Promoting racism: America's discriminatory dialogue on terrorism
Michael Karpman
March 2000

International terrorism remains a central concern of the United States government and the corporate-owned media. Terrorism is the use or threat of force on civilians to intimidate, coerce, or draw attention to a political purpose. Unfortunately, the government and the media single out Muslims and Arabs as the predominant groups whose actions fall under the definition of terrorism, ignoring instances of terrorism committed by others. The consequences of this selective labeling are racist stereotypes and subsequent violations of Arab-Americans' civil liberties.

There are two plausible explanations for America's obsession with 'Islamic fundamentalism.' The first is that a legitimate terrorist threat toward Americans by such extremist groups exists. Ironically, the U.S. training of Arabs who fought the Soviets who invaded Afghanistan in 1979 empowered Usama bin Laden, today's FBI's most wanted criminal. According to Simon Reeve, author of The New Jackals, bin Laden gained prestige among Muslims for being a leader in the war. His wealth comes from inheritance, investments, Islamic groups, and connections to Taliban drug traffickers who give bin Laden a 2-10% cut of the heroin money that he launders.

Since the Afghan war, bin Laden has spent millions funding various terrorists: the 1998 U.S. embassy bombers in Kenya and Tanzania, World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) which has killed thousands of civilians in Algeria's war, and which made headlines when Ahmed Ressam tried to bring bomb-making materials into Seattle in December. Indeed, there are terrorists such as bin Laden with the resources and the desire to kill Americans.

However, this explanation obscures the nature of our country's hysteria over terrorism. Relatively few Americans are affected by terrorism, but we still considered it one of the greatest threats to American society.

The second explanation for the hysteria is that the U.S. government actively searches for enemies to justify a military budget of $280 billion per year. Many expected the massive military buildup of the 1980s to decline after the Soviet threat fell in 1989. However, spending billions of tax dollars on "defense" benefits the so-called "military-industrial complex": the contractors who produce weapons and the Pentagon that uses them. Also profiting are oil companies who rely on military control of Middle East oil, and other corporations needing protection of foreign investments and low oil prices. This network depends on massive "defense" spending.

How does the government convince the public to spend so much on "defense"? By frightening Americans with an enemy. But the Soviet threat is gone. China is considered an embryonic threat and an irresistible market. Without a major adversary proving how much danger we are in, the government exaggerates the danger of lesser adversaries. Today's threats include drug cartels, "rogue states," and of course, international terrorists. However, only $7 billion of the $280 billion defense budget goes to counterterrorism operations.

In the current discourse on terrorism, the media focus solely on "Islamic fundamentalists." For example, Ressam drew attention to the GIA, a brutal terrorist organization. The media reported the GIA's terrorism in Algeria, but ignored the brutality of the Algerian security forces, which according to Human Rights Watch, is responsible for repression of civil liberties, torture, thousands of murders and disappearances. Since 1992, 100,000 Algerians have died in the conflict between the government and the opposition.

Why do we read about the terrorist, Islamic GIA, but not the terrorist, secular Algerian military regime? According to Bruce Riedel, the ex-CIA Deputy Chief of the Persian Gulf Task Force, "If Algeria becomes a hostile Islamic revolutionary state, these forces could rapidly complicate U.S. military operations worldwide." In addition, because Algeria is the second largest natural gas exporter in the world and ranks fourteenth in oil reserves, the U.S. Export-Import bank offers many loans encouraging U.S. corporations to invest in Algeria's resources. A "stable," pro-U.S. government must protect these investments. So, the U.S. tacitly supports Algeria.

The U.S. cites 7 "terrorist states": Libya, Cuba, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and North Korea. No mention of terrorist Algeria, which the U.S. ignores. Or Indonesia's terrorism in East Timor, which the U.S. supports. Or the repressive regimes in Turkey, Israel and Colombia, which receive substantial U.S. aid. The U.S. bombings of Iraq are not labeled terrorism, nor are the economic sanctions that have killed 1.5 million Iraqis. Some terrorists are called terrorists, some are called allies, and some are called defense forces.

The mass media mimics the U.S. government, creating the hysteria and fear of all terrorists as Islamic fundamentalists. In the January 1 Newsweek article "Americans Alert," the words "Islamic extremists," "Algerian extremists," or "Islamic militants," appear 9 times. Such media coverage reinforces stereotypes by focusing solely on Muslim and Arab terrorism.

The stereotypes spill over into law enforcement. In 1996, the U.S. passed the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Acts provide for the mandatory detention of non-citizens awaiting decisions on deportation, allow the use of secret evidence against these immigrants, and give the INS power to deport members of organizations they define as "terrorist," regardless of their involvement, thus violating their freedom of speech and association. These Acts almost always target Arab-Americans.

A recent mass hysteria was the hype surrounding New Year's Day. A brief chronology: After arresting Ahmed Ressam, the State Department issued a warning alerting Americans to New Year's terrorism (NYTimes, Dec. 22). Cities panicked; New York deployed 8,000 police for the celebration (NYTimes, Dec. 26). The FBI detained dozens of immigrants in New York and other cities, mostly of Algerian descent (AP, Dec. 31). Finally, the detainees were cleared of terrorist links (Boston Globe, Jan. 5).

Hussein Ibish, the communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), writes in a Newsday article, ". . . communities were astonished at finding themselves besieged by heavily armed police, often accompanied by helicopters, SWAT teams and bomb-sniffing dogs." Ibish claims the "effects of Y2K terrorism panic are lingering long after the new year's passing," citing how almost all cases involving secret evidence target Arab-Americans. In addition, "there is hardly an Arab-American who . . . does not know a friend or relative who has been abusively singled out at an airport."

For further proof of racist stereotypes in the press, readers may observe the media's portrayal of "Iran-backed, Lebanon-based Hizbollah terrorists" which in February killed 5 pro-Israeli militiamen and 7 Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon. Hizbollah is a terrorist group, having attacked Israeli civilians in the past. But Israeli actions are not labeled terrorist, although Israel has killed tens of thousands of civilians in its occupation of southern Lebanon since 1978. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978, 1982, 1993, and 1996. The 1982 invasion was extremely brutal, with 19,085 dead and 31,915 wounded, mostly civilians, including the massacres of 1,500 civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. This month, Israel bombed villages and power stations in retaliation for Hizbollah attacks. Israel is fighting resistance with massive terrorism, but only the Arabs are called terrorists.

The ADC and the ACLU are challenging the racism embedded in government and the media. They are litigating, lobbying Congress, and educating. The ADC has recently joined 60 members of Congress, civil rights activists, and victims of "secret evidence" cases to promote HR2121, the Secret Evidence Repeal Act. Hopefully, these activists' efforts will weaken existing stereotypes. However, to protect the rights and liberties of all Americans, we must take it upon ourselves to defend our minds from those who promote racism for political purposes, and we must challenge racism on every front.

For more info, here are the ADC, Human Rights Watch, and ACLU web pages.

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