Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2008
Issue No. 910
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

James Zogby

An awful shame

The hounding of Barack Obama's Arab and Muslim American liaison is reminiscent of times that community thought it surpassed, writes James Zogby*

The 1980s were a difficult time for Arab Americans. Politicians returned our contributions, rejected our endorsements, and many effectively hung "No Arab Americans allowed" signs on their campaign doors. Back then, we wrote about this situation, calling it "the politics of exclusion".

We fought back. We organised, worked hard, and we emerged victorious -- or should I say somewhat victorious? Now I feel a bit tentative about our progress because of what happened to Mazen Asbahi, which set off alarm bells causing me to wonder whether or not "exclusion" might not once again be rearing its ugly head.

For those who don't know, here's what happened. On 25 July the Barack Obama campaign announced the appointment of Asbahi to further their outreach efforts to Arab Americans and American Muslims. As a young though accomplished corporate attorney, Asbahi was largely unknown in both communities. He quickly acclimated himself to his post, contacting leaders and activists nationwide both to introduce himself and to develop ways to include them in the Obama campaign.

I was delighted to meet him. He is a father of three and I found him to be passionate about both his family and his new assignment. He had been successful in his short career as an attorney, but he told me that he felt that this new position provided him with an important opportunity to give something back to his country and his community. In the brief time he held his position we spoke almost daily. He learned so much and did so much to make Arab Americans and American Muslims feel included in the campaign.

Then it happened. A shady website, "Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report", that monitors Muslim activism and organisations, revealed that eight years ago Asbahi had been on the board of the Allied Assets Advisors Fund. Also on the board was Jamal Said, described as "a controversial imam in a fundamentalist Illinois mosque". In fact, Asbahi was on this board for only two weeks before his discomfort with some of the things being said about the group led him to resign.

This brief association appears to be the main "allegation" against Asbahi. The other charge is that he, like thousands of other Muslim American students, was a student body leader of the Muslim Students Association, an established and respected religious/social group found on most US campuses. Because an anti-Muslim blogger with a marked penchant for exaggeration and error has called the Muslim Students Association a "wahhabist front", this charge against Asbahi was thrown into the mix.

In the days that followed, the charges became fodder for extremist right-wing bloggers who began to write about Asbahi, describing him as a person that neither he nor those of us who had come to know him could recognise. As has become standard practice these days, the major media (in this case, The Wall Street Journal ) picked up the non-story and began to prepare an "expose". Concerned that this would escalate, Asbahi and the campaign agreed to terminate his position. Asbahi issued a statement, saying "I am stepping down from the volunteer role I recently agreed to take on with the Obama campaign as Arab American and Muslim American coordinator in order to avoid distracting from Barack Obama's message of change."

The entire affair has left many in the Obama campaign, and in both the Arab American and American Muslim communities, feeling saddened and troubled. Several observations can be made and questions must be raised about this situation in which we now find ourselves operating.

The combination of bigoted websites, their echo- chamber bloggers, irresponsible mainstream media outlets, and fear and ignorance about all things Arab and Muslim have produced an oppressive environment detrimental to the full political participation and empowerment of the Arab American and American Muslim communities. Who is behind the shadowy website "Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report" that "revealed" the story? And what is their agenda? And why are the likes of Debbie Schlussel, Michelle Malkin, Steven Schwartz, Daniel Pipes, Frank Gaffney and David Horowitz not held to account for the misinformation they spread, and the intolerance they promote?

Malkin, it should be remembered, threw a fit over Rachel Ray's wearing a kaffiyeh (traditional Palestinian scarf) in a Dunkin Donuts ad. Schlussel attempted to Muslim-bait former secretary of energy Spencer Abraham. Gaffney drove a decent young Muslim American out of the Bush White House because of an unfounded allegation about his father, and Pipes has made a career out of harassing outstanding scholars like Georgetown University's John Esposito. If we allow the likes of these to define Arab Americans and American Muslims, and to determine their fitness to serve, then we are heading back to "the politics of exclusion".

The failure of these obsessively anti-Arab, anti- Muslim characters to discern between genuine "bad guys" and just regular guys like Asbahi does a grave disservice to all Americans. Instead of being viewed as legitimate sources, they should be held accountable for their intolerance. It is a shame that they do what they do, and a bigger shame that no one in the mainstream media has wisdom or the courage to see them for what they are, or question their credibility.

Back to Asbahi and the Obama campaign. To his credit, Asbahi has been as graceful and thoughtful in adversity as he was upon assuming his post. He remains committed to Barack Obama's election and to empowering his community. And because he didn't want to become the issue, he stepped aside and will find other ways to serve. Despite this regrettable setback, the Obama campaign will continue its outreach efforts. But, we must ask, what about the fate of the next Arab American or American Muslim to seek such a position of service?

If America is to advance as a nation in the important work of including all its citizens in the political process, it must not allow a return to the "bad old days". And if it is to take advantage of the incredible resources provided by the Arab American and American Muslim communities, it must include them -- not only because it is the right thing to do, but because inclusion of them and their involvement in all aspects of US society and politics is so critically important to American efforts to engage the world in which we live.

* The writer is president of the Arab American Institute, Washington, DC.

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