By DEEPTI HAJELA, Associated Press Writer, February 22, 2006, 4:34 PM EST
NEW YORK — The political piling-on over a state-owned Arab business’ plan to run some American ports is causing concern among Arab American and Muslim American groups, which say the furor is fueled by racism and bigotry.
"We’re very concerned about the level of rhetoric and the way that there seems to be the assumption that because a company is Arab it can’t be trusted with our security," said Katherine Abbadi, executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of New York.
The president of the Arab American Institute, James Zogby, also was distressed.
"When you have members of Congress literally tripping over themselves to run to a microphone and they’re saying, ‘The Arabs are coming, the Arabs are coming,’ preying off that fear because it’s an Arab country, that constitutes bigotry," Zogby said Wednesday.
Democratic and Republican politicians have been increasingly vocal in their concerns of the deal that would put Dubai Ports World in charge of major shipping operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia. The ports already have been managed for the past couple of years by a British company that is being taken over by Dubai Ports, which is owned by the United Arab Emirates. The company manages ports all over the world.
Several elected officials have said they will introduce legislation to block the deal; President Bush has said he would veto any such efforts.
Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are just as concerned about maintaining security but are upset that those concerns were raised only in context of an Arab company coming in, said Rabiah Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Council on American Islamic Relations. It sends a message that "Arabs are not to be trusted," she said.
Politicians have raised concerns that some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers used the United Arab Emirates as an operational and financial base. And critics contend the UAE was an important transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya by a Pakistani scientist.
But others have noted that the country lets the United States base Air Force spy planes and refueling flights there and hosts visiting U.S. warships. It also has handed over terrorism suspects arrested on its territory, including the man accused of masterminding the USS Cole bombing in Yemen.
If even a moderate country like the UAE engenders this kind of reaction, Zogby said, it could create problems for the United States’ efforts to build partnerships with Arab countries to fight terrorism.
"There’s a sense that no Arab country is safe from being tarnished and tainted," he said.
The rhetoric also has implications for the Arab American and Muslim American communities, said Laila al-Qatami, spokeswoman for the national American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. She said the group already had started receiving hate mail from people because of the ports issue.
"They don’t disassociate Arab Americans and Muslim Americans from the Arab world," she said.
Abbadi agreed, saying the rhetoric contributes to a climate of fear and distrust that leads to Arab Americans and Muslim Americans being subject to hate crimes and bias incidents.
And if it’s decided that an Arab company can run the ports, she wondered how far it would go.
"It’s not a far stretch to say we shouldn’t have any Arab Americans or Muslim Americans as employees at the ports," she said.