Imad Hamad:Arab-American rights
Imad Hamad is the Midwest Regional Director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which is considered the premier civil rights organization in the nation on behalf the Arab American community. Hamad was born as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon and came to the U.S. as a student in 1980. Twelve years later he acquired his U.S. citizenship. He has been recognized by the U.S. Congress for his public service to eradicate discrimination against Arab Americans.
CNN: Welcome to CNN.com Newsroom, Imad Hamad. We are pleased to have you with us today.
HAMAD: Hello, everyone. I look forward for a healthy and constructive discussion.
CNN: Attorney General Ashcroft has slowly made information available regarding the citizens detained since September 11. What insight can you offer about how these individuals are being treated?
HAMAD: There have been close to 1100 people in detention since September 11. Not all are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Most are students or visitors, or people entering as tourists. They had minor visa violations, which ended up being the reason for their detention. Actually, in our meeting with the attorney general in Michigan this past Sunday, this was a point we raised with him, that a minor violation does not make a person a murderer or criminal. We are not here to defend criminals, but we have to be reasonable, and not put people into hardship, and deny them due process.
There should be differentiation between those who are suspects, and those who are detained as being part of the horrible act on September 11, and those who overstayed their visa. But this is not happening, and this is a real serious concern for the American Civil Liberties Union. We are refused basic information, and these people are denied due process or legal assistance. Yesterday, 20 organizations, civil rights organizations, headed by the ACLU, filed a lawsuit trying to get the government to provide basic information. We don't know much, and we don't understand why the government is being so firm in not releasing information. What he said is that he stands by no violation of their rights, stands by due process, and he's concerned that if he releases their names, that it will give information to al Qaeda, who might take advantage of it, and that's the last thing the government wants to see.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do those who are still detained have access to legal services?
HAMAD: A few do have legal access, but the vast majority do not. This is why the ACLU and other civil rights organizations have been trying hard in order to secure the basic due process. Let us not forget that we live in the greatest country in the world, known for fairness, and this American fairness is applicable to those who are not criminals or murderers, yet they are in indefinite prison, for minor things. Our great constitution provides this basic right to every individual, and I think if we track the history of our judicial system, that would be clear cut, no not subject to debate. We should not, under any circumstances, deprive people of their rights, and let the judicial system run its course. No other branch of the government should become judge, jury and prosecutor. That is not our US Constitution.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Imad - What do you say when Ashcroft insists that this isn't racial profiling?
HAMAD: We have to acknowledge the fact that our nation is going through a real tough and trying difficult time. It's an exceptional time to all of us -- government and public at large. I don't think the government has initiated the many executive orders and regulations and investigations just for the fun of it. I'm sure there's a valid reason, and it's our duty as citizens to cooperate and provide assistance. In the end, it's my safety, your safety, and the interest of this great nation. However, we can differ about the style and approach of the procedures.
Regardless of the good assurances we have from our president, from the U.S. attorney general, and the U.S. Department of Justice officials, that doesn't change the fact that yes, it is a form of racial profiling, and it is placing the entire Arab-American community and the Muslim community under the scope of suspicion. I understand it is for the unfortunate fact that these criminals that committed this horrible act against this great country were Muslims and Arabs, but that should not indict the entire community. I met with the attorney general, and was very impressed with him. He listened to our concerns, and yes, we differed on how to proceed. It's sensitive, complicated, and we're all in limbo, but being different with the way that the government conducts business does not make us less concerned with fighting terrorism at home and abroad. We are all in one boat with this issue. Our main concern is civil liberties -- the liberties that make this country unique and great. It is our duty to fight for the greatness of this nation.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Hamad, a Muslim once explained to me that Islam is more than a religion; it is a political system. Given the fatwas for jihad against America and the conflicts between these two systems, should Americans view Islam as an implacable enemy, as we were forced to do with the communists?
HAMAD: I'm not an Islamic scholar or expert, but I know enough to say that the Muslim faith, or the Islamic religion is similar to the other faiths -- Christianity, Judaism -- other holy faiths in this world. It's a religion of peace, tolerance, and understanding. Any preaching of Islam that might give another message, one that might preach hatred or conflict, justify killing innocents, that's not through Islam. Our interest as a nation is that we create better understanding of the right perspectives of these traits, because if I would judge any faith by those who go to the extreme and use faith as an excuse, it wouldn't be limited to this faith or that.
We need to encourage those who preach the right concept of Islam, and that is why the vast majority of those of Muslim faith, which goes beyond the Arab nationality, stood by our government and join hands to fight terrorism. That's why the al Qaeda group and its leaders could not win the sympathy of Muslims across the globe. Don't forget that there are almost 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, and they believe in the same God we believe in here in America. If we understand the real Islam, we will be surprised that it is a religion of peace and tolerance before anything else. CNN: What do Arab Americans think of the executive order for military tribunals?
HAMAD: There's no question that the national tragedy of September 11 changed our lives, in all aspects. That was a tough time for Arab Americans. The fact that those criminals shared the same origin and faith to so many placed the Arab-American community under difficult circumstances. We shared the grief, and part of every single effort in the healing process, but we were looked at differently, treated differently, and many were victims of negative backlash. However, I would say that our government and the many officials who had an open line of communication attended to this crisis with the leaders of the Arab-American community, and sent a message that any hate crime against this community based on religion or national origin would not be tolerated. That helped to put the community at ease, and we've received overwhelming and heartfelt support from many in the community. Many have sent messages saying they feel sad that our community was treated this way. Some went so far to offer their houses for us to live in if we felt targeted. That's America at its best. We see ourselves as part of this great nation. We contributed to its prosperity. We'll continue that. We made that choice to live the American dream, and we are thankful and appreciative to the US community to let us live here in freedom and liberty. It's a blessing. This American dream is a beauty for all of us to preserve and protect, and not let go of.
The hard times we're going through in the meantime make people wonder, and this is why the military tribunals are not seen as isolated steps. People tend to believe they are going to witness more, starting with the passage of the anti-terrorist acts, full of a special screening program, to the unprecedented massive investigation of people entering the country recently, and the most recent, the surveillance of the non-profit, political and charity groups in America. It's sending a chilling message. People truly are wondering what could be next, and they could not help but feel that somehow the community is under the scope of suspicion again, and it's from being singled out. It goes back to the concept of racial profiling, and we all feel that it was not born of September 11 tragedy, but went on way before.
CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today, Mr. Hamad?
HAMAD: I truly would like to take this opportunity to extend the warmest wishes and greetings to the rest of our nation, every one of us, to be truly blessed with peace and love. I hope this upcoming holiday season and the spirit of the new year, will come hard and strong on us, to have the peace and relaxation of this blessed holiday. Let us put behind sadness and tragedy and look ahead to prosperity for our nation. It was a great thing for me to have this interview online, and I thank you for inviting me for this experience.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Mr. Imad Hamad.
HAMAD: Thank you very much.
Mr. Hamad joined CNN.com via telephone from Michigan. CNN provided a typist for him. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Thursday, December 06, 2001.
American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
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