Although issues of domestic surveillance and discrimination faced by Arabs living in the United States became more prominent after the attacks of September 11, 2001, MERIP has been covering them continuously since the organization was founded 50 years ago. Pamela Pennock surveys how MERIP has written about issues of surveillance, struggles for justice and solidarity in the Arab American community. Forthcoming in the Fall 2021 issue “MERIP at 50.”
While investigating the harmful impact of government surveillance on an Arab-American community a filmmaker turns the tables by offering a primer on counter-surveillance research.
Pamela Pennock positions her new book, The Rise of the Arab American Left, as a corrective to what she characterizes as a near omission of Arab American activism in histories of the left in the United States.
Yemeni-American activist Rabyaah al-Thaibani was born in Ta‘izz, Yemen’s largest city, in 1977. She moved to the United States as a child to join her father, who was working nights cleaning office buildings in Manhattan. She grew up in Brooklyn, attended Columbia University and since has worked in community development in New York City. In 2011, she helped establish the Yemeni-American Coalition for Change, and in February 2017 worked to bridge Yemeni and American concerns by co-organizing the Yemeni bodega strike, mounted in protest of President Donald Trump’s first attempt at a “Muslim ban.” A named plaintiff in New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s effort to challenge the second “Muslim ban” in court, al-Thaibani agreed to talk with MERIP about how her childhood in Yemen and her experience as part of a wide Yemeni diaspora have influenced her activism in the US. She also spoke about what she would like outsiders to appreciate about Yemen and its current conflict. In a wide-ranging conversation of more than two hours with Stacey Philbrick Yadav, associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, al-Thaibani described the connections she sees between her home and her homeland, the optimism she feels about Americans’ “accidental awakening” since Trump’s election, and the ways in which Yemenis are represented in American policy debates. The following is an edited excerpt of the conversation.
Over the past year, dozens of Yemeni-Americans visiting their ancestral homeland have had their US passports summarily revoked or confiscated by the embassy in Sanaa without any clear legal basis, effectively stranding them outside the United States. Last month, a coalition of US civil rights groups submitted a report on this practice to the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) pursuant to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
This past winter, I was privileged to participate in several events in Chicago organized by Rasmea Yousef Odeh, associate director of the Arab American Action Network and leader of that group’s Arab Women’s Committee. The events brought together anywhere from 60-100 disenfranchised women, all recent immigrants, from nearly every Arabic-speaking country. The attendees were there to learn English, share meals and stories, and discuss personal struggles, in everything from marriage and parenting to navigating the US educational and medical industries and the US immigration system. The women also talked about fending off racism.
On Tuesday I became a citizen of the United States. Almost ten years ago, I was granted permanent residency. Between my Green Card and my naturalization certificate lies the seemingly endless decade of the “war on terror.”
Many expected the Obama administration to slow or altogether stop the growth of the national security state that its two predecessor administrations brought into being, but just the opposite has occurred. Prisoners are still held without charge at Guantánamo Bay; the Patriot Act is still the law; the administration has retained the use of rendition and protected state secrets with punitive vigor. President Barack Obama’s Justice Department has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all others combined. In key respects, indeed, the Obama administration has expanded and institutionalized the national security state.
I had almost forgotten I’d sent in an application when the e-mail message appeared, like Mr. Big, out of nowhere. “Hi, Moustafa,” it began, as if we were old friends. “Thank you for e-mailing us regarding your interest in working on ‘Sex and the City 2.’ ”
“We are so racially profiled now, as a group,” the Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah says in his routine, “that I heard a correspondent on CNN not too long ago say the expression, ‘Arabs are the new blacks.’ That Arabs are the new blacks.” Obeidallah continues:
So much is still unknown about the shooting at Fort Hood Army base and the motives of the alleged shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan, but still I have that same queasy feeling in my stomach that I've had before: this will not be good for Muslims.
First things first. Major Nidal Malik Hasan is in custody. We should judge him fairly and, if he is found guilty, punish him accordingly.
The same is true for Sergeant John M Russell. In May 2009 Russell shot and killed five of his comrades at a combat stress clinic in a US Army base in Iraq. Before that, Sergeant Joseph Bozicevich killed two American soldiers at his base just outside Baghdad in September 2008. What do these incidents point to?
Within 24 hours of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush administration had announced the identities of the alleged perpetrators, all but one dead, and had largely reconstructed the plot as it understood it. In short order the administration put forth the notion that another such attack was imminent and authorized immediate, aggressive law enforcement and domestic anti-terrorism actions. These activities were justified with statements such as this from Attorney General John Ashcroft: “Today’s terrorists enjoy the benefits of our free society even as they commit themselves to our destruction. They live in our communities—plotting, planning and waiting to kill Americans again.”
Should the police be able to arrest you based on your religion and then imprison you indefinitely while they search for a crime to charge you with?
Of course not. The very idea flies in the face of American jurisprudence, whose traditions guarantee due process, equal protection and the presumption of innocence. The law works to prevent—not facilitate—arbitrary detention.
But that is not what a federal judge in Brooklyn recently ruled. According to District Judge John Gleeson, the U.S. government has the right to detain immigrants on the basis of their race, religion or national origin, and it can legally imprison immigrants indefinitely as long as their eventual removal from the country is “reasonably foreseeable.”
Persons of Interest (Allison Maclean and Tobias Perse). New York: First Run/ Icarus Films, 2004.
Music from the Arab world has traditionally been a minor player within world music, the marketing category encompassing a wide variety of international music that emerged in the late 1980s. Aimed at an NPR listening “adult” audience, world music has a small market share of roughly 2-3 percent (comparable to classical music and jazz), but its audibility increased during the 1990s. Rai music from Algeria and Algerians in France — the most important Arab presence in world music — opened the way for other Arab artists to enter the scene during the 1990s.
Unlike other ascribed and self-described "people of color" in the United States, Arabs are often hidden under the Caucasian label, if not forgotten altogether. But eleven months after September 11, 2001, the Arab-American is no longer invisible. Whether traveling, driving, working, walking through a neighborhood or sitting in their homes, Arabs in America — citizens and non-citizens — are now subject to special scrutiny in American society. The violence, discrimination, defamation and intolerance now faced by Arabs in American society has reached a level unparalleled in their over 100-year history in the US.
In the face of a post-September 11 wave of racially motivated attacks against people from the Middle East and South Asia, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division announced in a September 13, 2001 press release that "any threats of violence or discrimination against Arab or Muslim Americans or Americans of South Asian descent are not just wrong and un-American, but also are unlawful and will be treated as such."