Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 2004, pages 76-78

Arab-American Activism

Muhammad Ali Receives Kahlil Gibran Award

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THE ARAB American Institute (AAI) Foundation”˜s 2004 Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards ceremony was held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, on May 4. The event opened with a videotaped message from actor Tony Shalhoub, who expressed his admiration for AAI and its role in protecting civil rights and electing officials sensitive to Arab-American concerns. Shalhoub also spoke of his admiration for the evening’s honorees, calling Muhammad Ali courageous and outspoken, and lauding the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA). He then introduced his “new friends,” Dean and Maysoon.

Dean Obeidallah, a comedian of Palestinian and Italian descent, amused the crowd with his description of a George Bush action doll he had seen, and said he wished it could be a talking doll uttering phrases like “Palestinian infahida,” while being controlled by a Dick Cheney doll. The comedian also took a light-hearted perspective of growing up Arab and Muslim in New Jersey—where being Muslim was understood as being a Black athlete. Maysoon Zayid took a similar approach to being Muslim in America, describing herself as “George Bush’s worst nightmare—female, pro-choice, disabled, Palestinian, and Muslim.”

Trips to Palestine didn’t scare her, Zayid said, but flying from the Newark (NJ) airport did—since her cerebral palsy and fear of flying made her look nervous and cry, and her Saddam Hussain-lookalike father, invoking the name of Allah to protect her, all might secure her a seat on the next flight to Guantanamo Bay. That might not be too bad, however, Zayid conceded, since there were lots of “single Arab men” there.

Following the entertainment, several members of Congress addressed the honorees and guests. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) expressed concern that the PATRIOT Act had gone too far, that special registration was discriminatory, and that Guantanamo Bay was “troublesome,” and said he hoped that torture in Iraq was isolated. Representative Ray LaHood (R-IL) said “If we hung together, worked together, stuck together, we could be very powerful,” while Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) praised AAI for not allowing “the freedoms of Arab Americans to become casualties of the war on terror.”

The first award, for Professional Excellence, was presented to the MPI Media Group, a media distribution company founded by first-generation Palestinian Americans Walid and Malik Ali for their groundbreaking work in video distribution. The award was accepted by Malik Ali.

Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad then presented ANERA with the Award for International Commitment for its many valuable programs, including providing daily milk for preschoolers, refurbishing hospitals, and building technology training and use centers in universities. ANERA President Peter Gubser accepted the award.

Rock the Vote received the next award. “West Wing” actress Mary-Louise Parker (active in post-9/11 anti-discrimination campaigns) presented Jehmu Greene, executive director of Rock the Vote, with the Award for Institutional Achievement for registering new voters. Greene exhorted all to sign up at <www.rockthevote.com>.

Before proceeding to the remaining awards, AAI Foundation executive director Helen Hatab Samhan reminisced about AAI’s work. The Arab-American district attorney of Westchester County, New York, Jeanine Pirro, then introduced Jordan’s Queen Noor. Recalling the commitment to public service of her father, Najeeb Halaby, Queen Noor presented the first Najeeb Halaby Award for Public Service to Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) for his attention to Arab-American issues within the context of his service to the United States. Accepting the award, Rahall said it was easy to vote against bills like the Syrian Accountability Act, because it was in the interests of his constituents and all Americans. He also urged Arab Americans to get involved with issues of civil rights,icommunity issues, and Palestine and Israel through voting, community involvement, and grass roots work.

The final award of the evening was presented by AAI President James Zogby to longtime civil rights proponent and world-renowned athlete Muhammad Ali, who accepted the Award for Lifetime Achievement. Zogby praised Ali for the anti-war stance that earned him over two years’ imprisonment during the Vietnam War, for serving on the advisory board of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, and for raising money for the hungry in U.S.-sanctioned Iraq.

“A black cup of coffee was a strong cup of coffee,”Ali told the audience, adding that when he converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay, people all over the world recognized him as a brother. His wife, Lonnie, joined Ali at the microphone to thank AAI, to honor Queen Noor, and to stress how important Ali felt it was to impart to people that Islam was a religion of peace. Ali then brought down the house by performing magic tricks—proving to all that he is still The Greatest.

Sara Powell

Results of Second Arab-American Tracking Poll Released

Stressing the complexity of the Arab-American community, the Zogby brothers, pollster John and Arab American Institute president James, presented the results of the second of six Arab-American voter tracking polls leading up to the November presidential elections, at a news conference in AAI’s Washington, DC office on April 28. The poll is tracking 500 voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, all swing states with relatively high Arab-American communities.

