Even under Obama profiling of Arabs in America endures

Arab-Americans had a tough time during Barack Obama's first term. Will better treatment be possible in a second term?

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I testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights last week on the relations between law enforcement agencies and the Arab American and Muslim American communities. This provided an opportunity to lay out the problems that exist, and offer an agenda that would allow the US to move forward.

In a democratic society based on constitutionally guaranteed rights, the role of law enforcement ought to be to help secure these rights for all citizens. But for decades, this has not been the case for Arab Americans.

Government harassment of Arab Americans and Arab student activists in the US - from Operation Boulder in the Nixon era to the broad surveillance programmes against Palestinian student organisations - dates back to the 1970s.

At the same time that law enforcement agencies were violating our rights, too little was being done to protect us when we needed it. Many of our community leaders, myself included, received repeated death threats during those days. My office in Washington was firebombed in 1980. And the offices of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were targeted in the mid-1980s. One of these attacks killed my friend, Alex Odeh, in October of 1985. During this entire time, there was not a single indictment or arrest.

During the Clinton administration, Arab Americans' access to the White House improved, as did official responsiveness to concerns. Then came the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11. They were a dual tragedy for Arab Americans.

But something important happened that hadn't happened before, making it clear that despite the enormity of the crime that had been committed, a new dynamic was at work. Many Americans rallied to our defence. President George W Bush spoke out against hate crimes, as did the Senate and the House of Representatives. Federal and local law enforcement investigated and prosecuted hate crimes, and ordinary citizens defended and protected us, refusing to allow bigots to define America.

As before, my family and I received death threats. But for the first time, the perpetrators were arrested by the FBI, prosecuted by the Justice Department, and convicted and sentenced.

And yet, all was not well during the Bush years.

At the same time that these positive developments were occurring, an entirely different message was being sent by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. In addition to mass deportations and the shameful "special registration" programme, Mr Ashcroft issued new profiling guidelines that created a loophole allowing ethnic, religious and racial profiling, leading to widespread singling out of Arabs and Muslims by a number of law enforcement agencies.

These profiling initiatives made no contribution to making the US more secure. FBI and other officials with whom I have spoken have questioned the effectiveness of profiling, telling me that it wasted time and resources, produced little useful information, and damaged outreach efforts, alienating communities whose cooperation law enforcement needs.

With the election of Barack Obama, Arab Americans had hoped there would be an end to abusive practices, a rollback of controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, and reform of Justice Department profiling guidelines. But none of these changes have happened.

Arab American citizens who have family in Canada or who conduct business in Canada are routinely profiled, and experience disgraceful and humiliating treatment at the hands of Customs and Border Patrol. In New York, police and the CIA have coerced informants, used widespread "ethnic mapping", and spied on innocent people going about their daily routines. The FBI has also used its community outreach programmes to "collect and illegally store intelligence information on Americans' political and religious beliefs" - a clear violation of trust.

There can be no doubt that during the past several decades Arab Americans has made gains and developed relationships with agencies of government that are important to Americans' personal and collective security.

But the negative practices I have noted here threaten to undercut these gains. They create fear in Arab American communities and create suspicion in the broader society. This, in turn, leads to alienation and has the potential to radicalise some. It also leads to an atmosphere where suspicion can grow - making Arab Americans more vulnerable to hate crimes.

I have long argued that Arabs and Muslims are the weak link in America's civil liberty chain. When the rights of vulnerable minority groups are threatened, Americans must demand a halt to abuse. It is worrying that in the post-9/11 era the challenge to constitutional rights has often been met with silence. What Americans have failed to recognise is that if the rights to assemble, to speak freely, to be secure from unwarranted search, and to be guaranteed due process are put at risk for any group, then these rights may ultimately be threatened for all Americans.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa