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Remarks at the Arab American Institute

Author: John F. Kerry
October 17, 2003
Foreign Affairs

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Senator John Kerry, D-Mass.
Washington, DC
October 17, 2003

Thank you so much Billy for your generous introduction. Like so many others, Billy’s grandparents emigrated from Lebanon seeking opportunity. Through hard work and a steadfast belief in the promise of this nation, they built a strong foundation from which their children and grandchildren could pursue the American dream. I am proud to have your support.

Arab-Americans have contributed so much to the life of our country. I know this personally. Jim Shaer, an Arab-American, was one of my closest aides for 16 years. He started at the bottom and rose to be my Assistant State Director. He served me and the people of Massachusetts well. And Leigh O’Neill, who serves on my Senate staff, is a perfect example of the way that America works. She is the granddaughter of Tip O’Neill – a great Irish American leader – and she also happens to be an Arab-American. Her mother is of Arab descent and Leigh is an outstanding public servant. Billy, Jim and Leigh are talented and committed patriots who love their country and care deeply about its future.

The central fact of our time is that we are a nation still living in the shadow of September 11th. It was the most brutal and deadly attack America has ever known. We lost so many lives that morning: three thousand husbands and daughters, mothers and brothers, friends and heroes.

September 11th was not a clash of civilizations as some would have us believe. It – and the war on Terror that has followed – are a clash of civilization against terror; of the hopes of humanity against the fears of the few.

And we must be clear as a bell on this. Our cause in winning the War on Terror isn’t helped when we have Army officers like Lt. Gen. William Boykin speaking in evangelical churches and claiming this as some sort of battle for the Christian religion. He said of a 1993 battle with a Muslim militia leader in Somalia: “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.”

His comments to do not do honor to the victims of September 11th. They do not do honor to those that fought for America in Afghanistan. And Don Rumsfeld was wrong to pass up every opportunity to condemn these comments. Don Rumsfeld needs to go – and we need new leadership ready to unite the people’s of the world in a coalition to fight terror.

September 11th shined a spotlight on our nation: highlighting our greatest strengths and exposing the work we all still need to do to become one America; a country that lives up to its basic values.

The story of Arab Americans is the story of America – of an immigrant people whose hard work and beliefs have made this nation great. It is the story of the hundreds of thousands of Arab Americans who came through Ellis Island and settled all over the country. It is the story of soldiers and statesmen and scientists who have created the America we love.

It is the story of people like Fawaz Ismail. His Palestinian parents came to America from Jordan when he was nine years old. Twenty-five years ago, he began selling American flags from the back of his Volkswagen bus because he loved what the flag stood for. Today, he is the largest retailer of flags in America.

After September 11th, people lined up for half a mile outside his stores. He sold half a million flags in a week and donated a portion of the earnings to the families of the victims.

But a few days after the attack, he was leaving a restaurant on a Saturday afternoon when sirens began to scream. The police officer told him it was just a routine check. But he knew that the only reason he was pulled over was because of his ethnicity.

And the Arab American story is the story of people like Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New York City police cadet, an ambulance driver, an incoming medical student, and a devout Muslim. After he disappeared on September 11th, law enforcement officers went to his home and began asking his family if he was involved in the attacks. Six months later his remains were found – near the North Tower of the World Trade Center – with his EMT medical bag beside him.

On September 11th 2001, terrorists attacked a nation conceived in liberty, built on justice, founded on equality. A nation of immigrants. And we will fight to defend that nation – not give up the beliefs that make us who we are.

America is not a nation of secret knocks at the door in the dead of night. No one will be stronger in defending this nation, but we are better than secret and indefinite detentions. We are better than the physical abuse of prisoners who don’t have the slightest connection to terrorism. And there is a better way to security than racial or religious or ethnic profiling. When law enforcement wastes resources on those who have done nothing wrong – it makes it harder to track down those who are truly dangerous.

Seven centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the great scholar Ibn Al Qayyim wrote that “justice is the foundation of the heavens and earth.” Justice must always be the foundation of this nation as well. And John Ashcroft and his Department of Justice would do well to remember that.

John Ashcroft has said, “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.” This is not only a horrible distortion of Islam – it betrays a deep bigotry that does not do honor to the Department of Justice. America deserves an Attorney General better than John Ashcroft – and I can’t wait for the chance to appoint one.

If September 11th taught us anything it is that our security begins at home – but it doesn’t end there. America’s President can never again walk away from the Middle East and from the active, engaged, consistent search for peace.

Forging a stable and lasting peace in the Middle East is vital to American national security, to the security of Israel and other countries in the region, and to the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a viable Palestinian state. It is also an essential part of winning the war on terror. Ignoring or downplaying the conflict, as the Bush Administration did for far too long, is a dangerous game.

I know from my many trips to the Middle East that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis want to live side by side in peace. When I was in the region in early 2002, I saw first hand the devastating impact of this ongoing conflict on the daily lives of both Palestinians and Israelis. In Ramallah, for example, Palestinian women, traveling on foot, were forced to stand in long lines at check points with their children tugging at their sleeves and their arms loaded with groceries or other basic needs. And while they were struggling to get through the day, Israelis were also living in fear of another terrorist attack – not sure whether to get on a bus or go to a restaurant. Sadly, this situation is not better– it is worse. The suffering and harassment of Palestinians has grown along with the apprehension of Israelis.

No peace process will be successful unless Israelis and Palestinians are committed to that process and willing to take steps that each side finds difficult. Palestinian leaders must bring an end to the violence against Israelis and find a way, with the help of others, to rein in militant groups. And Israel must be prepared to meet its obligations, as outlined in the Bush Administration’s road map, with respect to settlements. The absence of movement on these two critical issues only serves to convince each side that the other is not really serious about peace.

And I know how disheartened Palestinians are by the Israeli government’s decision to build the barrier off of the green line – cutting deep into Palestinian areas. We don’t need another barrier to peace. Provocative and counterproductive measures only harm Israeli’s security over the long term, increase the hardships to the Palestinian people, and make the process of negotiating an eventual settlement that much harder.

There is nothing to be gained in an endless cycle of violence and reprisals that only point in a downward direction. There is no future for that tiny sliver of land other than that of two nations living as peaceful neighbors – and the extremists on both sides need to realize that. Israeli mothers and Palestinian mothers cry the same tears over their lost sons and daughters. And Israeli and Palestinian children have no hopes for a lifetime of peace and prosperity that do not involve peace and prosperity for each other.

It has been said that “There is on the horizon of the Middle East a new awakening; it is growing and expanding; it is reaching and engulfing all sensitive, intelligent souls; it is penetrating and gaining all the sympathy of noble hearts.” These words are as true today as they were when Khalil Gibran wrote them 80 years ago. And that new awakening in the Middle East only awaits leadership willing to put aside violence, to recognize the rights of all to live, to live with hope for a better life, to live together in peace. And we need a President who will offer consistent leadership in that new direction.

Whether it is the issues we face here at home – or those around the world – Arab Americans look to the White House for leadership that offers equal justice for all, that recognizes the hopes and hard work of those struggling to do what’s right, that sees a future where discrimination and bloodshed can be conquered. These are the dreams of Arab Americans and all Americans. And we deserve a President who will lead us toward that future, who will honor all of us and the deepest values of this nation. That is the leadership I hope to bring and I’d be honored by your support. Thank you.