Arab-Americans assail rush to judgment

April 25, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

Shortly after a bomb destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City last week and took the lives of at least 80 people, so-called experts on terrorism were saying that the explosion appeared to have been the work of Islamic fundamentalists.

The Pentagon rushed Arab-speaking translators to the blast site to grill suspects. Congressmen threatened military retaliation against any Middle Eastern state found to have been involved. And "suspicious-looking" Arab-Americans were stopped and questioned by police all over the country.

With those incidents in mind, I asked Arab-Americans yesterday if they felt there had been a rush to judgment by our society.

"Yes, there definitely was a rush to judgment, and it was both dangerous and hurtful," answered James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C.

"We watch TV, too," Dr. Zogby continued, his voice shaking. "Our people also felt tremendous grief at the scenes of devastation and death. But in the midst of our grief, we are assaulted by the same old innuendoes and stereotypes, and suddenly we are ripped apart from the communal pain. We can't participate. We are denied the opportunity to grieve like the rest of America."

Representatives of the estimated 2.5 million Arab-Americans and the 5 million to 6 million Muslim-Americans in this country feel stereotyped by both the media and by their neighbors. They note that people of Middle Eastern descent have made contributions to this country that rival those of any other ethnic group. George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, is an Arab-American. There currently are five Arab-Americans in Congress, including Spencer Abraham, a Republican senator from Michigan.

Other notable Arab-Americans include consumer advocate Ralph Nader; Joe Robbie, the former owner of the Miami Dolphins; Dr. Michael De Bakey, the pioneer heart surgeon; Candy Lightner, a founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving; and Air Force Col. James Jabara, one of the country's first jet pilot aces.

"What do we have to do to prove ourselves after all these years?" vTC demanded Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans. "People in our community are as mainstream as anyone else. We're trying to make ends meet, get an education, raise our children, own and operate businesses. But we feel so defenseless, so helpless, when the stereotypes start flying. With today's media, the damage is done so quickly. Yet, trying to reverse those stereotypes is next to impossible."

In hindsight, of course, our first suspicions should not have fallen on Arab-Americans but on angry young white men -- that group whose sense of rage was so recently celebrated in the media after the Republican triumph in the November elections.

The membership of such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, the skinheads, neo-Nazis, militias, and other white supremacist and

anti-government organizations is said to be growing. Acts of violence associated with those groups increased in 1994.

And the bombing in Oklahoma City occurred on April 19, the second anniversary of the federal assault on Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Some of the most extreme anti-government organizations had vowed to get revenge on the federal government for the deaths at Waco, according to law enforcement officials.

The three people in custody in connection with the case have been linked to an anti-government group called the Michigan Militia. To date, only one of the three -- a former Persian Gulf War veteran named Timothy McVeigh -- faces charges relating to the explosion in Oklahoma City.

But the major media outlets have been very careful not to unfairly link all angry white men, or even all right-wing extremists, to the Oklahoma City bombing.

It would be pleasant if other ethnic groups were treated with such sensitivity.

"If you look at the universe of domestic terrorist acts, the preponderance are not caused by Arab-Americans," Dr. Zogby told me yesterday. "Yet, if you asked the average American to name the biggest threat, many would point to us. It is this that enrages and hurts us."

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