Timely Town Hall Meeting in California

By Susan Schwartz

The suffering of the Palestinian people and their slide toward genocide was the topic of a well-attended town hall meeting in La Mirada, Ca. this past week. The event featured Muslim and non-Muslim speakers and was keynoted by the former Ambassador to Iraq, Edward Peck.

Ambassador Peck, who has spent many years in the diplomatic service, has long been an outspoken critic of President Bush’s Middle Eastern Policy in general and his Iraqi policy in particular. Ambassador Peck is often a featured speaker at political forums.

The evening began with a brief film. Shakeel Syed, the Executive Director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California (ISCSC) was the Master of Ceremonies.

Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi spoke eloquently. He is a well known Muslim scholar, a sought after guest at Muslim and non Muslim gatherings. Dr. Siddiqi began by telling his audience that he had just returned from a conference in Seville attended by 100 imams and 100 rabbis.

He said that the situation in Palestine is collective punishment which is contrary to internationally accepted human rights standards.

Muslims use the compulsory zakat to give to charities that would normally help the Palestinian people. Then they see that these funds are frozen. This is against religion, morality and human decency. We are not at war with the Palestinian people.

Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) took the podium next. He reminded his audience that Palestine holds a place in Muslim hearts. It was in Palestine that the Prophet Muhammad (s) ascended into heaven during the night journey. We are dealing with an issue that concerns justice and goes beyond religion and beyond politics.

There are, he said, two kinds of people in the world: Those who do not know what is going on and those who do know but have no compassion. He emphasized that Israel’s occupation is brutal, its Apartheid Wall is racist. Israel’s checkpoints are humiliating. Israel fires on civilians, and the world is silent. Our nation’s unqualified support for Israel generates resentment the world over, and builds the extremism that is such a destructive force in our environment.

What is happening in Palestine, he argued, is slow genocide, and we as a nation bear responsibility because of our support for Israel.

Dr. Maher Hathout, the Senior Political Advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) then spoke. He asked the audience to look at their hands. “They are covered with blood, Palestinian blood.” People ask what each one of us can do, especially in the face of a compliant media. If each of us would talk to twenty people about the situation in Palestine, he said, we would have a larger circulation than The New York Times.

If Americans want to talk to the world about democracy, we have to help the Palestinians. The issue of Palestine is not as remote as the Zionists would have us believe. For Muslims it is a matter of helping our beleaguered brothers and sisters.

If the Palestine problem were solved tomorrow, the Zionists would still try to suppress us, he said. Dr. Hathout called on CAIR, AMA and other groups to work together and with non-Muslims to solve the problem.

Keynote speaker Ambassador Edward Peck then took the podium. Ambassador Peck spoke of his trips to Palestine and other parts of the Middle East and of the leaders he met during those visits.

“There is a linkage between what is happening in Iraq and terrorism. It is linked to our support of Israel”. He pointed to Jerusalem where Muslims and Jews live in peace as a refutation of the claim made by some that such peaceful coexistence is impossible.

He reminded his audience that the Nazis saw the rest of the world as untermensch – subhuman and not worthy of respect. He said that is how Israelis treat their opponents.

Ambassador Peck said that there is no Palestinian Israeli conflict. It is an occupation. Nor are negotiations possible. A prisoner does not negotiate on an equal footing with his jailer. We already know the solution to the Palestine–Israeli problem, he said, End the occupation.

The media, he explained, like Congress, is controlled by Jews. In a pithy aphorism he said that Congress is the largest Jewish controlled settlement outside of Jerusalem.

Wafa Shami, the Middle Eastern Peace Education Coordinator, said she has been in the United States since 1999. She set about putting to rest the myth that Christians in Palestine are persecuted. To the contrary they share the same values with Palestinians and bring the same non violence to the table on a daily basis. She gave the example of having to endure the humiliation, usually for hours, of standing at Israeli checkpoints

Ms Shami told the audience that she was going to the Middle East in July as part of her job. She will be glad to make a presentation based on her visit to any group that wants her upon her return in August.

Perhaps the most stirring presentations of the evening were two telephone call from Palestine. In the first, Khalil Maarouf spoke from Jerusalem. His story of the suffering of the people was all the more impressive because such suffering surrounded him on a daily basis. The flow of money, he said, has been halted. More than 150,000 government employees no longer receive salaries. Movement within Gaza is easier, but entering and leaving Gaza is not–as Israel controls entry and departure.

