As the Gulf War Stirs Prejudice, Albert Mokhiber Fights for the Rights of Arab-Americans

updated 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Less than two weeks into the gulf war, another live round has landed on Albert Mokhiber's desk. The president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., has just learned through news reports that Pan Am has begun banning Iraqis from its planes, and Mokhiber, 32, is again on the offensive, his hackles raised. "This is a throwback to Selma, Alabama, when African-Americans were denied rights to sit at the front of the bus," fumes Mokhiber, who has just fired off letters demanding a meeting with the heads of the Federal Aviation Administration and Pan Am. "But here we're not even allowed on the bus."

Deflecting a disturbing wave of anti-Arab sentiment—punctuated with increasing frequency by actual violence-has become an all-consuming task for Mokhiber. The siege began last August—just a month before Mokhiber became president of his group—when Saddam's tanks crushed Kuwait. In January alone, there was an attempted bombing of a mosque in San Diego and a drive-by shooting at a store owned by an Arab-American in Detroit. A Dairy Queen owned by an Arab-American restaurateur in Blissfield. Mich., was spray painted with the words USA NO. 1; later, someone burned it to the ground.

According to ADC—the country's largest Arab civil-rights group, with 25.000 members—those incidents followed 41 unprovoked violent acts against Arab-Americans from August through December of last year, compared with five such incidents during the seven months preceding the gulf crisis. "There's always the danger that Arab-Americans will become domestic casualties," says Mokhiber, who has been working 70-hour weeks leading his 22-member staff in the fight. "This is the kind of setting that led to Japanese internment during World War Q." Contributing to the danger. Mokhiber argues, is the continued acceptability of anti-Arab stereotypes. "People point at us and say, 'They're all terrorists, they're all oil barons, they all have 40 wives.' and nobody really cares," he says.

Mokhiber himself didn't suffer such opprobrium when he was-growing up in Niagara Falls, N.Y. His parents, Annis, a postal worker who died in 1979, and Barbara, 67, a retired bookkeeper, were born in the U.S., and Albert and his three older siblings were fully Americanized. "We never faced any tremendous problems," says Mokhiber. "Occasionally you were called a camel jockey, but nobody made a big deal about it."

At home, Mokhiber's parents taught the children respect for the heritage of their immigrant Lebanese Christian grandparents. "My father used to tell us about how my grandmother could feed 10 people or 50 with the same chicken, just by shredding it finer and adding more rice," he recalls. Visits by relatives from Lebanon kept Mokhiber interested in Arab issues, including that country's civil war. After graduating from the State University of New York at Binghamton and the University at Buffalo School of Law, he headed the Arab-American desk of Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign. He married his wife, Hindy, 32, an American-born Palestinian, five years ago. They have two daughters, Laila, 4, and Lina, 3.

Since joining ADC as legal counsel in 1984, Mokhiber has become accustomed to the frustration of working in the cause of a much-stereotyped minority. Some of ADC's more controversial positions—including its advocacy of a Palestinian state—have brought bitter opposition. And ADC, which, according to Mokhiber, receives no funds from foreign governments, has also been the target of terrorism. In 1985 the group's West Coast director. Alex Odeh. was killed by a bomb. Mokhiber is critical of the governments of the U.S. and Israel for not bringing suspects to justice.

The ADC has also had its successes. Last month a coalition of civil rights groups and six congressmen joined ADC in protesting the FBI's procedures for interviewing hundreds of Arab-Americans—in order, the agency says, to investigate hate crimes and possible terrorism. Mokhiber. while welcoming the FBI's help in fighting violence, objects to questions about terrorism and the political leanings of the interview subjects. "The idea that Arab-Americans have some innate knowledge of terrorism is outrageous." says Mokhiber, who met with FBI Director William Sessions on Jan. 14 to air his protests. An FBI spokesperson told PEOPLE that agents were not supposed to ask questions about political beliefs and that the agency did not mean to imply that those interviewed are associated with terrorism.

Mokhiber hoped sanctions and diplomacy would force Saddam from Kuwait. Now that shooting has begun, he feels "grief for all the blood I'm sure will be shed, by our troops, by Arabs on both sides of the line." he says. The high stakes involved have made him determined to keep trumpeting his cause—and to keep reminding his countrymen that Arab-Americans, too, are concerned about the outcome of the war. "Like all Americans, we don't want to see our soldiers coming back in body bags," he says. "I have a nephew in the reserves. Some people think Arab-Americans don't have as much at stake as our neighbors. Of course we do—and more."

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