American Arabs Resist Hate, Redefine America at ADC’s National Convention

(L-r) Samer E. Khalaf, Erin Hustings, Terry Ao Minnis and Roberto Ramirez discuss why ADC is working so hard on 2020 census changes. (STAFF PHOTO D. HANLEY)


 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2017, pp. 44-47, 64

Arab-American Activism

Speakers from around the world gathered to discuss how to “Resist Hate and Redefine America” at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)’s 37th National Convention. From Sept. 21 to 24 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC, experts and representatives from other vulnerable communities explored issues impacting all their members, compared notes and strategized. 

Every year our reporters attend the ADC convention and staff a booth loaded with goods from our Middle East Books and More store. When we leave we always feel revitalized and informed and, frankly, concerned that our report won’t be able to convey the wealth of vital information shared over three days at this conference. But we’ll give it a try as we urge our readers to attend next year’s conference...

ONE STATE OR TWO STATES—WHAT’S BEST FOR PALESTINIANS?

Christopher Hazou with the Institute of Middle East Understanding, who previously served as the communications officer for the General Delegation of the PLO to the U.S., asked panelists if a one- or two- state solution is the best option for Palestinians. 

Advocating for one state, Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American legal scholar and human rights attorney, argued that Israel already functions as one state with different laws for the five “classes” of Palestinians—those who live in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and within Israel, plus the diaspora. Israel has already “dismembered” Palestinian identity, she said, but if it continues to use that Solomon solution—splitting the baby in two—no one will be happy.  Erakat pointed out that everything is already run from Israel—with Israel selling cell phone service, electricity and water to Palestinians, and one financial system, including the shekel. “If the shekel was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me,” she quipped. 

Amer Zahr,  an Arab-American comedian, speaker, writer and academic who teaches at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, agreed that one state is a win-win for all: “We’d have the most amazing economy in the world.” Tourists don’t visit now because they’re afraid, Zahr said—and there aren’t enough hotels. “I’m from Nazareth, like Jesus,” he said, “and I couldn’t get a hotel room there....If we opened up the country we’d have to build 50 new hotels...God is our national resource. God is renewable. The one state could be economic rival to none—if everyone just got nice....If there were no Palestinian state, no Jewish state, just a state of its people regardless of religions, tribes and ethnicities.” 

Nizar Farsakh, a trainer focusing on leadership, advocacy and negotiations who also used to work at the PLO Delegation in Washington, DC, presented the two-state argument. Each side is too invested in their identities to share one state, he argued. For instance, the Israeli narrative is, “No Jew gets a fair trial if the judge is not Jewish.” Palestinians reared on the Nakba, Balfour narrative have no interest in sharing a land with their oppressors. They fear that, living in one state, they will receive unequal, racist treatment, like African Americans, Farsakh said, without access to equal health care and education.

—Delinda C. Hanley

THE 2020 CENSUS AND PROSPECTS FOR A MENA CATEGORY

Friday’s second panel, “Census 2020: The MENA Category and Looking Ahead,” dealt with the current testing and future of a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) category in the 2020 census. Currently, Middle Eastern racial and ethnic groups are classified as “white” in the census. This has not only caused confusion, but also has public policy implications. 

Roberto Ramirez of the U.S. Census Bureau began with an in-depth presentation of the process of adding a MENA category to the census. One of the issues that the Census Bureau has faced is the definition of what countries and ethnicities would be placed in such a category. The 2015 National Content Test included 19 nationalities (such as Lebanese, Iranian and Iraqi) and 11 ethnicities and pan-ethnic terms (such as Arab and Kurdish), as well as other groups which largely did not identify with the MENA category as strongly, such as Armenian, Azeri, Somali and Sudanese. 

Ramirez further explained that it is unclear whether the MENA category will be a subsection under “white” or its own category. That decision that will be made by the Office of Management and Budget. 

Terry Ao Minnis, a co-chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Census Task Force, emphasized that the U.S. needs an “accurate account of the population.” The MENA category is “critical for vision,” she maintained, as the current census system “can make minorities invisible.” 

Panelist Erin Hustings, legislative counsel for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), expressed concerns over the budgetary shortfalls confronting the 2020 census. Congressional funding is not increasing to prepare for 2020, she explained, which has led to the cancellation of tests in Puerto Rico and Native American reservations. 

