president was issued. It condemned the teachers' union and demanded that students be told that the US has enemies who wish it ill and that they must be confronted.

I do not have any information as to the impact of that statement by the conservatives on schools across the US, but the only school that I am familiar with ignored it.

Perhaps that is because this particular school is in one of America's largest cities where students come from a wide range of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps in other schools which lie outside the big cities the message may have carried some weight.

Professor Rushdi Said has lived in Washington since 1981. He is a former member of the Egyptian Parliament. He is a regular contributor to Egyptian and Arabic magazines.

New York despatches





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