The First Amendment Looks Especially Beautiful in Arabic

In 2006, a human rights advocate, who is a friend, was prevented from boarding his flight from New York to California because of Arabic.

Yes, Arabic. The language spoken by more than 400 million people worldwide, making it one of the top five languages in the world and reportedly the fastest growing in the U.S., was the culprit.

My friend was wearing a T-shirt with the words “We will not be silent” in both Arabic and English. He was told he could not fly until the offending Arabic script was covered. And lest we think our issues with Arabic have resolved themselves in the last decade, remember that simply speaking Arabic on an airplane was grounds for removal from a flight just last year.

How we got to this point is a complicated matter, but the path forward doesn’t have to be.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Arab-Americans and American Muslims have come to be viewed by some of our fellow citizens and our own government as either victims of hate or potential perpetrators of violence. The latter view dictates we should be seen through a securitized lens and has produced profiling and surveillance of our communities, watch lists, and special registry programs, to name but a few programs targeting us.

However, both oversimplifications fail to capture the experience of being Arab or Muslim in post-9/11 America, and last year’s presidential campaign demonstrated that with extraordinary clarity. We have heard condemnation of the surge in hate crimes but little discussion on how the rhetoric during the election contributed to that hate, particularly by leading policy makers and candidates. Instead of challenging bigoted misinformation, some candidates furthered it.

At a New Hampshire town hall, a voter declared to then-candidate Trump, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims.” He concluded by asking, “When can we get rid of them?” Mr. Trump’s answer: “We are going to be looking at a lot of different things.”

One could reasonably suggest President Trump’s Muslim bans, in both incarnations, were the logical continuation of that conversation in New Hampshire. The Muslim ban is a candidate delivering on a campaign promise unlike any we have seen in our lifetime.

Thankfully, it is not that simple in our country.

Standing in the path between bigotry and policy is our Constitution. In this case, specifically the First Amendment.

Among the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment are freedom of speech and the right to religious freedom. Thus far, numerous judges have found the bans to be in violation of our First Amendment and their implementation has been stalled. In the guise of keeping us safe, Trump has proposed unnecessary, ineffective policies that sow fear. Americans know it, and responded by showing up at our nation’s airports with banners and legal pads to defend our Constitution and protect the people most impacted, including those who speak the “feared” language of Arabic.

In addition to winning the first stay of the ban, the ACLU has launched a “We the People” campaign that features the First Amendment translated into other languages, including Arabic, and is displaying it in ads and billboards. Seeing the First Amendment in Arabic is particularly satisfying at this moment as a fitting reminder that those words apply to all of us.

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I worked on Capitol Hill on Sept. 11, and I was in the room when Attorney General John Ashcroft first presented the Patriot Act to congressional leadership. Many at the time asked: Are we striking the right balance between protecting our national security and our civil liberties? We should always remember that if we are told we must choose one or the other, we are being offered a false choice and a shortsighted remedy that will provide neither. The same goes for bigoted, undemocratic policies demanding that we choose between freedom or safety.

Like those who advance them, policy remedies can either move our country forward or take us back.

The slogan on my friend’s shirt belonged to a resistance campaign led by the White Rose, an extraordinary group of young people who were brutally executed for distributing leaflets in opposition to Nazi policies in Germany during World War II. The phrase “We will not be silent” is how they concluded their fourth resistance flyer.

Our fear of Arabic — or more specifically, of Arabs and Muslims — remains a problem for some, including those who currently hold some important positions in our government. It is driving an increase in incidents of hate and bad policies. We hope they will soon get over that irrational fear but until they do, we too will not be silent and are protected by the words of our Constitution and the judges sworn to uphold them.

After all, remember that my friend who was targeted for the two words of Arabic on his T-shirt is protected by the 34 words of Arabic — or 45 in English — appearing on a billboard near you.

If you want your own sticker copies of the First Amendment translated in Arabic, English and Spanish, they are available for pre-order here.

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Multilingual Co...

The official language of the United States is and for the foreseeable future always will be some form of English script.

However, our country is built on the promise that no person shall be restricted from learning, speaking or using other communication styles including other languages. But please don't be offended if the majority of citizens refuse to use, speak, or understand any other language but the legal one. It is their right to use and condone the only legal language we have.

If you want this to change, then enact law like Canada who uses both French and English as authorized legal languages. Moreover, in Quebec French is the majority language. There are even American towns on the Northeen border where only French is spoken. Just as there are even larger cities on the southern border where Spanish in the dominant communication form.

Either way, right or wrong, English is the official language and provides a common assimilation point for all Americans.

Travel to most any Aribic speaking country and, outside of the aristocracy, no English is spoken or tolerated. I love the ACLU, but perhaps you should start a campaign in Arabic countries that post English expressions like "Let women vote and drive" or "Freedom of Press is a Right" or "All Religions are Equal".

Try either of those in Tehran, Saudi Arabia, or even realitivley free Jordon and the ACLU would be permantly banned. Go ahead, try it and then write an report detailing what happened.


Asking ACLU to post 'Let women vote and drive' in some Arabic countries is not a good argument because ACLU stands for American Civil Liberties Union. Notice the word American there. Know what that means? It means it is an AMERICAN organization that operates in AMERICA upholding AMEIRCAN laws for the AMERICAN people and anyone related with AMERICA. It commits to promoting AMERICAN values in AMERICA, not worldwide.


Hardly the conclusion of the article to change the official language to anything other than English. Perhaps you might read it again to understand better what the author means. You're subtle trolling and diversionary response is silly. These people are Americans, nation to hundreds of different ethnicities and languages all striving for a common goal. I think you failed to grasp the point that the author was making.


Are you high?


Um, hi, lived in Rabat for several months while studying Arabic/teaching English. EVERYONE wanted to learn English or practice English with me. Not the aristocracy but every day students. American pop culture is super popular world wide and even if someone can't speak English fluently, they will know some common words (just like in the US we all pretty much know Hola, and gracias, uno, dos, tres even if we don't speak Spanish). In a lot of countries, English is the preferred language of study especially for medical/ scientific fields. In fact it is now a requirement for any medical or scientific based college degree seeker to speak an intermediate level of English in Morocco.
It sounds like you need to open your mind with facts and not drugs...


The United States does not have an official language. Your entire post is based on a fallacy.

Patricia B

The United States has NO official language. English is NOT the law here. Sorry...


You don't speak English. You speak American!


All of my Arab friends speak English. You're just so very wrong.


Tehran isn't even an Arabic-speaking place. Iranians speak Farsi (Persian) and many also speak English.


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