Civil Rights Issues Facing Arab Americans in Michigan

Chapter 3

Civil Rights Issues: Policing, Employment, and Religious Discrimination

Arab Americans are often the victims of employment and religious discrimination. Forms of discrimination may include a denial to Arab American immigrants with high levels of education the opportunity to work in the professional field of their training, a denial to Arab Americans to assume management positions, refusal to hire Arab Americans who hold to different religious practices and/or different dress codes, and a lack of accommodation to individuals who adhere to different religions and/or dress codes.

Comments from Arab Americans on Employment and Religious Discrimination

Osama A. Siblani, Editor, the Arab American News

What Arab Americans ask of this society is to be treated as equals, not better than anyone and not lesser than anyone. For example, one day we’re trying to set up a commission on counterterrorism. A Muslim American was nominated to the board, but was denied nomination. Why? Because it was a counterterrorism commission and it was assumed that Muslims are terrorists. So conventional thinking was how could putting a Muslim on a counterterrorism commission be justified? This is a violation of our rights.

Corporate America violates the civil rights of Arab Americans. At certain companies there are ceilings on Arab American employees in that they will not let them be in management positions. There are discriminatory hiring practices. Even the United States Census Bureau will not hire Arab Americans unless they are citizens. However, the Census Bureau hires other nationalities if they are alien residents and have a green card.[1]

Mohammad Elahi, Islamic House of Islam

There is a feeling in the Muslim community that in many ways the civil and constitutional rights of Muslims are being violated. Some of this religious discrimination is caused by ignorance and the basis of some is political.

There are cases of Muslim women fired from their work or rejected during the interviews for jobs or for college admission because they wear their religious head scarves. There are cases of Muslim men fired from their job or rejected during job interviews because they wear a beard, a religious requirement. Recently, there was a Muslim police officer in New York suspended from his job because he wore a beard. Then there was a case of nine Muslim men ousted from an airplane because they started their daily prayer, and out of ignorance the pilot thought that they were creating a disturbance on board and they were removed from the plane just because they were doing their daily prayer.[2]

Abed Hammoud, Arab American Political Action Committee

AAPAC did a count of the city of Dearborn employees and found that only 2 percent of the city’s full-time employees are of Arab American descent. When part-time employees are included, the total is 4 percent.

One interesting factor about the city of Dearborn is their coding of minorities. Arab Americans are not officially a minority, but in the city of Dearborn there is a letter code, so that a listing of Arab Americans in municipal employment is straightforward.[3]

Imad Hamad, Regional Director, Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee

There is an historical mistrust between the Arab American community and law enforcement agencies. One factor fueling the mistrust is the provision of the retroactivity of law, which holds that if a person was convicted of a felony, served his/her sentence, and are a green card holder, this criminal record can be used as grounds for deportation retroactive indefinitely. There are many of these cases where families are being torn apart for something that was done years and years ago.

Second, the Arab American community understands illegal entry to the United States is a problem, and the INS is overloaded and under pressure. But at the same time there seems to be different treatment for different people. The Arab American community feels that its members are treated differently by the INS.[4]

Ismael Ahmed, Executive Director, Arab Community Center for Economics and Social Services

While ACCESS does not maintain specific discrimination records, it is clear that there is a great deal of real and perceived discrimination against Arab Americans, much of which does not get documented in the regular ways. That is because in many instances Arab Americans who are new to this country have a fear of authority, and not being citizens or familiar with current laws have good reason to fear reporting such things.[5]

William Ali

One thing that is misunderstood is that there are different groups of Arab Americans, such as Palestinians, Lebanese, and Yemenese. And each of them have traditional differences. Some have religious beliefs that others do not have. Some are more conservative than others. The Yemeni community, of which I am a part, has no real representation in the city of Dearborn.

This problem also affects Islamics within the Arab culture, because when one hears “Islamic” there is an automatic tie-in with the Arab community, and then in most cases a tie-in to terrorism. There is no teaching of Islamic customs, and if there were such education, it would help a lot.[6]

Zouher Addel-Hak

The situation in Dearborn is very bad. Jobs are not always posted in the city of Dearborn and sometimes are just given to political friends. If Arab Americans in this community choose to practice our constitutional rights and speak out on political issues, like the term limit petition which I helped to put on the ballot in 1997, they are harassed. That should not happen here.[7]

Comments from Arab Americans on Policing

Maya Berry, Government Relations Director, Arab American Institute

The FBI is a law enforcement agency that is supposed to protect us. As Arab Americans and as Americans of Arab descent and as a minority group interested in having our rights protected by all of the agencies in place, it is very disconcerting when there are situations such as occurred during the Gulf War where the FBI puts out a press release saying, “We are going to be meeting with Arab Americans to talk about their potential victimization of hate crimes and also investigating them about activities in their local communities.”