The numbers stayed relatively constant for each of the candidates in comparison with the February numbers [in brackets]:

Bush 30 percent [30 percent]

Kerry 49 percent [54 percent]

Other/NS 21 percent [16 percent]

There are two notable exceptions. First, John Kerry dropped 5 percent, with the drop coming specifically from immigrant and Muslim voters—groups that, according to Arab American Institute president James Zogby, “feel the foreign policy question most significantly.” Second, in a proposed three-way race, independent candidate Ralph Nader’s numbers dropped from 20 percent in February to 14 percent in April, while not affecting Bush and Kerry’s numbers.

In addition, a few other numbers stood out as potentially interesting and indicative. President Bush’s disapproval rate among Arab-Americans on the Palestinian-Israeli issue is at 81 percent. “That’s about as low as you’ll get,” James Zogby pointed out. As Kerry has recently supported the president’s policy in the region by backing the Gaza withdrawal plan, as well as not condemning the extrajudicial killings of Hamas leaders Yassin and Rantisi, Arab-American disapproval is of particular note.

Although support for John Kerry swept the president in almost all other issues, President Bush received the highest ratings on combating terrorism and national security.

At present, it seems neither Bush nor Kerry has placed the Arab-American vote as an important consideration in their campaigns.

Pollster John Zogby, who recently returned from focus groups in Dearborn, Michigan, explained that anger toward the president was “palpable, and disappointment with Kerry was also palpable.”

Full results of the tracking poll can be found at <https://www.aaiusa.org/>.

Amanda Gibbon

ADC and MPAC Speak Out on Prison Abuse Scandal

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The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) held a press conference May 7 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on the Iraqi prisoner torture scandal. Organizers linked the torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers with what they said is a “growing trend of defamation and hatred against Arab and Muslims in American popular culture.”

ADC president and former congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar said her organization, which offers sensitivity training to combat discrimination against Arabs and Muslims in America, has pledged to “end the culture of hate and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment.” Rising hostility toward Arab Americans and American Muslims has, to some extent, allowed the abuses in Iraq to occur, she added.

Oakar was quick to point out, however, that “Most of the soldiers are young, very impressionable.” Suggesting that the recently uncovered allegations of abuse were likely not isolated incidents, Oakar maintained, “They wouldn’t commit such horrendous deeds [alone].”

ADC communications director Hussein Ibish acknowledged that they were leveling a “serious charge”—namely, that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment is spreading in national institutions. Backing up that claim, Ibish cited a number of examples from the past few years in which government officials, religious leaders and members of the media have demonstrated ignorance or hatred of Arabs and Muslims.

The fact that this trend is spreading in government institutions, Ibish said, is “most troubling.” He recalled when Gen. William G. Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, speaking in uniform before a Christian group in June 2003, declared that “radical Islamists” hate America “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian...and the enemy is a guy named Satan.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft expressed similar sentiments in a 2002 column by Cal Thomas, when he said, “Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you,” while Islam is “a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him.”

Furthermore, Ibish said, President George W. Bush’s August 2003 recess appointment of Daniel Pipes to the board of directors of the U.S. Institute for Peace was an affront to Arabs and Muslims, since “there is almost no figure in the United States who has done more to paint Arabs and Muslims in a negative and threatening light.” In recent years, Pipes has even warned of the dangers of American Muslims voting in American elections.

These examples, Ibish said, along with statements by several members of Congress, indicated “pretty solid evidence of a creeping spread of [anti-Arab and anti-Muslim] sentiment in our government.”

According to a statement issued by ADC and MPAC, religious institutions are particularly guilty of promoting an “increased climate of negativity facing Arab Americans in the post 9/11 environment,” marked by “an increasingly vicious, sustained and coordinated attack by leaders of the evangelical Christian right on Islam as a faith and even on the Prophet Muhammad as an individual,”

Rev. Jerry Falwell; Rev. Pat Robertson; and Rev. Franklin Graham—son of Billy Graham—who led the prayer at President Bush’s inauguration, have made public statements denouncing Islam and attacking the Prophet Muhammad’s character, Ibish said.

Finally, the ADC communications director said, the media, particularly right-wing talk shows, have “allowed hate to creep into their [reporting].” Jay Severin, a highly rated host on Boston’s WTKK-FM, recently told a caller that Muslims are a fifth column and said they should be killed. The radio station did not discipline Severin. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ibish remarked.

According to MPAC executive director Salam Al-Marayati, the purpose of the press briefing was not to “cast aspersions on all Americans” or to place blame squarely on the accused soldiers in Iraq. The abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, he said, is a “manifestation of this culture of hatred” outlined by Ibish.

