In the reception area at a doctor’s office I heard: “Can’t believe it . . . now he’s selling our ports to Arabs . . . . look at them, they are killing each other in Iraq.” It is not uncommon to hear negative associations with Arabs, even when such slurs are a public faux pas for other ethnic groups. In fact, I’m not alone in hearing these stereotypes. A recent poll by the Washington Post shows that at least four in ten Americans (43%) have heard other people say prejudiced things about Arabs and one in four, or approximately 52 million, report that they have “at least some feelings of prejudice about Arabs.” More disturbing than the prevalence of Arab stereotypes is how politicians, both Republican and Democrat alike, manipulated these stereotypes and played on public fears to score political goals. This article briefly examines some of the language and rhetoric used to sink the Dubai Ports deal, a discourse that implicitly and explicitly played on fear mongering and exploited the “Other” for political gains while sending some disturbing messages to the public.
Let’s examine some of the key messages that harbored on fears of Arabs and were frequently repeated in the media without any criticism. New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer was one of the outspoken critics of the deal. He opposed the deal because some of the 9/11 hijackers came from the UAE: "We have to have hands-on control of things. And to have United Arab Emirates -- I mean, they are a country that's allied with the US, but at the same time a whole bunch of the (September 11) hijackers came from the United Arab Emirates." Schumer’s words were parroted on many Democratic and liberal blogs without questioning the message behind what he was saying. If this was not enough, Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, another Democrat, ran a TV commercial for his senate bid which showed him walking through a Baltimore port as pictures of some of the 9/11 hijackers flashed on the screen, providing a visual for millions to link 9/11 with the ports deal. The message here is clear: just because some of the hijackers came from the UAE, the whole country is guilty and by extension anything Arab should be questioned. By rejecting the deal on the grounds that some terrorists came from the UAE, these senators have irresponsibly associated guilt with millions of Arabs, just because of where they are from.
Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Hillary Clinton of New York, both Democratic senators, also spoke of banning companies owned or controlled by foreign governments from acquiring U.S. port operations. Senator Hillary Clinton said, “Our port security is too important to place in the hands of foreign governments.” Both senators ignored the fact that foreign companies and companies with ties to foreign governments have already been running terminals in the United States for at least a decade. These senators’ political instincts may have been correct, since the poll conducted by the Washington Post showed that more than half of Americans (57%) still opposed Dubai Ports World running the ports even when they learned that other foreign companies manage ports in the United States. One must ask why did these senators only wake up when the country in question to manage the ports was Arab? Somehow, because the company was Arab, the deal had to be scrutinized more closely and Arabs could be held to a different standard, while the majority of public opinion agreed, a political win at the expense of singling out Arabs.
One has to ask what is next? Is an open debate in congress about ethnic profiling of Arabs that far off? When Frank Gaffney, President of the Center for Security Policy and former assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy during the Reagan administration, weighed in on the issue he advocated a form of ethnic profiling: “At the risk of being politically incorrect, the proposed new management will also complicate the job of assuring that the personnel working in these ports pose no threat to their operations -- or to the rest of us. To the extent that we must remain particularly vigilant about young male Arab nationals as potential terrorists, it makes no sense to provide legitimate grounds for such individuals to be in and around some of this country's most important strategic assets.” In other words, the message democrats were sending was implicitly saying we can use public fears of Arabs because they are responsible for 9/11 and we can also hold them to a different standard than we hold other countries and the majority of the public will not question us. This logic only provides a fertile ground for the arguments made by Frank Gaffney and others on the right about ethnic profiling.
It is shameful that Democrats and Republicans alike are united in exploiting and manipulating the public fears of the “Other” and have once again shown that the word Arab remains an alien and feared word in America’s political discourse that can easily be used for political purposes.
Tamer M. N. Anis has an MA in political science and is a researcher.
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