Dr. James Zogby, President, Arab American Institute: September 11 and the Arab American Community

July 28, 2003
Dr. James Zogby, President, Arab American Institute: September 11 and the Arab American Community

For approximately fifteen minutes on the morning of September 11, 2001, the prevailing sentiment in America was disbelief. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center? On a perfectly clear morning? Incredible. It was only after United Airlines Flight 175 sliced into the south tower of the WTC at 9:03 a.m. that the incredible was transformed into horrifying reality and one word, "terrorism," came to dominate all subsequent conversation.

In the days that followed, as Americans learned that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born extremist, was suspected of masterminding the attacks and that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were themselves Saudis, incomprehension turned to anger and, in many cases, blind hatred. As had happened after the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, cruel, unthinking individuals indiscriminately lashed out at and, in many cases, assaulted Arab and Muslim Americans for no other reason than the fact they could. 

In May, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community, about the backlash against Arab and Muslim Americans after the 9/11 attacks, the efficacy of ethnic profiling as a counterterrorism tactic, social development as a democratizing force in the Arab world, and the importance of finding a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Zogby co-founded and has served as president of AAI since 1985. For the past three decades he has been involved in a full range of Arab American issues, first as co-founder of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in the late 1970s and later as co-founder and executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

He currently serves on the Human Rights Watch Middle East Advisory Committee and the national advisory boards of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Forum and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In January 2001, he was selected by President Bush to be a member of the Central Asian-American Enterprise Fund and serves on its board of directors. He also hosts a weekly television show called Viewpoint with James Zogby and writes "Washington Watch," a weekly newspaper column.

Zogby received a bachelor of arts degree from Le Moyne College. In 1995, Le Moyne awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree and in 1997 named him the college's outstanding alumnus. He is married to Eileen Patricia McMahon and is the father of five children.

Philanthropy News Digest: Thanks for joining us this morning, Dr. Zogby. Tell us, where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001?

James Zogby: I was here in Washington. I'll never forget it. My car radio was broken, and I was crawling down Connecticut Avenue. Then, at a traffic light, I looked to my left and the woman in the car next to me gestured for me to roll my window down. "What happened?" I said. And she said, "Didn't you hear? A plane crashed into the World Trade Center." I said, "Oh my God, what was it?" And she said, "I don't know, but my father works in the building." Then the light changed, and she drove on. I'll never forget the look of horror on her face.

I finally made it to my office and, like everyone else, watched events unfold on television. We're only a block from the White House, and they tried to evacuate us when the Pentagon was hit. We couldn't leave, however, because we were getting phone calls from Arab Americans all over the country asking us what they should do. People were frightened. And then we started to get threatening phone calls and e-mails. So the morning was memorable in many, many ways, both personally and in terms of the community we serve.

PND: After the second plane hit the World Trade Center, did you assume there would be a backlash against Arab and Muslim Americans?

"...It wasn't even a question of assuming — the backlash [against Arab Americans] started right away...."

JZ: It wasn't even a question of assuming — the backlash started right away. People have asked me if I suspected terrorism after the first tower was hit, and the answer is no, I didn't. I had no idea what was going on. I was focused on the tragedy that was unfolding and thinking about the fear that everyone in that building must have felt. Then we got our first phone calls, people saying things like, "You must be happy now," or "You bastards did it," et cetera. Even though the first direct threat against my life didn't come until the next morning, it became clear to us early on that this was going to be a problem for our community.

Unfortunately, it's not new; it's happened before. The period after the Oklahoma City bombing was a pretty horrifying time in terms of the threats and overall backlash. It's something we've come to expect. There's a certain tragedy in that for us, because in addition to the trauma being experienced by everybody, we are denied the right to mourn like the rest of America. I mean, I'm watching events unfold, I'm in shock and grieving just like everybody else, and then somebody calls and says, "You bastard, we'll get you," or "We know where you are and we know where your children are." Besides causing you to look over your shoulder all the time, it has the effect of isolating you from your fellow citizens, and that's painful. 

PND: How many incidents of violence against Arab or Muslim Americans were recorded in the months following the attacks?

JZ: I was asked to testify before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on October 12, and I presented them with the first month's tally, which included about four hundred acts that we were able to verify. The actual number was most probably higher, since there was a lot of non-reporting and some conflicting accounts that we didn't include. We were careful to make sure the reports we counted in our tally had been either recorded with various law-enforcement agencies or had been reported in the press. The daily tally was quite high in the first few days, but then dropped rather significantly after about two weeks. The spike occurred in the first three or four days, as it had after Oklahoma City, even before it was clear that it was Arabs who had been responsible.

