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Beware Thy Neighbor?

By Alia Malek '96

As the world drew a collective breath on the morning of September 11, 2001, everywhere transfixed by the images that had hijacked our televisions, hijacked our lives, I remained paralyzed, unsure when I would breathe free again. My thoughts first had turned to the many friends I have in New York City. As my mind raced through a catalog of people and locations, I overheard the voices of TV commentators uttering "terrorism" and "terrorists." With these words I was quickly stripped of my participation in the collective shock, pushed to the sidelines of a nation grieving, and herded into the group of the "collectively guilty." My thinking was forced to shift from, "Did anyone I know get hurt?" to "Will anyone I know now be hurt?"

All my life, "terrorist" was a word used fairly interchangeably with "Arab" or "Muslim," whether in public discourse, the media, people's homes, or at school (a habit that has only abated slightly because of politically correct contrition felt after the racist and mistaken blaming and detention of Arabs following the tragedies of Oklahoma City in 1995 and TWA Flight 800 in 1996). In fact, "terrorist" was so often the only word used to refer to Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Libyans, Egyptians, and other Arabs overseas. Oddly absent from any discourse was the hyphenated (and apparently mythical) creature, the Arab-American--absent in pop culture, the nightly news, my high school courses in U.S. history.

Malek, here in West Beirut, Lebanon, has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East.
Photo by James Forman, Jr.
As someone with Arab grandparents and Arab-American parents and siblings, as someone who is an Arab-American, I had no choice but to feel personally implicated, as if these discussions about terrorists were about me. Like the child who is harassed and maligned by some nickname that he simultaneously hates yet instinctively responds to, I cannot help but listen up when I hear the word "terrorist."

Knowing that the rest of American society has been similarly privy to the dehumanization of Arabs without being exposed, as I was, to a beautiful culture and history, my next feeling could be none other than sheer panic. As during any crisis in the Middle East that pitted the U.S. "against" the Arab/Muslim world (the most memorable to me being the Gulf War), I immediately knew, with a foresight shared by every Arab-American in this country but that amazed so many of my non-Arab friends, that the next victims in this unfolding tragedy would be Arab and Muslim Americans, or anyone with the misfortune of "seeming" to be one.

As a civil rights lawyer, I know I will be greeted daily with too many reports of hate crimes, from vandalism to murder, and of discrimination--on airplanes, at work, in business dealings--against the Arab/Muslim/South Asian communities. What I do not know is, will the victim's name ever be one I recognize?

With all this, it becomes inevitable that the chilling specter of Japanese-American internment during World War II lingers, nagging in the back of my mind. I have watched "brown" Americans forced on the defensive, rushing to affirm their allegiance and their American-ness, almost apologizing for the tragedy as if we share the blame.

This absurdity strikes me as tragic, yet this fear on the part of Arab-Americans is not just collective hysteria: The results of a poll recently reported in the Boston Globe show that almost half of all Americans think Arabs in this country should carry special identification cards. A different poll described by the Associated Press shows that one-third of those Americans surveyed support the creation of internment camps.

I am angered as I watch members of the media prey on a fear of "sleepers" (the strategy reportedly used by Osama bin Laden of planting terrorists in the U.S, and having them assume an "ordinary" American existence until being "activated"). Just days after the tragedy, metrobuses in Washington, D.C. ran ads placed by Washington Mutual that featured the picture of a Middle Eastern man and read, "Worry About Your New Neighbors, Not About Your Loan." National Review senior editor Richard Brookheiser had the audacity to write that because of the sizable Arab-American population in Detroit, "there were certainly more people [there] who knew of the attack ahead of time."

Words and images like these insidiously suggest that the Arab enemies among us might seem "civilized," but in the end their ultimate allegiance is to our destruction. Best to recognize them now: They are the "ethnic" people living next door. Or sitting on the plane next to you.

Beyond my fear for the physical safety of those in the Arab/Muslim communities, I fear the cost of "national unity," of the message that you are either "with us or against us." Will it become "unpatriotic" then to acknowledge the suffering of those characterized as "against us"? To urge a more just and less partisan U.S. participation in the developing world? To speak of Arabs, Muslims, and others in terms not so black and white as good guys and bad guys?

My work in human rights and sustainable development has taken me deep into the developing or "third" world, and privileged me with eye-opening exposure.

After being in the refugee camps of Gaza, seeing the maimed untouchables of India, and spending time in the West Bank watching American-made Apache helicopters rain American-made bombs on civilians as innocent as those in the World Trade Center, I am frustrated by our nation's isolationism, our dabbling in human rights, and our valuing of some lives over others.

But now, I see us at a crossroads. Will what we gain from the horrors of September 11 be the empathy to see those "against" us--including the 5,000 Iraqi children who die monthly under a sanction regime--as more than just, in the words of Madeline Albright, "collateral damage"? Will we even pause, in our response, before causing the deaths of even more innocent civilians?

I am waiting, hoping, and praying. And I am still holding my breath.

Alia Malek '96 is an attorney in the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice. The views in her essay do not necessarily represent the views of the Justice Department.

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