File photo: Mazen Asbahi, who recently resigned under pressure as Muslim advisor to the Obama campaign
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 called it “the politics of exclusion”.
We fought back. We organised, worked hard, and we emerged victorious – or, should I say, somewhat victorious? I now feel a bit tentative about our progress because what happened to Mazen Asbahi is causing me to wonder whether the politics of exclusion might not again be rearing their ugly head. Here’s what has happened:
On July 25, the Barack Obama campaign announced the appointment of Mazen Asbahi to further their outreach efforts to Arab Americans and American Muslims. As a young and accomplished corporate attorney, Mazen was largely unknown to many in both communities. He quickly introduced himself to leaders and activists nationwide to involve them in the Obama campaign.
I was delighted to meet him. He is the 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 Mazen 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, Mazen 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 Mazen. The other charge is that he, like thousands of other Muslim American students, was a member of the Muslim Students Association, an established and respected group found on most US campuses. But because an anti-Muslim blogger with a penchant for exaggeration and error called the Muslim Students Association a “wahhabist front”, this charge against Mazen was also thrown into the mix.
In the days that followed, the charges became fodder for extremist right-wing bloggers, whose descriptions of Mazen 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, Mazen and the campaign agreed to terminate his position. Mazen 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 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 of Arab Americans and American Muslims.
Who is behind the shadowy website “Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report” that “revealed” the story? And what is their agenda? And why are right-wing commentators like 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 in a Dunkin Donuts ad. Schlussel attempted to Muslim-bait the 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 people like Mazen does a grave disservice to all Americans. It is a shame that no one in the mainstream media has the wisdom or courage to see them for what they are, or question their credibility.
Back to Mazen and the Obama campaign. To his credit, Mazen has been as graceful and thoughtful in adversity as he was upon assuming his post. He remains committed to 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 we are to advance as a nation we must not allow a return to “the bad old days”. And if we are to take advantage of the incredible resources provided by the Arab American and American Muslim communities, then we must include them – not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is so critically important in our efforts to engage the world in which we live.
Dr James J Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.