Let's show the world the power of freedom

September 13, 2002|By David Nassar

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Inspired by American values, I went to the Arab world a few years ago to promote democracy. I find it ironic that those values now are at risk from the same forces that threaten democracy abroad, and I wonder who has been teaching whom.

Americans this week solemnly and rightly commemorate those who died on Sept. 11. Yet Arab- and Muslim-American families bear an additional loss.

Since Sept. 11, thousands of their fathers, brothers and sons have been detained, and the whereabouts of many are unknown. They came to this country fleeing governments that make people "disappear," and I am sure they thought they would find something different in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I suppose things could always be worse.

As America continues to liberate Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban and al-Qaida, Attorney General John Ashcroft reportedly desires to set up camps for American citizens who may be determined to be a threat. This disclosure early last month did not get much media attention, but it certainly caught the interest of Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Mr. Ashcroft's reported plan would permit the indefinite incarceration of American citizens and summarily strip them of their constitutional rights and access to courts by declaring them enemy combatants.

Japanese-Americans, the last group incarcerated in camps in the United States, have been outspoken in their opposition to recent attacks on civil liberties. This includes President Bush's own transportation secretary, Norman Mineta. Japanese-Americans plan to join with a dozen more ethnic groups and civil rights leaders to march on the Justice Department today to demand that liberties be protected during the war on terror.

So how would I explain this if I went back to the Arab world now? Some there likely would say the Justice Department's current and proposed policies prove that, under threat, liberty is always a luxury. But I refuse to believe that. I still hold fast to the idea that the Bill of Rights is not for when times are easy, but for when they are hard. And not for the people with whom we can all agree, but for those with whom we do not. It is in the protection of those people during those times that the power of freedom to hold a country together is realized.

The solution to our problem today is more democracy, not less. We must engage the Arab- and Muslim-American communities to find the security we seek. First, we must assure them of their liberties. Second, we must engage them as partners. Evidence of this is available simply by comparing the FBI's experiences in Michigan and Florida.

In Michigan, the FBI engaged the Arab- and Muslim-American communities through their houses of worship, leadership and civic organizations. They sought them out as partners and were rewarded with a high percentage of participation in their investigative efforts.

In Florida, the policy was much more aggressive. People were confronted by surprise at home, at work and at their places of worship. This established an atmosphere of fear and embarrassment. Many of these same people come from countries where an unexpected knock at the door from national security often means death.

In the interviews, the FBI helped intensify anxiety by bringing along officials from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, creating the unstated threat of deportation. Naturally, Arab- and Muslim-Americans who heard about this avoided the process. The result: Not only was it possible that valuable information was lost, but Arab- and Muslim-Americans in Florida now feel alienated. One must ask if alienating the very people who might be able to help provide information is the best way to make us safer.

What I do not understand is why I need to make this argument here at home. My country has already learned this lesson. We know from our past mistakes that curbing democracy in the short run makes a weaker country in the long run.

We know that we lead best when we lead by example. Yet until we remember why we value the liberty and freedom we fight for, the irony of preaching it to the Arab world will remain.

David Nassar, who served in Yemen for several years while working for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, is a political consultant.

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