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The day of the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Arab-American and Muslim leaders were already in Washington for a much-anticipated and potentially tense meeting with President George W. Bush. They were planning to discuss with Bush and other administration officials their concerns about the use of “secret evidence” in certain immigration proceedings — used most often against Arabs residing in the United States who are suspected of terrorist activity — as well as the racial profiling of Arab-Americans at the nation’s airport security checkpoints. When the planes hit Sept. 11, the afternoon meetings were scrubbed, of course. Instead, the leaders found themselves eating a hastily arranged lunch at the offices of the Islamic Institute at 1920 L St., N.W., a few blocks from the White House. But the leadership of the nation’s increasingly influential Arab and Muslim community was not left flatfooted. They immediately shelved their edgy agenda and mobilized their Washington contacts with two goals in mind: giving Bush clear support for his overseas response to the attacks, but also staving off what they knew would be a virulent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash across the nation. The campaign paid off with remarkable speed. Their efforts culminated on Sept. 17 with a historic visit by President Bush to the Islamic Center of Washington, where he said that anti-Muslim violence and discrimination “will not stand in America.” And while reports of hate crimes and anti-Arab gestures piled up last week, some leaders were saying that Bush’s strong statements, as well as those of other political leaders and media commentators, may have prevented a far worse reaction. The quick response was by all Washington measures a success, testimony to the increasing clout and access enjoyed by groups representing the nearly 10 million Arab- and Muslim-Americans, recognized as a potent political force only in the last few years. “I am humbled and gratified by the tremendous outpouring,” says James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, whose appearance on NBC’s “Today” show early in the crisis made him perhaps the most visible figure urging restraint. “It was very gratifying to see,” adds Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the Islamic Institute. But he, like Zogby and other Arab-American leaders interviewed, says President Bush deserves the credit for setting a tone that made his entire administration responsive to their message. “It was not a hard sell,” says Saffuri. “It was not a selling job at all,” says Zogby. It may have been an easy sell, but someone had to bring Bush the goods — and quickly. Participants say that George Salem, partner in the law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, made some of the first and most powerful approaches to the White House on Sept. 11. “As soon as the event happened, we kicked into action,” says Salem. “We anticipated the inevitable.” Within minutes after the attacks, Salem sent e-mails to two “senior officials” — he won’t say whom — inside the White House, telling them “we need the President to say something right away” to caution against violence aimed at Arab-Americans. When Salem sends e-mails, White House officials have reason to hit the “reply” button. A leader in Washington’s growing community of Arab-American lawyers, Salem chaired the Arab-American campaign for the Bush-Cheney ticket last year. The former Labor Department solicitor is also a major Republican fund-raiser and donor. According to Federal Election Commission records, Salem donated more than $43,000 during last year’s campaign, both individually and through Arab-American and law firm PACs — most of it, though not all, to Republicans. “I am someone they know,” Salem acknowledges. “But they did not need a great deal of prodding.” By the day after the attacks, Salem was meeting with Ralph Boyd Jr., assistant attorney general for civil rights, who had already assembled a team of lawyers to investigate and prosecute hate crimes against Arab-Americans. They discussed a protocol for referring complaints to the Justice Department. By late last week, the department had launched more than 50 investigations, and Arab-American lawyers in Washington were helping victims, on a pro bono basis, to file complaints. In the hours after the planes hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Zogby and his brother John, the well-known pollster who is also vice chairman of the Arab American Institute, began fielding calls of support from the likes of Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John Edwards, D-N.C., Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, political consultant James Carville, and former Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp. James Zogby says he knew the issue had resonated with average Americans when a woman from a neighboring office at 1600 K St., N.W., came by with a tray of brownies, offering to cook lunch for institute workers who might be afraid to venture out of the building. “I lost it a few times,” says Zogby, who also received several death threats following his media appearances. At the same time, John Zogby was watching events unfold from the Utica, N.Y., offices of Zogby International, the polling firm. “My first call was to Jim to see how he was doing,” says John Zogby. “We were numb, but we know it would have an impact on the Arab-American community, no matter who was responsible. It’s instinct. We’ve been through this before.” Even after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — whose perpetrator turned out to be a white American male — Arab-Americans were targets of violence and stereotyping. John Zogby says he still speaks of the Arab-American concerns with a touch of embarrassment: “It pales in comparison with what the victims and their families are going through.” But he and his brother knew they would have to raise the issue forcefully. Soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, John Zogby found in a survey for Reuters that 62 percent of Americans have a positive overall opinion of Arab-Americans, with 16 percent unfavorable, while 56 percent have a favorable view of Muslim-Americans and 19 percent unfavorable. While the numbers are positive overall, says John Zogby, “it’s those unfavorables that can wreak havoc. The bastards who can use a plane to destroy a skyscraper are the same kinds of bastards who can shoot an Indian Sikh here.” On Sept. 13, Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush made forceful statements cautioning against treating Arab-Americans as terrorist sympathizers. “Our nation should be mindful that there are thousands of Arab-Americans who live in New York City, who love their flag just as much as the three of us do,” Bush said in a phone conversation with New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that was televised. Added Ashcroft: “We must not descend to the level of those who perpetrated Tuesday’s violence by targeting individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.” The displays of support kept coming, says James Zogby, many of them unsolicited. Not by accident, an Islamic imam was the first guest cleric to speak at the Sept. 14 memorial service at the National Cathedral, attended by President Bush and other top political figures. The idea of having President Bush visit the Islamic Center of Washington came from administration officials, not from Muslim advocates, participants say. Saffuri says he received a phone call from the White House over the weekend suggesting the Sept. 17 visit. Muslim officials say Bush was the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to visit a mosque. “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes,” Bush said with Muslim leaders at his side. “Moms who wear covering must not be intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.” Through it all, Arab and Muslim leaders have avoided discussing with the administration the concerns that had brought them on the verge of a White House meeting the day of the attacks. “It would be a distraction,” says the Islamic Institute’s Saffuri. “It’s not the time to discuss them.” But even as they bask in a favorable spotlight thanks to the White House, Muslim and Arab advocates are keeping a watchful eye on wartime proposals that would further restrict immigration and curtail the rights of aliens suspected of crimes. “We don’t want to go from secret evidence to no evidence at all,” says James Zogby. “The immigration reforms that are being talked about could undo all the good we are feeling now.”

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