Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2001, page 88

Arab American Activism

Bombing, Discrimination Hot Topics at AAI Virginia Candidates’ Night

The Arab American Institute hosted its 15th candidates’ night in northern Virginia on Sept. 30. The more-than-capacity audience crowded into the room, first to stand in allegiance with their country as Amir Shallal of Langley High School led them in reciting the pledge to the flag, then to hear what their Virginia candidates had to offer them. These Virginians of Arab descent came to hear political stands on topics ranging from public schools to transportation. But they were also very much concerned that their interests as Arab Americans in the community would be addressed as well. Those running for public office seemed aware of the special interests of the gathering. The unofficial theme for the evening seemed to be “strength in diversity,” as candidate after candidate offered Arabic greetings to the community.

After a brief address by Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), calling on Americans to be a model and to empower people, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner discussed issues of the budget, education, transportation, and public safety—the latter of particular importance to Arab Americans in an atmosphere of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash following the Sept. 11 attacks. In response to a question,Warner informed the audience that his press secretary was an Arab American, and promised that Arab Americans would be represented in his cabinet if he was elected. Running for lieutenant governor on the same ticket is Richmond Mayor and civil rights attorney Tim Kaine, who made the point that he had already been instrumental in changing the name of the “Mosque Theater” in Richmond to the “Landmark Theater,” and that he would continue to work for civil rights for all.

Introducting Republican gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, was Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA), a co-sponsor of a House resolution to condemn violence against Muslims and Arabs following the Sept. 11 attacks, and of the bill to introduce a postage stamp celebrating Eid. Early, in addition to addressing such topics as education, business regulation and taxation, spoke of the importance of protecting every citizen’s constitutional rights. He reminded the audience that he had sponsored the first conference on racial profiling in Virginia. Running on the Republican slate for lieutenant governor is Jay Katzen, a former foreign service officer who spent time in the Middle East. Katzen promised work on a bill to ensure that food labeled “halal” actually meets the criteria.

Additionally, many candidates for delegate seats in the Virginia Assembly—including Arab-American Republican Kamal Nawash—introduced themselves to the audience. Unfortunately, there was no time for additional speeches, as the evening’s sponsors had invited speakers to address the bombing crisis and its aftermath.

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Ralph Boyd informed the interested crowd that a protocol for FBI investigation into, and prosecution of, hate crimes resulting from the bombings was in place within 24 hours of the Sept. 11 attacks. Boyd also noted that three instances of backlash hate crimes had already been successfully prosecuted.

The role of the FBI was addressed by Van Harp, the assistant director in charge of the Washington, DC FBI office, who assured listeners that the FBI was not profiling in its investigations into the bombings, but only following specific leads. He further requested that retaliatory hate crimes be brought to the FBI’s attention, and called on local police forces to refer instances of hate crimes to the FBI. Several members of the audience had questions or comments for Harp, who agreed with one critic concerned there was not enough diversification among so-called subject matter experts advising the FBI. Another comment, to which Harp did not respond, suggested that, since the bureau only had 25 native Arabic speakers on staff, it profiled potential employees. When asked why the FBI was unable to apprehend the killers of Alex Odeh (see June 1994 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 68), Harp responded he was new in his position and did not know. However, he did promise to find out and inform Arab and Muslim leaders, whom he invited to an October meeting at his office.

The Arab-American community in northern Virginia had made it very clear that they were active participants in civil society with a variety of concerns. How the candidates address these concerns prior to the election will determine who receives the votes of this important community.

Sara Powell

Arab Americans Honor Former Public School Superintendent Paul Vallas

Former chief executive officer of the Chicago Public School system Paul Vallas was honored in August when the Arab American Educational Council held a dinner honoring the retired superintendent turned politician, and to welcome his successor, Arne Duncan. Vallas retired this year to begin his campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial candidacy.

Some counts put the Chicago area’s Arab population at more than 150,000, and the number of Muslims at 600,000—of which nearly 70 percent are under 25 years old, according to Basam Jody, president of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, who spoke at the event.

According to the 2000 census figures, the Chicago school system is the third largest in the country, with 435,470 students. Fifty-two percent of them are African American, 35 percent are Latino, and 9.6 percent are white.

While there are no figures for Arab- or Muslim-American students, Arab community leaders have been indefatigable lobbyists for the protection of civil rights, and cultural and religious tolerance for students of Arab descent and Islamic faith.

Vallas commended the Arab-American community for its participation in Chicago’s educational system and its support of him during his six years as school superintendent.