Some in the audience expressed concerns with the MENA category. One audience member noted that there was not an “Arab” category, while another attendee was troubled over the use of “Middle Eastern,” claiming that term is a construct of the West and a term not generally used by Arabs. Others objected to the inclusion of Israelis in the MENA category. 

Ramirez stated that at the U.S. Census Bureau, “race and ethnicity are defined as social constructs,” not by genetics or physical characteristics. Additionally, Samer E. Khalaf, ADC’s national president, stated that the MENA category is a compromise between interest groups representing the region, pointing out that minorities from the Arab world and Iranians also have a stake in the establishment of this category. 

The establishment of a MENA category in the U.S. census will also assist discrimination cases against those of Middle Eastern descent. The panel addressed fears that a MENA category will allow the government to further monitor the Muslim community. Minnis explained that, under Title XIII, which “supersedes the PATRIOT Act,” census data is strictly protected. 

—Shannon Tawoos

COMBATING ISLAMOPHOBIA THROUGH MEDIA MESSAGING 

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Zainab Chaudary, senior media associate for security and rights with ReThink Media, gave a presentation on her organization’s strategies for using media to combat Islamophobia and hate crimes.

Chaudary described ReThink as a “part PR firm, part advocacy organization” whose goal is to increase the communications capacity of the Muslim, Arab and South Asian (MASA) American community. Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been on the rise in recent years, Chaudary noted, with a huge spike occurring after the 2016 election, and today “Islamophobia has permeated society.” She emphasized the importance of speakers learning how to address an audience with opposing views to find “shared common ground.” 

A second challenge Chaudary cited is that while “discriminatory political rhetoric is actually rejected by most people…discriminatory policy is accepted by most,” because “a policy seems like a logical, rational solution to a fear that people hold.” Therefore, she said, it is important to tie discriminatory rhetoric and discriminatory policy together.

Other challenges she identified include the entrenched idea that Islam oppresses women and the widely-held belief that Islam is inherently violent. 

To combat Islamophobia, Chaudary suggested pivoting to shared American principles. For example she suggested using statements like, “We are weaker as a country when we let fear and lack of understanding come between us.”

She also urged speakers to draw the moral line in the sand, or seize the moral high ground. Chaudary also suggested reassuring the fearful “with positive aspirational messages.” It is important to “talk about what you are fighting for, not what you are fighting against,” Chaudary explained. It is also important to give your audience a “concrete action to take.”

Words such as “diversity,” “inclusivity,” “understanding” and “tolerance” do not resonate with everyone, Chaudary suggested, due to their perceived connection to the political left. Instead, she advised using words such as “dignity,” “fairness” and “respect,” which resonate better with larger audiences. The lesson to be learned from this, she concluded, is that “words matter” in messages to both supporters and the opposition.

—Shannon Tawoos

CHARLOTTESVILLE AND WHITE SUPREMACY’S RE-EMERGENCE 

Charlottesville, VA activist and community organizer Tanesha Hudson described the horror of seeing hundreds of white supremacists chanting Nazi and “White Lives Matter” slogans marching through the University of Virginia campus, carrying torches on Aug. 11—with no sign of police. The demonstrators were in town to participate in a “Unite the Right” rally. 

Student medic Kim Rolla from the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, described trying to get medical attention to the students and professor who were attacked at the fountain. She asked police why they didn’t intervene, and was told they didn’t want to start a massacre by the heavily armed marchers.

Nqobile Mthethwa, a recent University of Virginia graduate, described the re-emergence of “audacious” rightest student groups on campus.

Following the discussion, convention-goers moved to an exhibit in the hotel by Baltimore-based Iraqi impressionist Shakir Al Alousi, whose work evokes the Arab homeland. Buses then took attendees to the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center for a Friday night reception.

—Delinda C. Hanley

LITTLE SYRIA THROUGH THE EYES OF ARAB AMERICANS

ADC’s Saturday talks began with Dr. Hani Bawardi, who teaches history at University of Michigan-Dearborn. He discussed his unparalleled research that resulted in the book Making of Arab Americans: From Syrian Nationalism to U.S. Citizenship. He traced the forgotten histories of the Free Syria Society, the New Syria Party, the Arab National League, the Institute of Arab American Affairs, and the numerous Arab-American political advocacy organizations that shaped Arab-American identity.

