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Tough Sell By: Shawn Zeller
National Journal | Monday, December 16, 2002


It was the summer of 2000, and for George W. Bush, the meeting held the promise of an unusual but important endorsement for his presidential bid. Conservative activist Grover Norquist had persuaded the Republican nominee to sit down with leaders of the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council,
a confederation of four Muslim community groups.

Bush told these leaders that on such issues as abortion, school vouchers, and government funding for faith-based charities, his views were more in line with the beliefs of American Muslims than were those of his Democratic rival, Al Gore. What's more, during the second presidential debate with Gore, Bush
said he opposed a tactic used by the Clinton administration-keeping evidence secret from people suspected of terrorist activity and from their attorneys.

The groups, led by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, had never made a presidential endorsement. For years, Muslims in the United States had felt ignored by political candidates; many politicians had refused even to meet with them. But Bush seemed different.

The Muslim leaders believed that should the Texas governor win the presidency, they would finally get a hearing in Washington on domestic issues and on the all-important Middle East peace process, where they feel U.S. policy is heavily slanted toward Israel.

In late October 2000, the coordinating council leaders took the leap and endorsed Bush at a Washington news conference. After the election, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest of the Muslim groups, conducted a poll of its members, and reported that 72 percent had voted for Bush, 8 percent for Gore, and 19 percent for Ralph Nader, a Lebanese-American. For these Muslim groups, the Republican president's inauguration and the first months of his administration were a hopeful time.

But September 11 changed everything. Immediately, suspicion of Muslims and Arabs skyrocketed throughout the country; the incidence of hate crimes shot up; the Justice Department detained hundreds of Arab immigrants suspected of having terrorist ties; FBI agents questioned thousands of others; and law enforcement officials cracked down on Muslim charities.

In the 15 months since 9/11, the groups say, they have been under constant public pressure to denounce Al Qaeda and to defend their religion. With violence between the Israelis and Palestinians at its most intense in many years, and with the Bush administration preparing for a war against Iraq,
American Muslim groups as well as Arab-American organizations (which represent mostly a Christian constituency) are in the middle of a huge public-relations crisis. For now, at least, they have laid aside their efforts to gain more political clout in Washington and turned to the more basic goal of defending themselves.

"We have been working to defend the civil rights of Muslims and to promote a positive understanding of Islam since we started," says Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "But with the attacks, the magnitude of our work exploded, and the negative media about Islam is beyond belief."

The Muslim American advocacy groups and the Arab-American organizations say they are trying to do their best to cope. They've made the rounds on radio and television shows. In the past year, they've boosted their lobbying staffs and opened political action committees. But any hope the groups had of
playing a more prominent role in policy debates has vanished.

And in trying to combat the negative views about Islam and Arabs that have worsened since September 11, the groups have at times proven to be poor advocates; some leaders have made inflammatory remarks and allowed critics to tar them as terrorist sympathizers. To make matters worse, the groups have quarreled amongst themselves, at times advocating vastly different points of view.

Bush, to Awad's relief, has repeatedly defended Islam. The president's most recent statement of support came during a December 5 visit to the Islamic Center of Washington, when he declared, "Islam affirms God's justice and insists on man's moral responsibility."

Despite Bush's outreach and his statements on Islam, Awad admits that many American Muslims now criticize the endorsement of Bush's candidacy two years ago. Awad himself says he has been "outraged and distressed" by Justice Department crackdowns on Muslim charities accused of having ties to terrorist groups overseas. Moreover, Justice officials in late October defended the use of secret evidence in a case against a Muslim charity.

Put this together with the post-9/11 detentions and arrests, the breakdown of the peace process in the Middle East, and the looming clash of arms with Iraq, and it's clear that Awad and his colleagues in Muslim American organizations now vehemently oppose the Bush administration's policies.

The Advocates

Since September 11, Arab and Muslim groups in Washington say that they have repeatedly denounced terrorism and that they want a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But views about the groups differ widely. One congressional ally, Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., says he has found the
Arab-American and Muslim advocates "reasonable and helpful.... They are looking for an evenhanded approach to the Middle East."

Norquist, best known as an anti-tax advocate and conservative activist, continues to stand by the Muslim organizations. He acknowledges that some of the groups' leaders have spoken rashly, but he praises them for seeking to emphasize their solidarity with other Americans after September 11. "You have an immigrant community that hasn't been around a long time and is only gradually developing more-sophisticated leadership," says Norquist. "I think people have been reasonably decent in cutting them some slack."

