Al-Hewar Center Hosts Panel Discussion on Lessons Learned from September 11

On September 11, 2002, Al-Hewar Center, a discussion forum in metro Washington, D.C., hosted a special panel to discuss “What Lessons Should be Learned by Americans and Arabs and Muslims from September 11?”  The featured panelists were:  Mr. Jean AbiNader of the Arab American Institute (AAI), Mr. Jason Erb of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Nawar Shora of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and Mr. AbdulWahab Al-Kebsi of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID).

Jean AbiNader said that we must not allow others to define the United States, and that vigilance is the price of freedom.  “We owe it to immigrants and to our heritage to defend who we are,” he said.  Our responsibility now is to reconcile our Arab heritage with our American citizenship.  He advised greater community participation in this country in order to positively influence its policies. He also discussed ways to “give back” to the Arab world, by building schools for example, and have a positive impact on that region.

Nawar Shora, who is a lawyer with the ADC, cautioned about the serious threats to Constitutional rights currently underway, warning that there are signs that actions as egregious as the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II are not outside the realm of possibility.  He also noted that although the violent reactions that occurred against immigrant communities immediately after the September 11 attacks have subsided, more subtle forms of violence are now taking their place, such as hostile work environments and employment discrimination. 

Airlines and immigration have posed the biggest problems, he said, and ADC’s legal department has quadrupled since September 11.  Fortunately, ADC has a very good relationship with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and has been able to successfully resolve most of these cases.  Shora also warned that recently introduced bills, if passed, will strip American’s of their rights, so it is incumbent upon us all to remain vigilant and work hard to protect them.

Jason Erb works CAIR’s government relations department.  He noted that 57% of Muslims have faced some sort of discrimination since 9/11.  Fortunately, though, 87% have reported acts of kindness from their neighbors.  Perceptions of Islam have fluctuated greatly, he said.  People are still trying to form an opinion, so this presents us with a great opportunity to introduce people to Islam in the right way. It also puts the onus on us to counter those who have a negative agenda vis-à-vis Islam. 

He noted that the Muslim community has been in a sort of self-imposed isolation for the past 30 years, and has only been politically active for about 8-12 years.  We need to reach out to our neighbors and engage in politics, he emphasized, and it needs to be a long-term strategy for establishing real, natural, and long-lasting relationships. Although discrimination against ethnic groups is very often tied to international politics, Erb also noted that it is necessary to expand our debates beyond international issues.  The community needs to be more active regarding citizens’ rights and responsibilities.  He also noted that it is important to study the histories of other immigrant groups who faced challenges in this country, including the Italians, Japanese and Germans.

AbdulWahab Al-Kebsi noted that the atmosphere since 9/11 has been extremely intense, even more than during wartime.  “The whole paradigm of how America sees the world has changed,” he said.  “It also changed the world.”

September 11 caused an erosion of democracy and of civil rights, said Al-Kebsi.  However, he believes that the United States is capable of readjusting and that, ultimately, the experience will make the country and our community better.

He noted that, although there are some 1,400 Middle East experts in the United States, they are largely ignored, and the media, pundits, and certain government officials with narrow agendas are currently swaying public opinion.  But Arab and Muslim organizations are now stronger than ever, and events have thrust us onto the frontline in the battle for civil rights.  Many important subjects are largely ignored or skirted over in the media, said Al-Kebsi, who stated that we need to work harder to influence the debate – not just what is said, but the subjects that are actually discussed. He also noted that our community needs to confront corruption in the Arab world and do what we can to change it, including instituting democracy and think-tanks in the region.  Building think-tanks, he said, will require thinking like “industry” instead of as “traders” as Arabs tend to do.

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