Dr. Debbie Almontaser suggested that ADC convention attendees try to recapture the civic and political lessons learned by early Arab Americans who laid the foundations for current Arab-American organizations. She wondered if Arab American members of ADC—which used to draw 10 times the number of mostly secular attendees—has somehow morphed into more separate religious communities. Muslim organizations continue to fill rooms, she noted. Does this mean religious identity is overturning cultural identity? If so, she said, religious divisions weren’t inherent in the Middle East a hundred years ago: “We all identified as Arabs. From Yemen to Morocco, we had a common identity.” Almontaser urged listeners not to let Western imperial influences divide us.

“CRIMINALIZATION OF BEING ARAB” 

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Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of Alliance of Families for Justice, spoke about the criminalization of people with black skin, which started when people of African descent were brought to the U.S. in bondage. Today 60 to 80 percent of the prison population is black or Latino, she said, and this is not by accident. Mass incarceration, Elijah said, disenfranchises and marginalizes large swaths of our population. Studies show that family members of prisoners don’t engage in civic activities—voting, parent-teacher conferences or local elections—and they are also decimated economically. Laws against loitering or pants drooping down are attempts to criminalize and control African Americans, she argued.

Khaled Beydoun, who teaches at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and California-Berkeley, said in the past 5 years, Islamophobia has increased 7 to 9 times higher than just after 9/11. There is a presumption that Islam is inherently violent, he noted, and that Arabs are backward, uncivilized, patriarchal and hate the West. “Islamophobia rises from these tropes,” Beydoun said. Because a phobia is something one can’t control, he added, he prefers to use the term anti-Muslim hate.

South Asian-American writer and lawyer Deepa Iyer explained that her community has also felt excluded. In 2040, she pointed out, communities of color will be the majority in America, and that has already caused a pushback, as politicians push xenophobic rhetoric, stir racial anxiety and call to “Make America great again.”

Arjun Singh Sethi, a writer, attorney and expert in racial and religious profiling, reminded the audience that it took Barack Obama eight years to visit a mosque, so Islamophobia didn’t begin in the current administration. He urged coalition building rather than reinventing the wheel. 

—Delinda C. Hanley

CIVIL RIGHTS LUNCHEON HONORS BOLD LEADERS

ADC’s annual civil rights luncheon on Sept. 23 highlighted the achievements of individuals who have worked tirelessly to protect and defend the rights of Arabs, Muslims and other groups of Americans subjected to discrimination. 

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) began her keynote address by pledging to fight President Donald Trump’s continued efforts to implement a travel ban on individuals from select Muslim-majority countries. To successfully fight the travel ban and other discriminatory actions, she said, members of Congress need the support of the American people.

“We must work together as part of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-faith coalition to safeguard the rights of all of those among us,” she said. “It is our unity in this moment, in this time in our history, as a people, that’s going to make the difference, not just for us, but for future generations. We must advocate as blacks, Latinos, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Jews, people of faith, people without it, to make sure that we are all protected by the promise of equality and human dignity. Otherwise, quite frankly, none of us are truly safe.”

Those who support draconian immigration and travel restrictions must be reminded of the trauma and challenges those seeking refuge in the U.S. have faced, emphasized the congresswoman, the child of Jamaican immigrants. “We must tell our story so that the American people understand the common humanity that unites all of us and appreciate the desperate conditions that many immigrants are escaping from,” she said.

During the luncheon, ADC conferred awards on three impressive individuals: Prof. Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, founder of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, received the Excellence in Advocacy Award; Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, was given the Ralph Johns Award; and Prof. Khaled Beydoun, associate professor of law at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and an avid fighter of Islamophobia, received the Advocate of the Year Award.

—Dale Sprusansky

NO BAN, NO WALL, NO RAIDS

The next two panels focused on the Muslim ban and the extra scrutiny thousands of mostly Muslim males from 26 countries face, as well as the challenges coming from U.S. courts. ADC is part of that quiet, fierce effort to protect impacted communities. “Our work involves marathons, not sprints, and sometimes miracles,” said Abed Ayoub, ADC’s national legal and policy director. 

The Yemeni-American community is especially impacted as they try to get their family members out of harm’s way in Yemen, Dr. Debbie Almontaser said. It was only thanks to help from her New York representative, Yvette Clarke, that her young son-in-law, a Fulbright student trapped in Yemen, was able to join her daughter. Almontaser reminded the audience that during Peter King’s 2011 hearings on Muslim radicalization, Clarke “mopped the floors with him.”

Panelists agreed that Muslims need to tell their stories and show how they are part of the American dream.

