The billboard image is striking: a photo of a man shrouded in a traditional Arab head scarf clutching a grenade and a North Carolina driver’s license.
The message: “Don’t license terrorists, North Carolina.”
A New York-based group that plans to place the ad near North Carolina’s Capitol this month says it is meant as a critique of the state’s driver’s license laws but Arab-American groups complain it is inflaming an anti-Arab sentiment.
“The message of the ad says that Arabs are dangerous and violent people and that therefore they should not get driver’s licenses and I think it’s bigoted. It’s racist,” said Christine Saah Nazer of the Washington D.C.-based Arab American Institute.
Amanda Bowman, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, which is launching the billboard campaign in North Carolina, Wisconsin and New Mexico, said the ad targets only terrorists.
“We’re not going after Arab-Americans,” Bowman said. “We’re going after terrorists.”
Driver's license laws not strict enough
Many states have tightened their driver’s license laws to include tougher restrictions for immigrants since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but Bowman’s group says North Carolina lags behind.
A state Transportation Department audit this summer of North Carolina’s licensing process found it was much less strict than in surrounding states. The report said information provided by applicants is not double-checked and that easily forged documents are accepted as proof of residency in the state.
Transportation Department spokesman Ernie Seneca called the premise for the ad “flat-out wrong [and] totally inaccurate” and said the ad itself was offensive.
The department has addressed many of the issues raised in the audit, he said. A program implemented last year also eliminated some forms of identification previously deemed acceptable, and all applicants now must show U.S.-issued or U.S.-validated documents to get a license, he said.
Fifteen of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks had multiple driver’s licenses. And while none of those men had North Carolina licenses, Bowman said her group is trying to educate citizens about the importance of tightening license laws.
Siwar Bandar, spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, charged that the billboard further isolates a community already marginalized in the U.S.
“Our biggest fear is that it doesn’t do anything more than inflame fears about Arabs and Arab Americans,” Bandar said.