By contrast, Stephen Schwartz, the head of the Islamic Democracy Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies-a Washington think tank backed by the likes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former CIA Director James Woolsey-calls Washington's Arab and Muslim groups the "Wahhabi lobby." These groups, he argues, carry water for and rely on funding from Saudi Arabia's militant clerics. Likewise, Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, has relentlessly attacked the Muslim groups in his New York Post column, alleging that their moderate press releases veil sympathy for terrorism. Awad and the other group leaders deny these allegations.

The groups, in an effort to boost their image, have reached out to policy makers on Capitol Hill. At its annual meeting in June, for example, the most prominent Arab-American group-the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee-handed out awards to Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. John
D. Dingell, D-Mich., Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell delivered speeches, while staffers for Dingell and Kildee briefed attendees on the workings of Capitol Hill.

At its annual dinner in April, another of the groups, the Arab American Institute, heard speeches from Education Secretary Roderick Paige, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Richard A.
Gephardt, D-Mo., as well as from Feingold.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans contributed to the campaigns of Reps. Earl Hilliard, D- Ala., and Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., two advocates of Palestinian statehood and critics of the Israeli government. Both met strong opposition from pro-Israel groups over the summer, and both
lost their primary campaigns despite the financial and public support of Arab and Muslim groups.

Last April, after a pro-Israel rally on Capitol Hill drew about 100,000 people, the Arab-American and Muslim American groups for the first time countered a week later with their own demonstration. Tens of thousands of protesters marched on the Mall, calling for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel. The march marked a "historic shift," says Awad, and "was an expression of defiance to a longstanding policy of supporting one side."

The groups have also continued to fight discrimination against Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans and attacks on their civil liberties. The groups worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has brought a lawsuit against the Justice Department seeking to force the department to reveal the names of detainees, and to open immigration hearings to the public. The ACLU is also spearheading lawsuits against major airlines to protest the treatment of Arab-American and Muslim passengers after September 11, and it recently launched a $3.5 million "Keep America Safe and Free" campaign to criticize the law enforcement crackdown.

Still, says Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, "we've decided that it's just not enough to be a civil-rights group. You have to lobby, get involved in campaigns, and give contributions. We have to become a presence."

He attributes the movement's lack of lobbying success on Capitol Hill to its failure to play a bigger role in electoral politics. "I can't name a single person in the House or Senate that we put there, or a person that we took out," he laments. "And until you've put someone in or taken someone out, it's unreasonable to ask elected officials to take you seriously.... We complain a lot about policies that we don't like, but we are starting to understand that if we don't like it, it's our fault."

"We are in a pre-lobby situation," adds James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "There is a lot more work to be done around the country, and we've set a series of goals that are basically infrastructure-building in the community. It's organizing and mobilizing people to vote, it's getting
people involved in political parties, and it's networking and helping Arab-Americans running for office or seeking appointments in the government."

Groups representing Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans remain a small presence in Washington. The Council on American-Islamic Relations is the largest of the Muslim organizations, with a $2.5 million budget, 26 Washington staffers, and 10 regional offices. Conservative in persuasion, CAIR before September 11 focused almost exclusively on fighting anti-Muslim discrimination. Since then, it has delved into politics and, by working with local mosques, developed a large grassroots constituency.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council, based in Los Angeles, is much smaller, with only two Washington-based staffers and a budget under $1 million. Since 9/11, it has focused most of its attention on the crackdown on Muslim charities. It has asked President Bush to let the charities reopen, and in
testimony last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the MPAC's executive director, Salam Al-Marayati, defended Muslim charities accused of terrorist ties. MPAC espouses a philosophy more liberal than CAIR's, and before the November election, Al-Marayati attacked the GOP. The party
leadership, he charged, had "squandered the support from the American Muslim community and has been deaf to the call for leadership in stemming hate."

Sarah Eltantawi, a spokeswoman for MPAC, now says that the coalition's endorsement of Bush was a mistake. "The idea was that by voting as a bloc, we could have more of a political impact," she says. "But it's not clear we've gotten anything for our support."

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is the largest of the Arab-American groups. Its budget tops $1 million, and the group has an important grassroots constituency and 35 local offices around the country. The committee is close to some Democratic lawmakers and is liberal in outlook. Still, its decision to work with the Bush administration has ruffled feathers among its members. Like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the committee before September 11 had focused on countering anti-Arab discrimination. Since then, it has been the most politically active of the groups, hiring two lobbyists, lobbying on civil-liberties and foreign-policy issues, and launching a political action committee.

The Arab American Institute remains mostly a research and get-out-the-vote organization, but it maintains ties with the Democratic Party. Zogby, its president, advised Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign and was close to President Clinton. The institute's annual budget is about $1 million.