PND: What did your organization do in those first few weeks to mitigate the backlash against Arab and Muslim Americans?

JZ: Well, early on I found myself doing four or five news shows a day —— the Today show had me on fairly often, as did the Evening News with Tom Brokaw, ABC, CNN, and others. And that gave me an opportunity to talk about our community, our history, our experiences —— the fact that there were Arab Americans who had died in the attack on the towers, there were Arab Americans who were on the planes that were hijacked, there were Arab Americans who were first responders. There was a Zogby, a New York police officer, who risked his life and went into one of the towers as a first responder. People needed to know that; they needed to know that Arab Americans are Americans first. My family has been in this country for a hundred years. When people wrote, "Why don't you go back where you came from?" I wanted to say, "What? Utica, New York? Hazelton, Pennsylvania?"

But thanks to those opportunities, we were able to speak to literally tens of millions of Americans, and that eventually resulted in a change in attitude as reflected in the e-mails we received. On the first day, for example, we received a few hundred e-mails, and they were split pretty much half and half. The few that were threatening we turned over to law enforcement. But we answered all the others, even the angry, nasty ones, because we felt it was important to engage in those conversations. Then, after our managing director and I started appearing on national news shows, the number of threatening and angry e-mails dropped to a very small percentage of the more than one thousand messages we were receiving daily.

We also designed educational material. We sent literally hundreds of thousands of pieces to school boards and school districts that requested them. We worked with the Department of Education, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers. We worked with the Community Relations Division of the Department of Justice. We produced two ads with the Ad Council — one for television and one that appeared in print — that were very successful in spreading the message of tolerance and urging respect for Arab Americans. So we were engaged in a full range of activities, all of which grew out of what we learned in the first few days.

PND: After 9/11, the U.S. government detained roughly twelve hundred people, most of them male and from the Middle East or South Asian countries. Later the department implemented a mandatory registration policy for certain non-immigrant aliens from twenty-five countries, again mostly from Arab or Muslim countries. What was AAI's position in regard to those policies?

"...This policy of profiling, this confusing of immigration policy with counterterrorism policy, is troubling...."

JZ: We did not support them, for a couple of reasons. First, we felt that they were not effective law-enforcement tools; and second, we believed they further stigmatized a community that needed to be better understood, not demonized. This policy of...profiling, this confusing of immigration policy with counterterrorism policy, is troubling and, in our view, was more about public relations than a serious effort by the Department of Justice to combat terrorism. If you look at the Inspector General's report, as well as those that have been done by independent civil liberties and human rights groups, you can see that the detentions and all of the other Department of Justice initiatives had very little to do with terrorism. For example, only three people out of the twelve hundred detained originally were held on material witness counts. It was never even suggested that the rest had anything to do with terrorism. And most of the people who ended up being deported were given little opportunity to appeal or to be represented by legal counsel.

The voluntary registration program resulted in something like seventy thousand immigrants being questioned and a few hundred individuals being deported for technical visa violations. Out of those seventy thousand, the Department of Justice reported that eleven were determined to have some link with terrorism. Eleven. And when you ask them what the link is, they say they can't divulge that. Based on earlier claims made by the DoJ, but disproven by the Inspector General and GAO reports, I'm not sure I believe that. For example, when the DoJ claimed that sixty-two people had been detained in New Jersey as a result of links to terrorism, it turns out that fifty-eight of them had cheated on an English exam.

So, again, in our view these are not effective law-enforcement tools. What they do, instead, is create fear in my community and create suspicion about my community among the broader public. The public ends up saying, "Gee, if the attorney general is rounding up and questioning all these people, if they're all being deported, then there must be a problem there." It only serves to confuse and create suspicion. And that troubles us.

But not just us. Law-enforcement people are troubled as well. We have friends within the FBI and local police departments who have objected to these policies and have come to us and said, "Look, we know what needs to be done, and we want to build a relationship with your community." Actually, we've had great relationships with law enforcement — relationships we didn't have before 9/11. And that's because we all want to work together to prevent this from happening again. Unfortunately, the people in law enforcement who share our view and are sympathetic to our community are being ordered to do things they know will waste their time and damage the relationships that have been established since 9/11.

PND: Do you believe the lessons of September 11 —— foremost among them that a small group of determined individuals can inflict catastrophic casualties on a civilian population —— make it necessary to recalibrate the balance between civil liberties and national security? And do you feel the federal government has struck the right balance in its response to 9/11?

