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World: James Zogby Talks To RFE/RL At Forum 2000

James Zogby at Forum 2000 James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, D.C., talked to RFE/RL on 10 October at the annual Forum 2000 conference in Prague.

RFE/RL: How do you see the impact on the American Muslim community of the events of the last four years since 9/11 and the war on terrorism?

Zogby: Overall they have been a test: a test of America and a test, I think, of the communities that were affected . A test of America that, I think, ultimately was passed. America showed itself, despite an initial backlash, to be more protective of the communities. It actually became a measure of the patriotism of the country, the degree to which you did not discriminate against Arab-Americans or Muslims. President [George W.] Bush set the tone, Hollywood followed suit, and law enforcement, despite, I think, some outrageous practices that were instituted by the Justice Department, law enforcement ultimately pushed back -- they didn't like to profile, they don't think it's effective as a law-enforcement tool. And so they became our allies in several instances.

So I think the country passed, but I think the community had some challenges. They had to deal with the perception that there were extremists in their midst and they had to deal with some elements that actually went across the line in terms of rhetorical excess. I think the communities have done well. We have problems, no doubt, problems both still from government and problems of intolerance from some in America and we also have problems in the community, but overall we have emerged a stronger country.

RFE/RL: In Europe in particular, you read a lot of criticism of the Patriot Act, and about reported U.S. government crackdowns and discrimination against communities such as the Arab or Muslim communities. You seem to be downplaying it.

Zogby: I'm not downplaying it, I'm a part of the fight. I know what the situation was and I know what the situation is, and I know that our situation in America is far better than the situation here in Europe -- precisely because we have allies, precisely because we are pushing back and winning. Congress has changed the Patriot Act this year. The president may resist, but allies within Congress are on our side. Law enforcement [agencies] have refused to enforce the Patriot Act -- 360 communities across the country, major urban centers and states across the country have passed resolutions denouncing the Patriot Act. The pendulum is swinging back and it's swinging back because millions of Americans have joined us in fighting to push it back.

RFE/RL: You mentioned the difference between Europe and America with regards to Muslims and Arabs. Can you elaborate a little bit on that, how is it worse, say, in Europe?

Zogby: Number one: American identity is not a function of ethnicity. American identity is function of a shared identity that incorporates new people and transforms the very concept of being American. It is today a very different idea of being American than it was, say, 200 years ago. I am American, damn it, and no one can take it away. My father came as an illegal immigrant, in 1984 I rose to the podium of the Democratic Convention and nominated for president the great-grandson of a slave, Jesse Jackson -- that doesn't happen in Europe. And I think, you know, we have problems in America, we are fighting those problems, but I think you also have to acknowledge the fact that we are different; we are different in the sense that it is a more open and welcoming culture and even when bigots strike, ultimately the better angels of America win out and we are able to build mass coalitions to overturn these grave injustices of the past and turn the country around. And we are doing it right now while we speak.

See also:

Forum 2000 Looks At War on Terror

More Interviews From Forum 2000