Arab Americans are a part of the country's history
November 27, 2001
I am no stranger to hate mail.
As the executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Mich., I have received more than a thousand letters, e-mails and phone calls since Sept. 11. While the majority of these letters were supportive, I received enough hate mail to make me concerned.
One email said, "The new American motto: Kill all Arabs and wrap them in pigskin." Other people who wrote hateful letters demanded that I return to the country I came from. I replied that I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and that I'm a Vietnam veteran. I'm also a former autoworker, a United Auto Workers union member, a neighborhood activist and an American of Arab descent.
Arabs have been coming to this country in large numbers for more than a century. Ever since they first arrived on U.S. shores they have been greeted with suspicion. Listed as Turkish or Asian when they arrived, many were deprived of the right to own property and the right to vote in those early days. After 1924, during the period when Asians were excluded from immigrating to the United States, many people were not allowed to bring their families to this country to join them. My own great-grandmother found herself in this position when she arrived and was forced to spend several years in Mexico before being allowed to join her husband.
Even after these laws were removed from the books, stereotypes about Arab Americans continued. They took a turn for the worse after the 1967 war in the Middle East when the United States sided with Israel against that country's Arab neighbors. Many people viewed Arabs and Arab Americans as uncivilized oil sheiks, bloodthirsty terrorists and religious fanatics.
What they fail to realize is that Arab Americans have been in this country since the beginning. They came as navigators and as slaves in the early days of American exploration. Some were homesteaders. Some fought in World War I and World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. I know young men from my own neighborhood who fought in the Gulf War.
Arab Americans helped build our nation's labor unions. There are three generations of UAW members in my family, and my father and grandmother were early organizers of the SIU, a major seamen's union. Today, the head of the UAW is an Arab American, Stephen P. Yokich. Arab Americans have been as much a part of the cultural fabric of America as African Americans, German Americans, Polish Americans or Irish Americans.
Since the Sept. 11 attack, there have been more than 500 reported hate-related attacks against Arab Americans. Three Arab Americans have been shot dead, and many more have been stabbed, beaten, threatened and assaulted. Some schools, mosques and businesses have been attacked and have received bomb threats.
At one point following Sept. 11, Congress was talking about special IDs for Arab Americans. Nearly half of the American public said they would support such a legislation, according to polls taken not long after Sept. 11. Profiling based on skin color and ethnic background is now seen as acceptable as it relates to Arab Americans.
In trying times, history has shown that people have condoned discriminatory actions that have stained our past and threatened our democratic way of life. Whether it was the holding camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, the covert FBI war against civil-rights leaders in the 1960s or random acts of violence against people who resembled our current wartime enemies, these acts discredit the nation.
As Americans working together, we can get through this current crisis without racial profiling or immigrant bashing.
In times like these we must remember that our freedom and security cannot be achieved by ending freedom and security for others.
Ismael Ahmed is the executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.