JZ: No, I don't think the balance between civil liberties and national security needs to be recalibrated, and I don't think the federal government has struck the right balance. Look, one thing we all know from experience is that the mosquito that buzzes isn't the one that bites. The guys responsible for the September 11 attacks came here with a mission. They came here and secreted themselves in our society. They weren't the guys preaching down at the mosque. They weren't political activists or community organizers. They didn't settle down and find jobs and put their children in school or see their future here. They not only had no roots here, they were specifically instructed not to develop roots, not to go to mosque, not to behave like believing Muslims, not to become involved in their local communities.

And yet the instructions given law-enforcement agencies so far is to go after the guys they know aren't the problem. Well, we don't have that many law-enforcement resources, and we have to be careful how we use them. At the same time, despite the best efforts of the terrorists, it appears that law enforcement had a lot more intelligence available to them and could have connected the dots if there had been some interdepartmental cooperation. So do we need to recalibrate? No. What we need to do is refine the way we do our intelligence work and develop better cooperation among the various intelligence agencies.

PND: Was the war in Afghanistan justified?

JZ: When the president first spoke after 9/11 and said this was going to be a long and at times almost invisible war, I thought he was on the right path. And I still think there are many hard-working law-enforcement people in this country and around the world who are doing a great job of ferreting out those who would do us and our allies harm. But I'm concerned that we confused things by going for a quick victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and further confounded the situation by going for yet another quick victory in Iraq. Quite frankly, I'm not sure that either of those military campaigns has been as effective in combating terrorism as the quiet work of law enforcement has been.

"...We confused getting rid of the Taliban with the problem of terrorism and al-Qaeda...."

Look, there are many evil governments in the world, and the Taliban-controlled government of Afghanistan was one of them. But we confused getting rid of the Taliban with the problem of terrorism and al-Qaeda. As evil a regime as the Taliban was, removing them from power was not the same as stopping al-Qaeda. Instead, we now have a long-term commitment in Afghanistan that is distracting us from the goal of getting those who intend to do us harm. In Kabul, the government functions only in the capital district during the day; at night it's not safe to go out. Warlords are back in most parts of the country; in many parts of the country the Taliban and al-Qaeda are back. The threat remains.

PND: At this point, do you see any alternative to a long-term U.S. commitment, both military and financial, in Afghanistan and Iraq?

JZ: At this point, we have a huge responsibility. The world is watching to see how we deliver, especially in terms of our financial and nation-building promises. A military presence is something else entirely, but I think we have no choice — if only for reasons of self-interest — to help both those countries reconstruct.

Having said that, I think we ought to move in a different direction in Iraq and internationalize the reconstruction process. I think we overestimated what we could do in Iraq, and the best way to rectify that mistake is to bring in the United Nations —— for reasons of legitimacy and because it would help rebuild frayed relations with some of our key allies. You'd also have a better security environment in Iraq if there were fewer American and British administrators around and more Arab and international faces helping out with the reconstruction of the country. We don't need or want to be the surrogate regime there — that will only make us more of a target than we already are.

PND: The United Nations Development Programme's Arab Human Development Report for 2002 painted a picture of an Arab world beset by stagnant economies, gender inequality, and political extremism. Is the Arab world in crisis?

JZ: The Arab world has been beset by problems for the last hundred and fifty years. But Arab countries and Arab people have not been masters of their own destiny for much of that time. The legacy of colonialism and imperialism are little understood in the West. For example, a hundred and sixty years ago Egypt's gross national product was equal to that of some European countries. Largely due to colonialism, however, Egypt was transformed from a country that exported food to a food importer. It was Britain that transformed Egypt's agriculture into dependence on a single cash crop, cotton, in order to feed the mills of Birmingham during the American Civil War. And that proved enormously costly to Egypt's prosperity. The coup de grace was delivered in the form of the Suez Canal, which Egypt did not want, yet was pressured to build, and for which it assumed the debt, creating an enormous burden for that country.

Do problems remain? Yes. Do we have to find a way out of them? Yes. And I think the Arab Human Development report is very significant for one simple reason: It was written by Arabs, for Arabs, and it has been heralded throughout the Arab world as a guide for future action. Governments in the region are beginning to take note of serious problems and reforms are beginning to be implemented. Maybe not as quickly as some would like, but the role the world community needs to be playing is to help the leadership in these countries find ways of moving forward and implementing the recommendations that emerged from the report.

PND: To what extent do wholesale improvements in the political and economic conditions of the Arab and Muslim world depend on a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

"...Wholesale improvements in the political and economic conditions [in the region] need to be taking place even without a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict...."