Al-Marayati offered suggestions for steps the government and media could take to change negative attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims. In response to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, he said, the government should conduct a “through investigation” that “recognizes the systemic nature of these abuses and punishes those responsible at the highest level.

“Senior officials who openly express anti-Arab or anti-Muslim bigotry and hostility are unfit for office and should be dismissed,” Al-Marayati added.

Meanwhile, reporters and editors were advised to “stop treating defamatory and hostile commentary by Arab- and Islam-bashers as a legitimate contribution to the national conversation.”

Claims that Muslims are disloyal Americans, for instance, are akin to saying “Catholics are more loyal to the pope than [to] America,” Al-Marayati observed.

Laila Al-Arian

Hicham Chami and “Arabesque” At Georgetown University

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Hicham Chami, Kim Sopata and Rich Jankowsky of Chicago presented a concert at Georgetown University in Washington, DC on May 11 entitled. “Arabesque: An Evening of Classical Middle Eastern Music.” The performance was a benefit for the Arab Studies Journal, published by students affiliated with Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

Born in Tetuan, Morocco, Chami, the trio’s musical director, has been playing qanun since he was 8, when he enrolled at the National Conservatory of Music and Dance in Rabat. He has been performing and recording with several ensembles throughout the U.S., and is the founder of the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble. His last distinction was the “Best Instrumentalist of Chicago,” awarded by Chicago Magazine. The founder of Xauen Music, Inc., Chami serves on the board of Genesis at the Crossroads, and recently made a studio recording of the songs of Sayyed Darweesh along with 14 musicians from the U.S. and overseas. The CD, “Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of a People,” will be released by Xauen Music this summer.

An accomplished musician in Chicago, Sopata performs as flautist for the Milwaukee, Elgin, and New World Symphonies, as well as with guitarist James Baur as The Avanti Duo. She has also performed as a soloist with the South Carolina Philharmonic and the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony. Sopata currently is pursuing a master’s degree in ethnomusicology, with an emphasis on Middle Eastern music, from Bethel College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She writes music reviews for Flute Talk Magazine and recently published The Flute Lesson Handbook, a manual and assignment notebook for flute students.

Rich Jankowsky is a lecturer in ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, where he has been a Javits Fellow and a Fulbright Fellow. He is an acclaimed percussionist on the darbuka, riqq and frame drum, and is a specialist in Tunisian music. His dissertation, entitled “The Other People”: Music, Modernity, and Spirit Possession in the Stambeli of Tunis, explores a trance-and-possession music around which the black community of Tunis continues to define itself as both part of, and distinct from, local Arab identities and Sufi practices.

The concert program included works by Tatyus Effendi, the Rahbani Brothers, Isma’il Hakki Bik, Mohammed ”˜Abd El-Wahab, Riad Al-Sunbati, Sayyed Darweesh, and Anouar Brahem. Audience reaction was enthusiastic. Commented Rebecca Dupree, assistant editor of the Arab Studies Journal: “We felt very honored to host Hicham’s concert; it was a kind of contribution we can be really proud of. Besides being a special event that everyone enjoyed, it was galvanizing for our team. As students and as volunteers, we’re looking for creative ways to support ourselves, to sustain the journal on our own. We try to be a forum for graduate students, with writings on politics and current events as well as arts, linguistics, and culture. This intersects with what Hicham does in his music.”

The Arab Studies Journal (<www.arabstudiesjournal.org>) is a peer-reviewed, independent, multi-disciplinary forum in the field of Arab and Middle Eastern studies. It is published by rising scholars affiliated with the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University and the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University. The Arab Studies Journal is governed by a volunteer staff, as well as an editorial review board. Since its inception in 1992, the Arab Studies Journal has published special issues on Middle East Exceptionalism, Islamic Law and Society, and Language and Culture. The current issue includes a special section on Succession in the Arab World.

“Arabesque” was produced by Xauen Music, Inc. (<www.xauen-music.com>). Based in Chicago, Xauen Music is dedicated to preserving the heritage of classical Oriental music from the Arabic, Turkish, Armenian and Sephardic traditions through sponsoring musical performances, producing scores and recordings, publishing a newsletter, and participating in educational workshops and intercultural exchange in Chicagoland and throughout the U.S. Hicham Chami, Xauen Music’s general manager, is producing a concert by French-based Algerian singer Souad Massi in Chicago this summer, and is planning a five-city tour in late August of a 20-member Arabic music orchestra specializing in Moroccan Andalusian music.

Suzanne Percak

 

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