An activist with an Arab-American civil rights group has become the first Arab-American ever elected to the governing board of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the nation's leading civil rights watchdogs. The move by the non-profit ACLU underscores the widespread concern about Arab-American civil rights in America following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001.
"It is very important for the Arab American community to have our concerns heard," says Laila Qatami, the ACLU's new board member. "When we are able to help guide the legislative agenda for an organization like the ACLU, it is a very big milestone."
Since its inception in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union has had a simple mission: to ensure that the civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution are respected and preserved for all, regardless of a person's race, sex, religion or national origin.
Qatami, Communications Director at the Washington-based American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, or ADC, says since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, her organization has been handling over 2000 complaints per year about a wide range of civil rights violations involving the Arab-American community. She says the ADC frequently sought out the ACLU to help it pursue a variety of cases of discrimination against Arabs and Muslims.
"The ACLU has always stood up for communities and individuals whose rights have been put at risk. It is the hallmark of our entire history," says ACLU Associate Director Greg Nojeim. "Since 9/11, Arab Americans have faced particular difficulties because the government has often focused its law enforcement efforts on Arab Americans." Nojeim adds that the ACLU has fought against the PATRIOT Act, "some of the powers of which are used to target Arab Americans."
Mr. Nojeim welcomes the ACLU decision to elect to its national board of directors an Arab American who can help the organization better understand the challenges faced by some communities who believe their rights are under attack.
David Cole, a professor of law at Georgetown University, says he believes that the concerted efforts of Arab and Muslim civil society organizations helped slow the erosion of civil liberties after 9/11. "Groups like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, groups like the Muslim Political Affairs Council, the Council on American Islamic Relations and more generic groups like the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights," he says, "[have focused] on abuses that have been visited upon the Arab and Muslim community."
Professor Cole cites the recent example of the Military Commissions Act just signed by President Bush. Cole believes the Act allows the use of coerced evidence to convict suspected terrorists and violates the Geneva conventions.
President Bush has defended the Act, saying, "These military commissions will provide a fair trail in which the accused are presumed innocent, have access to an attorney, and can hear all the evidence against them. These military commissions are lawful, they are fair and they are necessary."
Professor Cole acknowledges that there is a fine line between protecting national security and preserving civil liberties. But he says that there is a difference between protecting against terrorists attacks and bypassing the rule of law. "That kind of over reaction has really backfired and has created the kind of anti-American resentment around the world that makes the world a much more dangerous place for Americans in particular and for the world generally."
Professor Cole believes that many of the Bush Administration's initiatives in the war on terror have been approved without significant challenge by a Republican-led congress. With the opposition party Democrats now in control of both Houses of Congress, Cole hopes the system of checks and balances called for in the constitution will help to ensure civil liberties for all.