JZ: Wholesale improvements in the political and economic conditions need to be taking place even without a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are problems that aren't being addressed that must be addressed —— in every one of the countries in the region, and in the region as a whole. But if the Arab-Israeli conflict were resolved, followed by a demilitarization and normalization of the region, would it make finding solutions to some of those problems more likely? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Would it make it more likely that the United States would be viewed as a constructive partner rather than as a biased antagonist? Yes. Would it make it more possible for governments in the region to cooperate with the United States and not feel threatened by extremist elements in their own country? Yes. Would it ameliorate some of the conditions that spawn support for extremist groups in the first place? Yes.

For all those reasons, it is very important that we solve the Arab-Israel conflict. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking at and addressing other problems while trying to solve that conflict. Nevertheless, for all the reasons I've just cited, the Arab-Israeli conflict must be resolved.

PND: Are the U.S. and its allies doing enough in the Middle East to support the growth of civil society, democracy, and human rights?

JZ: No, not at all. But I worry when they try to do that, given the approaches that are sometimes used, because, frankly, I don't think there's enough understanding or appreciation of the region within the policy establishments of Western countries. There are too many Lawrence of Arabias running around, too many people who know a little about the region and want to save it —— usually for reasons that have nothing to do with the welfare of the people who call the Arab world home. I mean, the idea that the Iraq war is going to democratize the Middle East is bizarre. This kind of thinking is troubling to Arab people.

One of the things I always advise is the importance of listening. As a rule, we don't listen enough and aren't respectful enough of what people in other countries are saying. Many of our diplomatic efforts have failed for that reason, as have many outreach and democracy programs. These programs need to be demand-driven. You can't sell a product in the marketplace unless people want to buy it, and people aren't going to want to buy it unless you know and respect them enough to design a product that meets their needs and expectations. We have yet to operate that way in the Arab world.

PND: Is Islam incompatible with democracy?

JZ: To ask that question betrays a failure to understand both Islam and democracy. One could ask the same question about Christianity in Europe a few hundred years ago. You could have asked that question about Christianity in Spain or Italy a hundred years ago. When John Kennedy ran for president in 1960, there were those who said Roman Catholicism was antithetical to democracy.

It's not a question about the incompatibility of a religion and a political system. On the one hand, you have a religion that embodies a timeless set of values that can be adapted to different eras, societies, and social structures; and on the other, you have a very particular system of governance that requires a degree of social development, industrialization, and modernization that simply doesn't exist in many of the countries we're talking about.

We will see democracies emerging in the Middle East as a function of social developments taking place in the region. And when democracy does emerge, we will see Islam adapt.

"...Islam is not the issue; the issue is social development, and we need to look at these questions more sociologically and less theologically...."

So Islam is not the issue; the issue is social development, and we need to look at these questions more sociologically and less theologically. There are no theological impediments, there's no ideational impediment in Islam to democracy. Yes, the kind of Islam practiced in much of the Arab world reinforces the social structure that currently exists in that world, just as Christianity reinforced monarchy and the divine right of kings in Europe for hundreds and hundreds of years. But as Europe's social structures evolved and became more democratic, Christianity began to reflect and reinforce those values. The same will happen in the Arab world.

PND: Is Islamic extremism a form of revolt against modernity?

JZ: To some degree it is, just as in some quarters Christian fundamentalism is a form of revolt against modernity. There have been many social movements in our own country over the last several centuries that were a function of people not being ready or willing or able to adapt to modernity.

But there are other reasons why extremism exists. Again, you need to look at this sociologically. And when you do, you see that extremism in Gaza occurs for very different reasons than it does in Saudi Arabia, just as extremism among urban dwellers in a city in the U.S. would be very different than the extremism that developed in a rural area in the South. So these issues need to be looked at quite differently than we're used to looking at them.

PND: A final question: How will we know the war on terror is over?

JZ: I must say that the way the war on terror has been framed has set us up for failure. Terrorism is a particular kind of evil. It's a function of certain kinds of extremist groups rebelling against the established order and, for a variety of reasons, using violent means against civilians to spread fear. It's a function of their powerlessness, their alienation, and their anger, as well as a function of evil ideologies that they have adapted to their own ends. We will no sooner eliminate that evil than we will eliminate other evils that we've tried to eliminate over the course of the last several decades. We were going to eradicate racism, we were going to eradicate poverty, we were going to eradicate drugs. These are evils that you are not going to eradicate entirely. What you can do is try to limit and isolate them. You can ameliorate or remove the causes that give rise to them. But completely eradicate them? I don't think so. And so we have to be much more careful how we look at and frame some of these issues so as not to set ourselves up for expectations that we can never realize.

PND: Well, thanks very much, Dr. Zogby, for your time this morning.

JZ: Thank you.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed James Zogby in May. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@fdncenter.org