For the FBI to suggest that there needs to be special outreach efforts to find that information or solicit that information is very disconcerting. The issue is that there is no distinction being made by the FBI between their hate crime unit and the units that are looking to investigate potential terrorist activity. So the Arab American community finds itself in a situation where community members are advised to be cautious. There is a coalition within the Arab American community which puts up flyers saying, “Do not talk to the FBI.” This too is very difficult for us to oppose because information gathered by FBI agents, who are supposed to be hired to protect, are sometimes used as secret evidence against Arab Americans.[8]

Ismael Ahmed, Executive Director, Arab Community Center for Economics and Social Services

An area that ACCESS deals with has to do with law enforcement mainly at the local police level, primarily dealing with profiling, physical abuse, and verbal threats. ACCESS has taken up a few of these cases in the past, but ACCESS usually encourages individuals to seek legal aid. Understand that when one sues a policeman or a police station, many Arab Americans feel they are taking their lives in their hands and that it is a very dangerous thing to do. So most of these do not get reported.

Overall, though, ACCESS believes there has been a great deal of improvement in terms of wholesale traffic tickets given to young Arab Americans, in the handling of minor incidents, and the overuse of force. ACCESS also holds that in a city like Dearborn, where 22 percent of the population is Arab American and 54 percent of the young people are Arab American, effective law enforcement must include more Arab Americans on the force, and there has been some improvement in this area as well.[9]

Zouher Addel-Hak

Arab Americans, the minute they get arrested in the city of Dearborn, they are called names. I can cite at least five cases where similar crimes are committed and non-Arab people get slapped on the hands with a fine, while Arab Americans spend time in jail. That happened to an Arab American woman. She is spending 60 days in jail for discharging arms supposedly on New Year’s Eve. She has four children and is living on welfare.[10]

Comments from the Dearborn Police Department on Policing

Ronald DeZeal, Chief of Police, Dearborn Police Department

I have been chief of police for the city of Dearborn for 14 years, and I can tell you unequivocally that I am and my top administrators are totally, absolutely committed to the protection of the civil rights of all persons. Most of you know that the city of Dearborn has labored under a longstanding reputation of being a white racist community. That reputation, probably well deserved, was developed many, many, many years ago under a segregationist mayor. That mayor has been dead for over 20 years. This is the third administration since that particular mayor.

The city and the police department have dedicated themselves to changing the reputation of the community and welcoming all ethnic groups. Dearborn today is not an isolated community but a destination, whether it be for educational purposes, for shopping purposes, for employment purposes or recreation purposes, for people of all racial and religious backgrounds.

The city takes great pride in the diversity of its community and is very, very proud of the very large Middle Eastern community living here. They have provided the community with a most vibrant commercial district, and great diversity in the schools, in the business community, and in the religious community.

In the 14 years that I have been chief of the Dearborn Police Department, I have had the opportunity to hire approximately a hundred new officers. Seven of those officers have been Arab Americans. I wish the number was much greater, however there are very few applicants from the Arab American community. Perhaps because of ethnic background and cultural background, especially amongst first generation, a career in law enforcement is not high on the list of many very talented young African Americans as well as Arab Americans.

The department places a very high emphasis on cultural diversity. At least once a year and generally twice a year, each officer in the department is mandated to attend a cultural diversity training session. We go through different ethnic groups depending on the year and depending on the issues and depending on the available lectures.

A little over two years ago, the city’s first community-policing center was established on Warren Avenue, which is the center of the Arab American commercial and residential district in our community. It is staffed with two full-time police officers as well as a full-time civilian, and it is backed up by other officers when necessary. In addition, about six months ago a law enforcement coalition was formed to discuss the issue of racial profiling. So the community has a chief of police that is not only very knowledgeable in the area of racial profiling and civil rights protection but one that feels very strongly and very sensitively to it.[11]

[1] Statement of Osama A. Siblani to the Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum on “Civil Rights Issues Facing Arab Americans in Michigan,” Dearborn, MI, Sept. 27, 1999, transcript (hereafter cited as Transcript).

[2] Statement of Mohammad Elahi, Transcript.

[3] Statement of Abed Hammoud, Transcript.

[4] Statement of Imad Hamad, Transcript.

[5] Statement of Ismael Ahmed, Transcript.

[6] Statement of William Ali, Transcript.

[7] Statement of Zouher Addel-Hak, Transcript.

[8] Statement of Maya Berry, Transcript.

[9] Statement of Ismael Ahmed, Transcript.

[10] Statement of Zouher Addel-Hak, Transcript.

[11] Statement of Ronald DeZeal, Transcript.