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Southern California Chronicle
At Its Ninth Annual Convention in Long Beach, MPAC Focuses on Past and Future Challenges
By Pat and Samir Twair
MORE THAN 2,000 delegates converged at the Long Beach Convention Center for the 9th annual Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) convention Dec. 5 to hear government officials, entertainments figures and Muslim pundits discuss events of the past decade and prospects for a new one.
“Rebuilding U.S.-Muslim World Relations” was the title of a plenary with Dr. Nayyer Ali moderating a panel composed of Tamara Wittes, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs; Dr. Laila al-Marayati; Dr. Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Muslim Observer; and Jonathan Morgenstein of the Department of Defense.
Dr. al-Marayati asked what the U.S. government’s criteria are for human rights. “The U.S. trips up for its lack of transparency, such as remaining silent during Israel’s land, sea and air assault on unprotected Gaza,” stated the Women’s Muslim League director.
Morgenstein observed that U.S. troops are trying to interact positively with Iraqi and Afghan civilians.
Dr. al-Marayati countered: “It’s too bad this interaction is made by soldiers instead of Americans in the Peace Corps.
Secretary Witte stressed that, in March, President Barack Obama will host entrepreneur meetings promoting partnerships and exchange programs with Muslim countries. She said her office is across from Sen. George Mitchell’s, where high-level activity is going on to improve relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Dr. al-Marayati responded that she doesn’t understand why the U.S. gives the green light to Israel’s crippling blockade of all but the barest of food and necessities to Gaza.
Dr. Abdullah stated: “If Obama acted firmly, there would be a Palestinian state tomorrow.”
Secretary Witte replied: “I accept your passion but I think President Obama cares. On his second day in office, he assigned Senator Mitchell to the area and Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton went to Ramallah. This president called for a freeze on Israeli settlements.”
Dr. al-Marayati noted: “We should give the Obama administration credit, but the Palestinians have suffered for 61 years. I know that when Washington has the will, change will happen fast.”
Spotlight on Fort Hood
“Fort Hood: A Defining Moment” was the title of the afternoon plenary with Salam al-Marayati moderating a panel featuring Constance Rice of the Advancement Project, Dr. Maher Hathout of MPAC, and Cynthia Valenzuela of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF).
Referring to Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s Nov. 5 killing of 12 soldiers and wounding of 31 more at Fort Hood, TX, Dr. Hathout said it was incomprehensible that a Muslim who is a physician, psychiatrist, and Army officer could carry out such an act.
Stated Rice: “When I first heard the news, my biggest fear was that if the shooter was a Muslim, there would be a backlash. MPAC’s critical role in tamping down fear in the community became evident immediately.
“There were more flags on this incident than there are on the United Nations building,” she continued. “Hasan’s psychiatry colleagues had been tracing him. Doctors don’t rat on each other, but they knew there was a problem.”
When moderator al-Marayati asked if the media have responsibly reported on Fort Hood, Rice responded with a no. “Law enforcement needs an input from minorities,” she argued, “it needs to hear the voice of moderate Islam.”
Al-Marayati asked Valenzuela how MALDEF has reacted to CNN’s Lou Dobbs’ accusations about illegal Latino immigrants.
“Americans are terrified of undocumented workers, who make up less than 3 percent of the U.S. population,” she replied.
Interjected Rice: “When whites fear the country is falling off an economic cliff, they feel disenfranchised and become equally irrational about Muslims.”
In response to Valenzuela’s remark, Dr. Hathout said: “We’re the ones in trouble, the right wingers claim we Muslims will blow them up; whereas they only despise Mexicans for taking their jobs.”
On the topic of profiling, Rice said it can be a useful tool, but only if the right questions are asked. “I know who the nuts are in my community,” she noted, “but 85 percent of racial profiling is stupid. You can’t disengage from the police, you have to help them to protect us.”