Across the board, the groups decline to discuss their finances in detail. They say they rely mostly on donations from American citizens, but in at least a few cases, the advocates have accepted foreign contributions. In 1999, for example, the Saudi government gave the Council on American-Islamic
Relations $250,000 to purchase land for a new headquarters building near the Capitol. Zogby of the Arab American Institute acknowledges that he accepts donations from foreign individuals. But all of the groups say they represent the views of Americans.

Exactly how many Americans is not clear. Demographic figures on the Arab-American and Muslim American communities are shaky. Because of the absence of reliable census data, it's difficult to know even how many Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans live in the United States. Muslim groups
last year released a study placing their ranks at 7 million, many of them African-Americans. Soon thereafter, the American Jewish Committee-a pro-Israel group-disputed the figure, conducted its own study, and put the number of Muslim Americans at 1.9 million.

The Arab American Institute, a largely Christian group, says there are 3 million Arab-Americans in this country, most of them Christian. Only 23 percent of Arab-Americans practice Islam, according to the institute. That would mean that Arab-American Muslims number a mere 700,000. Yet they
dominate the leadership of organized Muslim American political groups.

Peace Groups or Apologists for Terrorism?

In interviews with National Journal, advocates for all of the Arab-American and Muslim groups condemned terrorist violence, but they blamed U.S. foreign policy for anti-American sentiments abroad. These advocates said they want the Bush administration to renew its focus on the Middle East peace process and on the creation of a Palestinian state. Likewise, they want the United States to help Iraqis achieve self-determination, but they oppose the use of military force to oust Saddam Hussein. At home, they want the government to target terrorist cells, but not to go after Arab- Americans or Muslim
Americans as a group. They oppose the use of profiling at airports and elsewhere.

Despite their efforts, the activists say, most members of Congress and the Bush administration still aren't willing to hear them out. They blame pro-Israel lobbyists for seeking to exclude them from the debate. Yet at times, the groups have hurt themselves. The most prominent example involved
Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. In an interview with a California radio station on the day of the attacks, he raised the possibility that Israel might have carried out the destruction of the World Trade Center and the assault on the Pentagon. As a result, Stephen Schwartz of the Islamic
Democracy Project has urged the Bush administration and members of Congress to stop meeting with the organization.

So far, the Bush administration has disregarded such pleas, and the president and administration officials have met with Arab-American and Muslim American leaders several times in the 15 months since the attacks. The most recent occasion was Bush's visit this month to the Islamic Center, where he praised Islam.

In doing so, the president has rejected the views of prominent leaders of the Religious Right, including Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Pat Robertson, all of whom have condemned Islam in recent months as a religion that preaches violence. Conservative Christian groups in Washington, such as the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and the Free Congress Foundation, have also expressed repeated concerns about Islamic teachings.

Earlier this month, for example, the Free Congress Foundation, which is run by longtime conservative activist Paul Weyrich, promoted a new book by Robert Spencer, Islam Unveiled, that flatly blames Islamic teachings for inciting terrorism. Weyrich said in a statement, "Islam, from its very start right up
until today, has been hostile to Western civilization and those who live according to Judeo-Christian values."

Last summer, the American Family Association unsuccessfully tried to persuade the University of North Carolina to drop a book about Islam from a required-reading list given to incoming freshmen. And last month, the group attacked Islam in an e-mail message to supporters alleging that an
"understanding of Islamic teachings demonstrates the acceptance and even encouragement of persecution against Christians" by Muslims.

Arab-American and Muslim American leaders have strongly condemned these attacks, saying they should have no legitimacy in American society. But these leaders worry that many in their communities, fearful of such smears, have soured on political involvement. "It's just hard to make our voices heard in this climate," says the MPAC's Eltantawi. "We are being intimidated, and our
motives are suspect." It's been next to impossible, she adds, for Muslim American groups to have any impact on policy debates while they are forced to fend off constant attacks.

Gene Byrd, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, a group that works to promote Palestinian statehood, says he encouraged members of the Muslim umbrella group Islamic Society of North America to stage a rally at the White House during their annual meeting this past summer. "I
said, 'Why don't you come out and declare your loyalty to the U.S.? The sight of 20,000 Muslims praying outside the White House would be great theater,'" says Byrd. "But they said they were afraid of a backlash."

A Powerful Opponent

In light of their endorsement of Bush, Muslim groups had high hopes that the president would make a concerted effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But two years into the Bush administration, there has been little change in U.S. policy in the view of the Muslim and Arab groups.

Muslim and Arab groups in the United States blame the tremendous strength of the pro-Israel lobby for stymieing their efforts. Last May, for example, under heavy pressure from pro- Israel groups, the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to endorse an Israeli military campaign against Palestinian
communities in the West Bank and Gaza. The language was so sympathetic to Israel and so critical of the Palestinians that White House officials suggested it would hinder administration efforts to bring the parties to the peace table. Nonetheless, the House voted 352-21 in favor of the resolution;
the Senate passed it 94-2.

