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An Interview with Raed Jarrar

Raed Jarrar is a political analyst and trained architect who serves as Communications Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a civil rights organization committed to defending the rights of people of Arab descent and promoting Arab culture. In 2006, Jarrar gained national attention after being detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport for wearing a t-shirt with the words "We Will Not Be Silent" printed in English and Arabic, an incident that led to an unprecedented legal settlement in Jarrar's favor. In this interview with Chrystie Swiney (The College of William and Mary), Jarrar discusses the trajectory of his work since the incident, the state of civil rights for Muslim Americans, and the ongoing efforts of the ADC.

Chrystie Swiney: You have worked for the civil rights of American Muslims and Arabs for some time now. In the various capacities you've served, including as Communications and Advocacy Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, you have closely observed and tracked the treatment of these two groups of people, which often overlap. What can you say about the current state of civil rights for American Muslims and/or Arab Americans?

Raed Jarrar: The current state of civil rights for those perceived to be Muslim-Americans and Arab-Americans is extremely worrisome. Arab and Muslim communities in the US are under daily attack in the media, and they continue to be victims of hate crimes and discrimination. In addition, many of the Arab-American and Muslim-American organizations that were founded to protect their civil rights have either been dismantled by the US government or have become completely dysfunctional. This has left the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities even more vulnerable.

Chrystie Swiney: Can you explain the relationship between the Arab-American community and the American Muslim community? How do they overlap; how do they differ; and what are the population figures and demographic details associated with each group?

Raed Jarrar: Only half of Arab-Americans are Muslim, and only one third of Muslim Americans are Arabs, but the two groups are lumped into one in the US mainstream perception. Not only that, many people who are neither Arab nor Muslim, like Sikhs and Hindus, are also perceived to be members of this group, and they also have paid a heavy price due to this perception.

Chrystie Swiney: How have incidences of discrimination against Muslim Americans and/or Arab-Americans in general changed in the post-September 11th era? Have they decreased with the passage of time; increased? What explains such patterns?

Raed Jarrar: Official statistics show an alarming trend. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) reported a 1,600% increase in anti-Muslim hate crime incidents in 2001. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics, current levels of hate crimes against Muslim-Americans have plateaued at 500% higher than they used to be before 9/11.

Eric Treene, Special Counsel for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, told me that hate crimes and incidents of discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans are grossly under-reported. Mr. Treene mentioned that, unlike hate crimes against Jewish-Americans, there is a huge discrepancy between the estimated numbers, based on sampling methods, of hate crimes against Muslims and the actual reported cases. Many Muslim-Americans feel intimidated, or they don't trust the system enough to report crimes against them.

In addition to hate crimes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that discrimination against Muslim-Americans in workplaces has been skyrocketing since 9/11.

There are no official statistics about hate-crimes or discrimination against Arab-Americans yet.

Chrystie Swiney: Can you share with us your own personal experience of being discriminated against, presumably because of your Arab/Muslim identity, while at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2006? What lessons did you learn from this experience?

Raed Jarrar: TSA agents, and JetBlue security personnel, did not allow me to board my plane because I had a t-shirt with Arabic writing. They bought me another t-shirt and made me wear it. Then, they changed my seat to the back of the plane and put a flight attendant behind me to watch me throughout the entire flight. The ACLU represented me in the case, and after 3 years of back and forth I ended up receiving a settlement of $240,000—the largest of its kind since 9/11.

I was a new immigrant in 2006—fresh off the boat. I had just landed in California less than a year before the incident and was not yet a citizen. My t-shirt ordeal was a formative experience for me. It shaped my identity, and it made me understand US identity politics. I understand that I cannot drop my hyphenated identities and choose to be an "American" even if I wanted to. I am perceived to be an Arab and a Muslim whether I like it or not.

Although it took years of intrusive and daunting legal proceedings, I thought it was an important battle for me to fight. The same mentality that perceives me as a second-class citizen—a second class human—justifies the killing Arabs and Muslims around the world and the destruction of their countries.

Chrystie Swiney: Aside from the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, what explains the persistence of acts of discrimination against Muslims (and those perceived as Muslims) in the US today; and what do you think can be done to rectify or reverse this persistence? Do you think the term "Islamophobia" is an apt term for explaining the current reality for Muslims in the US?

Raed Jarrar: Although the first waves of Muslims landed on the shores of North America hundreds of years ago when the slave ships arrived, and although the official estimates of the Muslim-American population is larger or similar to those of Jewish-Americans, Islam and Muslims are yet to be perceived as an "American" religion or identity by the general public. The term "Islamophobia" is an understatement for describing the crisis that Muslim-Americans, and those perceived to be as such, are going through. The fear, ignorance, and hatred against Islam and Muslims in the US has manifest itself in Anti-Muslim hate crimes, discrimination, wars, invasions, torture and other crimes. The situation is much more dire and complicated than a mere phobia.

I think the most important factor fueling anti-Muslim sentiments in the US is foreign policy, and without a complete US reconciliation with predominant Muslim and Arab countries, Arab and Muslim-Americans will continue to pay a heavy price for America's wars abroad. What seems to be propaganda aimed at justifying US wars and invasions usually translates into hate crimes and attacks against Muslims and Arabs-Americans here at home. A good example is the record increase in hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans, according to the DOJ, in the weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Chrystie Swiney: What are your future plans with respect to promoting the civil rights of American Muslims in the US? Is this a personal battle for you, and if so, how do you plan to fight it?

Raed Jarrar: This is not a chosen battle, but I feel that I have a personal and moral responsibility to promote the civil rights of Muslim and Arab Americans. I see this as a battle on two fronts. One to fight against discrimination, misinformation, and attacks against the Arab and Muslim communities in the US. The other is a battle to build our communities' defense structures and to have functional and reputable organizations represent and defend us.

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