There are clinics without doctors and clinics with doctors but no medical supplies (including pharmaceuticals). As the beginning of a new school year approaches, children are in desperate need of supplies.

Other speakers included Ahmad Azzam of the Muslim American Society and Shaykh Sayyid Mustafa Qazwini of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County. Action items were presented by Salaam Al Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).

A question and answer session took place. The audience left with the following tasks for themselves and as part of an outreach to all those who value justice, peace and decency.

1. Calling legislators
2. Writing to newspapers
3. Signing on to the suggested letter (reproduced below) to the President
4. Beginning to build coalitions with other groups

Groups sponsoring the event were The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); The Council on American Islamic Relations – Southern California (CAIR – LA); The Islamic Shura Council of Southern California; the Muslim American Society (MAS); The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and The Muslim Student Association (MSA – West).

June 21, 2006
President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times (“Questions Arise Over Case Against Islamic Charity, Federal Prosecutors Rely Heavily on Israeli Intelligence, Court Records Indicate” June 18, 2006) raises troubling issues involving Muslim charities established to help the Palestinian people. The issue also has a resounding effect on the civil rights of Muslim Americans. The article indicates that 8,000 pages of “Israeli military and policy reports translated interrogation transcript and financial analyses” were used by the Department of Justice for the investigation and prosecution of an American-based charity, Holy Land Foundation (HLF). If true, this practice of using foreign intelligence to target American citizens and American institutions could undermine US interests here and abroad.

As non-profit Muslim organizations, we have always worked to maintain a focus on the broad issue of closures of American Muslim charities without engaging in the situations of specific institutions. We are writing about concerns over the legality and the process of utilizing corrupt foreign intelligence for prosecuting American institutions and individuals. While we understand the importance of cooperating with nations on intelligence matters, we are concerned that a perception is growing throughout our community that your administration is depending on politicized and biased sources against Muslim American institutions. This increases a related perception that the corruption of foreign governments is affecting the lives of American communities, institutions or individuals that disagree with their policies. It is not in the interest of the United States to get entangled in dissident politics of the Middle East that usually result in a foreign country, even among our allies, targeting and harassing their dissidents who have nothing to do with extremist movements or terrorism.

The image of the United States in the global arena has deteriorated in large part due to the notion that it is blindly one-sided favoring Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. The allegation that the Israeli military is utilizing the US Department of Justice as an instrument of influence against Americans, if not thoroughly addressed, will further hamper the US government and its efforts to negotiate a settlement in the Middle East.

Within the context of the War on Terrorism this issue becomes more textured than simply a disagreement between groups. Two primary reasons for this development are: 1) millions of dollars from American donors money have been frozen by the Treasury based on what is now perceived to be corrupt foreign intelligence, which we believe has hindered the ability of the Treasury to bring criminal prosecutions against any actors, rendering them with the only option of freezing assets virtually negating the significant contribution the American Muslim community is making to conflict and disaster-stricken people across the world; and 2) this lack of clarity only serves the interests of foreign governments, not US national security. The exclusion of Muslim Americans as part of the solution to so many serious issues facing America today is a fundamental error in our policymaking process today.

Under the USA Patriot Act, the U.S. government is authorized to close down a charity while an investigation is going on. The government is under no obligation to reveal the evidence used to justify the seizure of assets and the designation of the charity as a “specially designated national,” a designation that apparently utilizes biased foreign intelligence. Hence, it is a belief within the Muslim American community that the US government is acting as an agent of a foreign government when it shuts down a charity, and it is not working for genuine American interests.

To gain clarification on this important matter we recommend that there be a meeting between you and representatives of national Muslim American organizations:

1. Offering us an opportunity to present a constructive critique of counterterrorism policy as it affects American Muslim non profits as well concrete proposals for change in policy that will preserve the nation’s focus on national security while resonating with our community;

2. Offering you an opportunity to explain to us the process of vetting foreign intelligence to filter out biased and corrupted information that leads to the investigations and prosecutions of Americans; and

3. Presenting a plan for releasing or redirecting the frozen assets of American donors who have given to subsequently shut down institutions with the intent of helping the Palestinian people.

The American Muslim community has worked hard at presenting the administration with concrete projects to enfranchise our institutions in combating terrorist financing. After working with the treasury since 9-11 on this issue, we believe it is now time that you meet with us personally to address these matters. Whether this or the myriad of issues our nation is dealing with, the American Muslim community is yet to be placed at the apex of US efforts in the War on Terrorism, inhibiting the nation from its most important asset.

We appreciate your prompt response to these concerns.

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