The vote, says Khalil E. Jahshan, the director of government relations at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, reflects the "sense of intimidation in our legislative politics." He says that a sympathetic senator recently told him, "When the pro-Israel lobby says 'Jump,' 90 percent of my
colleagues say, 'How high?' "

Arab-American and Muslim advocates express a common refrain: They can't get a fair hearing because of the strength of the Israel lobby. And, indeed, the pro-Israel groups are well- heeled. The Anti-Defamation League alone posted revenues of nearly $50 million in 2000. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee took in nearly $17 million.

"You have a tremendous coalition of powerful special- interest groups: AIPAC, the Christian Right, neoconservatives," says Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "You put all this together, and you have a tremendous coalition for unconditional support of Israel. We have our small
groups, some liberal friends, and not a lot of people, money, or influence."

But there's more to the story than the pro-Israel lobby, says Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., himself an Arab-American. He says that the circumstances surrounding September 11 and the breakdown of the Middle East peace process have made advocacy efforts difficult for the Arab-American and Muslim communities. "It's hard to be effective in the shadow of 9/11," says Issa. "Many of the issues that would be perennial to these organizations are very hard to hear and react to in a positive way." Until the violence ends in the Middle East, he adds, "it makes it almost universally impossible to move any
positive agenda for the Palestinians."

Rashid Khalidi, an Arab-American professor of international studies at the University of Chicago, says that blaming the pro-Israel lobby has become an easy crutch for the communities' own failings. At the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee's meeting in June, he told attendees to "stop whining about how the Israeli lobby controls everything. As long as we continue to offer this pathetic excuse, we will never do a thing and nothing will change."

Divisions Within

Still, the whining has continued, Khalidi says, and instead of uniting behind one positive message this year, Arab-American and Muslim American advocates-by their own admission-have spent a significant amount of time and energy squabbling over turf. They also have spent a lot of time fighting over
the best ways to press their arguments in Washington. Eltantawi describes the Muslim community as "fragmented and incoherent," and prone to "way too much infighting."

But the divisions are most evident at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, where some of the group's grassroots constituents are in open rebellion against the Washington office. Local leaders argue that the group's leaders in Washington have taken a conciliatory tone with the Bush
administration when they should be condemning the president's policies. In addition, they complain that the national office has hoarded more than its share of the organization's resources and has failed to nourish grassroots activism.

The conflict came to light in July, when the national office dismissed Michel Shehadeh, the longtime Western regional director. Soon thereafter, five chapters in California and one in Phoenix addressed an open letter to the Washington office outlining their concerns. The letter noted the "dangerous
trend on the part of the ADC national office to accept the dictates of the Bush administration at home and reactionary Arab regimes abroad."

In an interview, Shehadeh said the group had alienated allies at civil-liberties organizations and within other ethnic groups and had turned to "partisan collaboration with the Bush administration."

Ibish calls the charges "preposterous." He noted that his group has joined Muslim American organizations in calling for the resignation of Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, and that it has assailed Bush and his foreign-policy team for their handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict and for
their bellicose approach to Iraq.

Still, Maad Abu-Ghazalah, a former American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee leader in California, says that many share Shehadeh's views. In a year when the Arab- and Muslim American communities were expecting to go on the policy offensive, particularly on the Middle East conflict, the
communities are frustrated, he says, to find their Washington advocates still reeling, still doing damage control.

"Anytime people in our community speak, they have to say they are against terrorism," he says. "Why should I have to start from being on the defensive? The attackers were of Arab ethnicity and Muslim, but I didn't see any correlation with me, and I don't think our community should be apologetic."

Edward Said, a Columbia University professor who is one of the prominent figures in the Arab-American community, defends the anti-discrimination committee. In a column for the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, he called the organization "the one serious national Arab-American group," and he praised it for rebutting charges against Arabs in the media and seeking to protect individuals from government abuses.

But Said also made a larger point. He wrote, "There remains this pernicious factionalism by which, with almost Pavlovian regularity, Arabs try to hurt and impede each other rather than uniting behind a common purpose."

Khalidi takes that a step further, saying that Arab-and Muslim Americans need to do what other immigrant groups have done throughout U.S. history in order to make their presence felt. "We have to be registered voters, we have to hold our local representatives to some basic standards, and we have to learn the ins and outs of local politics, local party primaries, municipal politics," says the professor. "You don't influence Congress without first influencing City Hall and the Statehouse."




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