A war on terror, not a war on Muslims

Posted: Feb 27, 2006 12:05 AM
“If I see someone come in and he's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.” -- Rep. John Cooksey of Louisiana

There is a dangerous theme emerging in the post September 11 era. It’s the frightening willingness for our citizens and our leaders to treat foreigners as threats to national security, solely because they are of Middle Eastern descent. This anti-Arab bigotry rears its ugly head in the mass media’s tendency to portray terrorists as exclusively Muslim. We see it in the ethnic profiling that goes on in airports and in our cities. We see it in the rise in hate crimes against Arab Americans. Worst of all, we see it in the public’s willingness to peel away the civil liberties of Arab Americans. According to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, 68% of those surveyed favored the ethnic profiling of Middle Easterners. In other words, they favor treating all Middle Easterners as inherently suspect, despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of Middle Easterners are terrorists. Forget the Constitution. The Arabs are coming, the Arabs are coming seems to be the new national slogan.

This new strain of anti-Arab racism is exemplified by the hubbub that greeted the United Arab Emirates plan to take over shipping operations at six U.S. ports. The operations had previously been rented out to a British navigation company. No one had a problem with that. Nor does anyone have a problem with ports being rented to other countries, which they are. Legislators are only exhorting the President to block Arabs from taking over operations at the ports. To his credit, the president has said those who oppose putting the United Arab Emirates in charge of operations need to "step up and explain why a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard."

The response has been predictable: the Arabs are coming; the Arabs are coming, exclaim legislators from both sides of the aisle. The fearful response only makes sense if the United Arab Emirates deal represents some sort of imminent threat to national security. It does not. The security of the ports would continue to be overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard, and that many of the port workers would be Americans. Consequently, the change in management will have no discernable effect on security.

So why are legislators so eager to block the deal, and to deny Arab individuals the equal protection of the laws? It seems pretty clear that they are being swayed by a rote fear of Muslims. This is not surprising. During World War II Japanese Americans were rounded up and hauled off to internment camps. Their internment was cloaked in nationalism. But we now know they presented no legitimate threat to national security, and the stripping of their civil liberties was fueled by racist ideology.

Granted, refusing to let Muslims manage port operations is not nearly as open, flagrant or egregious as the internment of Japanese during World War II. But the knee-jerk response to the Arab Emirates deal does smack of the same xenophobic fear. The fact is that prior to September 11, Americans were not terribly concerned with terrorism. But following an attack on American soil, many Americans are now afraid of future attacks by people already inside of our borders. The same sort of fear permeated the public following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In both cases, fear has led to hostility toward a particular ethnic group.

The sad thing is how eager our Congressmen are to capitalize off of this anti-Muslim fear and prejudice. Appealing to the post September 11th surge in patriotism, our legislators spew anti Arab vitriol. They urge us to stand up and rail against the Arab Emirates plan to take over shipping operations at six U.S. ports. They do not reserve this treatment for the other countries that manage U.S. ports. Just the Arabs are denied equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Constitution. Just the Arabs are singled out as a threat. Just the Arabs are singled out for unfair treatment. The Arabs are coming! The Arabs are coming, exhort our leaders. It’s amazing how willing our leaders are to sell out our constitutional principles in order to coral a few votes. But it’s just plain sad how willing people are to devour these paranoid delusions.