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Government Questioning of US Arabs Raises Controversy - 2001-11-28


More than 500 young Arab men in the Midwest U.S. state of Michigan will soon receive letters from the U.S. government asking them for an interview. The young men in Michigan are among more than 5,000 male visitors from the Middle East nationwide who will be contacted as part of the federal government's terrorism investigation.

Federal officials say the interviews are voluntary. Those who participate will be asked a series of questions, including whether the person knows anyone who has fought in a war, anyone who acted in a "surprising or inappropriate way" to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and anyone involved in terrorism or willing to carry out terrorist attacks.

The letter being sent to 560 Arab men in the Detroit area points out that the recipient is not a suspect in the terrorism investigation. But, Hussein Ibish of the Washington-based American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says, some recipients might feel like suspects. "In this country it is still a basic principle that we do not investigate people about whom we do not have suspicions or any reason to believe they have information related to a crime," he said.

More than 300,000 Arab-Americans live in the Detroit area. The government is seeking interviews with 5,000 male visitors from Middle Eastern countries, age 18-to-33, who have entered the country since Jan. 1, 2000, on tourist, student or business visas from countries linked to terrorism. It hopes to learn more about the September 11th terrorist attacks, and about recruiting practices of the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Mr. Ibish calls it profiling, in this case, singling out the young men because they are Arabs. He suspects the government is more interested in building up information on young Arab males in the country than it is in seeking information about the September 11 attacks. "If the government's principal concern was getting information for its investigation and thought that people in this demographic group might have it and so wanted to talk to everybody, they would be interviewing women as well as men," he said. In Washington Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft denied that those selected for interviews were picked because of their ethnicity. "We have not identified people based on their ethnic origin. We have identified individuals who are not citizens, but based on the countries that issued their passports," he said.

In most parts of the country, a law enforcement officer will visit the home of one of the 5,000 people the government wants to hear from. In eastern Michigan, potential interviewees receive a letter asking them to call local officials and set up an appointment. Officials say the interviewee can choose where to hold the meeting and can bring a lawyer.

Mr. Ibish of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says, despite his concerns about the interviews, he would grant one if asked, and would recommend other young Arabs do the same. The government hopes to have all of the interviews completed by late December.