When the Arab American Institute held its national conference in late October, presidential candidates hurried to Dearborn to go a-courting. Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Ron Paul were there. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards addressed the conference via video hookup. Obama also sent an adviser, Tony Lake, and Edwards sent his campaign manager, David Bonior. Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean was there as well, as well as Senators John Sununu (R-NH) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI); Congressmen Charles Boustany (R-LA), John Dingell (D-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI); Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer; and Michigan Republican Party Chairman Gerry Mason.
The AAI was flexing its political muscle. The Detroit Free Press article noted how much times had changed: “In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis rejected the endorsement of a major Arab-American group.” But now? “This year, Democratic party leaders gave the candidates permission to address the conference despite a campaign boycott of Michigan because legislators moved up the date of the state’s primary.”
The assembled politicians probably didn’t even notice that among the sponsors of the AAI conference was the La Shish restaurant chain. They should have: as Debbie Schlussel has noted, in May 2006 the owner of the fifteen-restaurant chain, Talal Chahine, was indicted for tax evasion and accused of funneling $20 million to Hezbollah. Chahine fled to Lebanon to escape prosecution, and maintains his innocence. Schlussel asks:
So, you ask, why would a restaurant owned by a fugitive who owes millions to the federal government continue to be open? Wouldn’t the government seize or freeze its assets . . . like they do with every other income tax cheat?
Well, those are great questions. I’ve asked them, too. But the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney Murphy won’t answer them. They’ve allowed fugitive tax cheat/Hezbollah financier Chahine to continue to operate and collect income and revenue from La Shish for 1.5 years and counting after they indicted him.
And why would the Arab American Institute accept sponsorship from a group that has not disproven government allegations of ties to Hezbollah? If the AAI doesn’t support Hezbollah, wouldn’t it want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety? But the AAI has been focusing the bulk of its attention not on acts of violence committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, but on attempts by law enforcement and government officials to head off that violence. Jean Abi Nader, the AAI’s managing director and chief operating officer, summed up the organization’s concerns in a 2003 address at the University of Buffalo.
“Since 9/11,” Abi Nader claimed, “Arab-Americans have watched their dream of being fully a part of American society subject to the stresses of federal initiatives—new laws, policies and procedures—that produce fear and intimidation in their community.”
Abi Nader might at that point have recommended that Arab Americans face squarely the reason why these new laws, policies and procedures were instituted: the reality of Islamic terrorism. He might have called upon Arab and non-Arab Muslims to confront the elements of Islamic teaching and tradition that jihadists use to justify their actions and make recruits among peaceful Muslims, and work to formulate ways to end their ability to incite to violence.
Instead, he made the fantastic claim that “within a month of Sept. 11, more than 2,000 hate crimes were committed against Arab-Americans and Muslims in this country, and who knows how many more went unreported.” His claims about how anti-terror efforts victimized Arab-Americans were no less hysterical: “So the civil liberties of Arab-Americans and American Muslims came under attack, and we have been treated increasingly as second-class citizens in this country. Not only do we see it at airports in terms of profiling, but also in a whole series of federal initiatives that in any other circumstance would not have been acceptable but are now acceptable because this country is at war.” And he decried the “systematic degrading of Islam by conservative Christians, neoconservatives and the right wing.”
Abi Nader made no mention of the systematic degrading of Islam perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and other jihadists — who routinely justify acts of mass murder by invoking Islam. Like so many other commentators, Abi Nader pretends that “conservative Christians, neoconservatives and the right wing” have invented a link between Islam and terrorism, when in fact no one would have thought to link them if Islamic terrorists themselves hadn’t been connecting the two so energetically.
The same story played out at the AAI conference in October. Richardson vowed to “protect these values we have compromised through unwarranted surveillance and ethnic profiling.” Obama, according to the Detroit News, “reminded the potential voters that he has introduced legislation to make police profiling illegal,” and Kucinich emphasized his consistent opposition to the Patriot Act. Howard Dean told the crowd that they had been “singled out unfairly and unjustly...by politicians who hope to have a cheap electoral trick” and said that the Arab American community “is under siege by those who would divide America in order to win elections.”
Such words were particularly ironic coming at a conference partially sponsored by a business owned by a man who has been indicted for funding a terrorist group. Just who is under siege by those who would divide America in order to win elections, and who is doing the besieging, may not be the groups Howard Dean had in mind at all – but the siege itself is real, and ongoing.