—Delinda C. Hanley

ADC GALA DINNER EMPHASIZES COURAGE AND SOLIDARITY 

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While most speakers and award recipients at ADC’s Sept. 23 gala dinner lamented President Donald Trump’s treatment of the Arab-American community, they nonetheless encouraged attendees to transcend fear and remain steadfast and united in the pursuit of justice. 

Dena Takruri, a senior presenter at AJ+ (Al Jazeera’s popular San Francisco-based digital platform), received the Rose Nader Award in recognition of her fearless reporting that highlights injustices around the world.

The young reporter attributed her vocation to the eye-opening trips she took to Palestine as a child. “I was very affected seeing the military occupation, seeing my mom get stripped searched at the border, spending parts of the summer under a curfew and witnessing first-hand how, because my family and I were Palestinian, we were second-class citizens at best, and at most times felt sub-human,” Takruri said.

These early experiences, she explained, convinced her of the importance of amplifying the voice of the voiceless and “speaking truth to power and challenging the dominant narratives that we know all too often malign and dehumanize people. Those are the editorial principles that guide me every day of my career,” she said.

Through her travels, Takruri has come to the conclusion that all struggles against injustice are connected. “I firmly believe that our equality as Palestinians and as Arab Americans and as Muslim Americans is tied to everyone else’s equality,” she said. “And the places that my assignments have taken me over the past few years have only reaffirmed that. I’ve seen it firsthand, from Standing Rock to Flint, Michigan, from Palestine to Hawaii, from the for-profit immigrant detention centers, to the protests in the streets here against mass incarceration, I’ve seen first-hand how we’re all connected in the same struggle.” 

Takruri noted that she is often asked if her travels desensitize her to the suffering she witnesses. “My answer is no,” she said. “With every assignment that I have, you leave part of yourself there, and you take a part of those people’s stories with you, and you gain some insights.”

Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, used his keynote address to emphasize the importance of solidarity. Every marginalized group asks the same questions, he said: “Why are we treated differently? Why will no one listen to us when we demonstrate that we are being treated differently? Why, when we challenge the powers that treat us differently, do they often say that we’re treating you differently to preserve our values as a nation? Are we not part of this nation? Do we not have our own hopes and dreams for our families, friends and neighbors?”

No single minority group can address these questions on its own, he emphasized. Progress is made, he said, when various groups work together to address all forms of discrimination. “We’re making history because we’ve learned the important lesson of solidarity,” Warren said. “When we work alone we are vulnerable, and when we work together we are invincible.” 

Progress, he warned, is not made by people who stand on the sidelines and are risk-averse. “No social justice change has ever happened in this country without risk,” he said. “There is no such thing as free liberation. Liberation costs you. It can cost you dearly.” 

Warren concluded by challenging the audience to be bold in their fight for justice.  “We have three options,” he said. “We can either tell history, live history, or make history.” 

Other awardees included: May Rihani, director of the endowed Gibran Chair for Values and Peace at the University of Maryland, who received the Hala Maksoud Leadership Award; the Aburish family, who received the Alex Odeh Memorial Award for their community service; and investor Dr. Shihab Kuran, who received the Dr. Raymond Jallow Lifetime Achievement Award.

The evening also included a touching video tribute to long-time ADC member Jack Shaheen, who died suddenly in July. His legacy continues, however, in the form of four young journalists who were awarded a mass communications scholarship bearing his name.

—Dale Sprusansky

LAST DAY FOCUSES ON PALESTINE 

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The final day featured a discussion between Dr. Riyad Mansour, ambassador and Permanent Observer of Palestine to the U.N., and Said Arikat, Washington correspondent for Al Quds newspaper. 

The Rachel Corrie Award was presented to Phyllis Bennis, who directs the New International Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. Ambassador Dr. Husam Zomlot, Chief Representative of the Palestinian Delegation to the U.S., gave a moving tribute to senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is in the U.S. awaiting a lung transplant, and was in the audience. The last event of the three-day convention was a keynote address by one of the most outspoken Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, M.K. Dr. Ahmad Tibi.

It’s hard to convey the spirit of a conference like this. Just the last day’s presentations, with speakers discussing Palestine and what the diaspora can do to help bring peace to the troubled holy land, could fill this magazine. We recommend watching the panels and keynote addresses for yourself at <www.facebook.com/adcnational>. Speakers address issues that never make it into national news reports but are vital to each of us. The Washington Report suggests you put next year’s ADC convention on your bucket list for 2018.

—Delinda C. Hanley

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