Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1998, Pages 82-83
Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi (1928-1998)
By Richard H. Curtiss
Arab-American activist Dr. Mohammad Taki Mehdi, who died at age 70 of a heart attack in New York City on Feb. 23, has been called the “father of the Arab movement in America.” He was the second son of El Hajj Abdullah Mehdi, the proprietor of a coffee shop in Kerbala, an ancient historic town and major Islamic pilgrimage site some 100 miles south of Baghdad.
Not too long after Abdullah Mehdi and his wife, Zohra, moved to Baghdad, their eldest son, Mohammad Ridha Mehdi, scored highest in the nation in Iraq’s national examinations for graduating secondary school students. As Iraq’s top student, the young man went to London to continue his studies, placing a heavy strain on the family’s modest income. As the second son, Mohammad T. Mehdi was expected to help support his elder brother’s higher education, delaying his own graduation from Baghdad’s High School of Commerce.
The delay did not hamper Mohammad T. Mehdi’s own academic achievements, however. Upon his graduation he was ranked second highest in Iraq’s national examinations. With Iraq’s budding oil industry rapidly raising the nation’s living standards, Mohammad T. Mehdi was able to travel to the University of California at Berkeley in 1948 on a full Iraqi government scholarship. There he received a B.A. in 1952 and stayed on to earn an M.A. and a Ph.D., all in political science, with a specialization in American constitutional law. That specialization, and his resulting understanding of the U.S. political system, fitted him perfectly him for the life of full-time political activism that followed.
That activism began early when he and other UC Berkeley students volunteered to work with the American Friends Service Committee. One of his fellow student volunteers was Beverlee Ethlyn Turner, whom he married in 1953. Subsequently they had three daughters, Anisa, who now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, Janan Chandler of Mississauga, Ontario, and Laila Hilfinger of Seattle. Although their parents divorced in 1980, the three daughters, all married, now have seven children of their own.
Dr. Mehdi’s career of political activism continued when, after four years as a teaching assistant at Berkeley, he became director of the West Coast office of the Arab Information Center in San Francisco and, in 1962, transferred to its New York City office.
Two years later and 14 years after the creation of Israel, the Jordanian pavilion at the New York World’s Fair opened with a mural and inscription depicting the plight of Palestinian refugees. U.S. Jewish groups, led by B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress, demonstrated against the display and demanded that the mural be removed or, if the Jordanian government refused, that the Jordanian pavilion be closed by fair authorities.
The Zionist groups might have had their way, as they usually did in New York at that time, had it not been for the unexpected appearance of a group of counter demonstrators. It called itself the Action Committee on American-Arab Relations and, led by Dr. Mehdi and including his American-born wife and all three of their young daughters, based its demand to keep the display open and accessible to World’s Fair visitors in terms of the First Amendment to the American Constitution’s guarantee of the right to freedom of expression and of access to information.
The confrontation with heretofore easily intimidated Arab Americans took New York Zionists by surprise, and attracted world-wide media attention. The Jordanian government refused to remove the mural, New York fair authorities backed down, and the display remained in place for many months until the fair closed.
Reminiscing about the personal history that led him from a remote town in Iraq to the highly publicized New York events in which U.S. media first were exposed to his cheerfully confrontational style, Dr. Mehdi told a writer preparing a personal profile on him for the November 1988 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs that he was “one of the most fortunate Arabs and Muslims in the world.”
In this period, which predated the formation of the other existing national Arab- American organizations, the ACAAR evolved into the American-Arab Relations Committee and Dr. Mehdi became known to many as “the father of the Arab movement in America.” In his frequent, and often lonely presentations to academic or media audiences, Dr. Mehdi made it clear that his quarrel was not with Jews or Judaism but with the exclusionist political philosophy of Zionism.
“As Muslims we respect Judaism and the Jewish people as Ahl al Kitab, the ”˜people of the Book,’” he explained. “We object to the apartheid policies of the Zionist state of Israel.”
In 1983 Dr. Mehdi played a major role in founding the National Council on Islamic Affairs, pointing out that while there are an estimated three million Christian and Muslim Arab Americans, there also are some six million other American Muslims, making Islam America’s second-largest and fastest-growing religion. From that time, Dr. Mehdi played a leading role in seeking to unite the U.S. Islamic community for joint political action and, where appropriate, bloc voting. He and leaders of two other national Muslim political organizations, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), were particularly active in this regard in the 1996 U.S. presidential election.
In December 1987, Dr. Mehdi and NCIA vice president Dale Shaheen traveled to Beirut after the disappearance of British hostage negotiator Terry Waite to continue his efforts to negotiate the release of Americans kidnapped in Lebanon. “American hostages are our fellow citizens and the hostage-holders are our fellow Muslims,” Dr. Mehdi explained. “So we had the obligation to do our best on behalf of our American and our Muslim brethren.”