When asked how to keep youth from being influenced by radical imams, Dr. Hathout commented: “It is immoral to send other people to die. Martyrdom means to achieve victory, not to commit suicide. Muslim scholars should make definitions—don’t seek death, seek a peaceful compromise. And why does no one challenge these old guys who preserve themselves while sending youths out to commit suicide?”
Plenary on Arts
“Art, Film and Social Change” was the theme of a morning MPAC panel with actress, dancer and producer Debbie Allen, Howard Gordon, executive producer of Fox’s “24” TV drama, and Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the Canadian hit sitcom, “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” Edina Lekovic was the moderator.
Allen, who gained stardom on the TV hit series “Fame,” said that as a black child in Texas, she couldn’t attend ballet school, nor were there many African American actors on TV.
“It was tough to be black and a woman—not just a dancer—with ideas when I broke into show business,” she recalled. “When I got into writing and producing, I had ownership and power. That’s why I encourage all communities to invest in their young writers.”
Gordon, whose “24” began its eighth season Jan. 17, was asked if his show, which features an African-American president, had any influence in the 2008 elections.
“We weren’t conscious that this might be ground-breaking, it just seemed socially more interesting to not cast another gray-haired white guy in the role,” he responded.
“We offer equal opportunities for villains and have had a fair share of Islamist terrorists,” Gordon continued, “but ”˜24’ producers became more sensitive to the issue after MPAC representatives met with them in 2002.”
A case in point was a story line about a Los Angeles Muslim family forming a sleeper cell. When “24” was informed of a billboard overlooking the I-405 Freeway that showed a Muslim family with the message, “They Could Be Next Door,” it was immediately removed.
Gordon said other scripts have dealt with Muslim victims of discrimination and the invasion of their civil rights for security reasons.
Nawaz’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie” was the first show written by a Muslim woman to appear on the Canadian Broadcasting Company. She doubts it could be a success in the U.S.
“Americans only want comedy about culture and never about religion,” she opined, and predicted that “We’ll see more Muslim sidekicks on TV instead of African Americans.”
When asked about her Dec. 10 through 12 performances of “Oman O Man” at UCLA’s Royce Hall (see below), Allen said she wrote and produced the show as part of the 2009 Arabesque Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC (see May/June 2009 Washington Report, p. 61).
Allen, who is an artist-in-residence at the Kennedy Center, was commissioned to create a musical as part of the three-week Arabesque extravaganza. As she became aware of the diversity of the 22 Arab nations, Allen heeded some advice and visited the Sultanate of Oman.
After extensive research and the collaboration of composer Arturo Sandoval, her production, “Oman O Man,” performed to sold-out audiences last March 12 to 15 in the Kennedy Center.
At the close of the MPAC plenary, Allen said the election of Barack Obama has provided wind beneath the wings of people worldwide. To which Gordon commented: “It’s an optimistic moment. A page has been turned in history and we’ll see what will be written.”
Pat and Samir Twair are free-lance journalists based in Los Angeles.
“Oman O Man” a Hit at UCLA
Leaders of Los Angeles’ African-American community turned out in full force Dec. 10 for the gala opening of Debbie Allen’s “Oman O Man” at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
A truly trans-cultural experience, 12 dancers from Los Angeles and 12 from Washington, DC rehearsed for three weeks with 10 Omani dancers in Muscat, Oman.
Allen said she originally thought the production would be a ballet, but later realized she wanted her American and Omani performers to interact. The plot revolves around Salim (Rami Pinchasi) and Joseph (Kyle Jones), roommates in an elite military academy.
Each boy learns about the other’s culture in breathtaking and high-stepping sequences that are Allen’s signature style. Scenes included a Baptist church, Omani sailors in the Arabian Sea, African dancers and a jazzy Wall Street number.
Several free performances were offered to Los Angeles school children who were bused to the UCLA campus. Proceeds will go to the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, which offers most of its 400 young students full and partial scholarships.
—P. & S. Twair