“I’ve had great support from the Arab-American community,” he said, “and it’s been support without expectations.” He also chided those in attendance, however, for their innate good manners, which, he said, may result in their community getting overlooked when political policies are written.

“You are sometimes too humble, too cautious and too reserved,” he advised, “and sometimes too polite.”

Many Arab community leaders point to these cultural traits as reasons why it has taken them so long to be effective within the American political system. The Educational Council’s Dr. Mohammad Alzoubi agreed with Vallas’ assessment, and stressed it was time to change.

“We have a culture where we never ask our guests for anything. But, now we would like to have something,” he said, addressing Duncan as the new superintendent. “We would like to have sensitivity training about the Arab and Muslim cultures, we would like equity in educational bilingual programs, we would like an implemented exchange program with Arab and Muslim countries, and we would like an Arabic-language program.”

While none of these requests has yet materialized, Arab history has been added to the curriculum of some schools. Duncan pointed out that an Arab heritage curriculum guide also has been sent to 1,200 schools.

He went on to tell the audience that he was putting together a “leadership team to represent the diversity” that exists within the public schools’ boundaries. When asked about that team afterward, however, Duncan was not able to say specifically what the team would be, and whether any Arabs or Muslims are included. “We have a large range of people, from a large range of backgrounds,” he said.

Nor could Duncan say whether any school administration staff were Muslims, since religion is not a factor in hiring. According to Dr. Alzoubi, there are no members of the Arab community working in the CEO’s inner office. However, Alzoubi said of Duncan, “He’s still new. We need to give him time.”

Alzoubi also said that Duncan had pledged to meet with members of the Educational Council every three months.

The dinner was hosted by the Arab American Educational Council, and co-sponsored by the Council of Islamic Organizations, the Mosque Foundation, the Arab American Media Group, Chicago Islamic Center, Islamic Association for Palestine and the Arab American Democratic Club.

Kristin Szremski

Palestinian Activist Discusses Israel’s Cynical Use of an American Tragedy

On Sept. 24, the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine hosted a briefing by Khader Shkirat, director general of the Palestinian Society for Human Rights and the Environment (LAW). Shkirat focused on Israel’s escalating campaign against the Palestinian areas during the Sept. 11 attack on America when the world media’s attention was diverted from the occupied territories.

Shkirat first stated that the general Palestinian public condemned the attacks against the United States. Over one million Palestinian students held a moment of silence to remember victims of the attack, he told the audience, thousands of others held candlelight vigils, and various political parties, including Hamas, condemned the attack. None of these observances was reported by the media, he noted. On the other hand, Shkirat pointed out, former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, when asked his impressions of the terrorist attack, replied,“it is very good”—because, he clarified, it will generate a lot sympathy for Israel.

While the world’s attention was centered on the unfolding tragedy in the United States, Shkirat said, Israeli occupation forces attacked Palestinian territories with missiles, Apache helicopters and bulldozers. In the first 28 hours following the Sept. 11 attack, Israel killed 20 Palestinians and wounded hundreds. On Sept. 11 alone, 60 Israeli tanks surrounded Jenin in the West Bank, randomly shelling and causing the death of 14 Palestinians. Had such attacks taken place any other time, he pointed out, they would have brought world condemnation. Only increased American pressure eventually caused Israel to cease its military campaign in the West Bank, he said. Israel’s actions, he added, if left unchecked, would have further threatened stability in the region at a time when the U.S. critically needed such stability.

The initial reaction of some Palestinians to the terrorist attack highlights the need for a serious re-examination of U.S. policy in the region, stated Shkirat, and specifically for a new approach to the peace process. It is clear to Palestinians that the U.S. has not adopted the neutral position implied by its status as an “honest broker.” As an example, he cited the fact that Washington has used its U.N. veto power more than 72 times, mostly to deflect any international criticism of Israel’s continued occupation of and illegal activities in the occupied territories. Palestinians, he said, are well aware of America’s bias toward the state that has deprived them of an autonomous independent state for the past five decades.

A balanced and just approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is needed now more than ever, Shkirat argued. Indeed, today, as at the time of the Gulf war, when the U.S. needed regional cooperation in its campaign against Saddam Hussain, the United States needs a consensus if it is to launch its expected military reprisal on Afghanistan against perpetrators of the terrorist act. A temporary solution to the stalemate in the peace process simply won’t do, he warned.

Shkirat recommended that any future attempt to resuscitate the peace process can lead only to the complete end of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Continuation of Israeli occupation, he contended, will only lead to a de facto apartheid system. Any proposed solutions, he said, must be based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, which formed the basis for the Oslo talks.

Asma Yousef

 

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