After a series of press conferences a spokesman for the kidnappers appeared one night in Dr. Mehdi’s hotel in Damascus, but the first contact produced no results. Two months later Mehdi and Shaheen returned to Beirut to try again, but the Lebanese civil war intensified and after five days in the center of violent street fighting, they were forced to leave Lebanon without accomplishing their mission.
Much more successful has been Dr. Mehdi’s effort, with his fellow activist, Syrian-American media personality Ghazi Khankan, to familiarize Americans with their country’s Islamic as well as its Judeo- Christian heritage. The direct result of these efforts was passage of a New York state law stipulating that wherever Christians or Jews are permitted to display religious symbols on public property, the same right is available to Muslims. As a result a star and crescent symbol of Islam was displayed in the lobby of the Empire State Building, at the World Trade Center and in various town halls and state offices in New York in December 1997.
Dr. Mehdi and Mr. Khankan also were present on the mall in Washington, DC last December for the erection for the first time of a star and crescent alongside the national Christmas tree and a Jewish menorah. Hopefully it was the beginning of an annual national tradition to be pursued by the National Council on Islamic Affairs, whose leadership Mr. Khankan has assumed.
Dr. Mehdi was the author of 10 books including A Nation of Lions, Chained; Peace in the Middle East; Peace in Palestine; Kennedy and Sirhan: Why?; Terrorism: Why America is the Target; and he edited Palestine and the Bible, a collection of essays by prominent Christian and Jewish theologians.
Dr. Mehdi also played a little-known but key role in the history of Islam in America when he arranged for Malcolm X to make a first and life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca. It changed Malcolm X’s thought when he realized that there is no racism in Islam. Subsequently, Malcolm X led tens of thousands of followers in the so-called “Black Muslim” movement, which was based upon anti-white doctrines, into Orthodox, Sunni Islam. African-Americans now comprise about 40 percent of the U.S. Muslim population.
Dr. Mehdi, whose elder brother had died in 1987 in England, was stricken in the foyer of a midtown New York office building the morning of Feb. 23 and died in the afternoon of the same day in the emergency room of Bellevue medical center. His daughter Anisa, a journalist who was with him when he died and who supplied much of the background material for this article, noted that when he was stricken he was wearing his Berkeley tie with the golden bear symbol of the university.
Speakers at Feb. 25 prayer services at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York included diplomats representing Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, the Rev. James Morton of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Dr. Mehdi’s long-time friend Ghazi Khankan of the Islamic Center of Long Island. A second memorial service will be held April 4 at the Clifton, NJ public library. The ecumenical nature of these services was typical of Dr. Mehdi’s dedication to unity and cooperation across sectarian lines within Islam, and with Christian and Jewish peace activists.
Over his many years of activism Mohammad Mehdi developed a controversial relationship with a frequently hostile mainstream media in which each seemed to exploit the other. Reporters sought him out for outspoken, humorous and frequently colorful statements on current events which often provoked anger among mainstream U.S. readers and listeners. On the other hand, Dr. Mehdi, like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, seemingly had concluded that unless he provided at least one controversial statement in each interview, the media would print none of his views and facts at all.
Over the years, however, views on U.S. university campuses about Middle East affairs have largely merged with Dr. Mehdi’s, and even the general American public now accepts many of the insights that were considered controversial, even outrageous, when this indefatigable Iraqi American first brought them to American attention.
Now it appears that pro-Zionist media reporters have gone to the opposite extreme, eschewing Arab spokespersons like M.T. Mehdi, who pulled no punches in expressing the outrage that virtually all Arabs and Muslims feel over America’s unwavering tilt toward an increasingly intransigent Israel and away from even the friendliest and most accommodating Muslim countries. Instead the media now seem to look for Arab-American accommodationists who, to gain access to the media, say what friends of Israel want to hear, but in doing so no longer represent their community, but only themselves.
From the time he began his activist career, Mohammad Mehdi spoke clearly and authentically for American Arabs and Muslims. In doing so he frequently generated anger among U.S. Zionists. But by his own fearless example he imparted the courage to speak out to his hitherto voiceless fellow immigrants. In an early encounter, Zionist toughs ambushed him from behind and, in an apparent attempt to cripple or kill him, broke his legs and fractured his spine. However, as soon as he could walk again, he was back confronting his opponents before the cameras and on the picket line.
In a strangely critical obituary in the Feb. 25 New York Times, staff writer Eric Pace, or his editors, printed the comment of only one Arab-American leader from among Dr. Mehdi’s thousands of friends and admirers. That comment was “balanced” by remarkably mean-spirited and considerably longer comments from Abraham H. Foxman, national director of B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League.
It is too much to hope that Mr. Pace’s obituary will set a precedent, with The New York Times consulting Arab-American leaders for thoughts to include in obituaries of Zionist activists. However, perhaps it is not untoward to suggest that with enemies like Mr. Foxman, it is no wonder that this outspoken, brave, warm, humorous, tolerant and genuinely joyful warrior for peace with justice, Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi, left such a host of devoted admirers and grieving personal friends.
Richard H. Curtiss is the executive director of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.