Crosscurrents into the mainstream

As the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee acts to fortify its presence in the US mainstream, some members are crying capitulation to the establishment. Amira Howeidy reviews the debate

Arab-American organisations are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. In the post 11 September world, the foremost Arab- American advocacy group, the Arab- American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), continues to suffer from the attack and its aftermath.

As prominent members of ADC express concerns about the "crisis" within the organisation, the leadership continues to deny that there are any problems at all. Prominent Arab-Americans have accused the ADC of becoming an autocracy that capitulates to the demands of the Bush administration to the detriment of the interests of the Arab-American community. The divisions within the ADC are particularly alarming given the post 11 September climate towards Arabs in the US. The ADC is the largest secular and grass-roots level organisation in the US dealing with Arab issues. And given the post 11 September hysteria, the role of groups concerned with the Arab community in the US has become more essential than ever before.

The ADC's internal troubles were brought to light more than a month ago when Al-Jazeera devoted its "Opposite Directions" show to the issue of Arab and Muslim organisations in the US and whether they truly represent their communities. The ADC leadership was criticised for supporting Bush's war on Afghanistan while there was no consensus on the issue in the organisation. "The leaders of these groups would do anything to go to the White House, have their pictures taken with the president, and then pretend they achieved something, when in fact they didn't" stated Faisal Al-Qassem, the host of the show. For over two decades, the ADC has been particularly effective in addressing issues of discrimination against Arab- Americans and promoting the interests of the three-million strong Arab community in the US.

The organisation's policy of "loyal opposition" under the leadership of its former president Hala Maqsoud, who died March 2001, won it respect within US government circles and credibility in the Arab-American community. Before her death, Maqsoud resigned from ADC to be replaced by Dr Ziad Asali, a retired physician who had recently joined ADC.

Until the Al-Jazeera programme, the ADC, for those who knew about it in this part of the world, had been viewed as "our" representative in the US. But as frustrated members speak out on the ADC's support for Bush, a disturbing series of events is beginning to take shape.

A former Iraqi general, from an opposition group which supports a US war against Iraq, was invited to speak at the ADC's convention last June. Moreover, the FBI was present at the same convention. To many, this was a visible manifestation of the ADC's capitulation to the Bush administration. Moreover, Asali condemned suicide operations in Occupied Palestine on TV. In a statement issued by ADC, the organisation would only go as far as discouraging an "unprovoked" attack on Iraq. And although discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans has reached record highs, the ADC leadership is being accused of trying to "dilute" this by saying that such discrimination amounts to a "subtle but insidious" reintroduction of ethnic discrimination into America's immigration procedures and law enforcement.

More importantly, critics within the ADC complain of the leadership's efforts to quash any criticism of the Bush administration.

"People were upset that the founder of ADC, Senator Jim Abourezk's talk at the convention did not appear on the ADC Web site with other main talks," says Dr Elaine Hagopian, a prominent ADC member -- "his talk was strongly critical of American leaders and American foreign policy." In addition, the talk of Clovis Maqsoud which called for Arab unity and action on Palestine appeared with a disclaimer on the Web site saying that his ideas don't represent ADC policy.

"People found this offensive" explains Hagopian, "especially since Dr Maqsoud is a highly respected pillar in the Arab-American community." In an effort to reorganise the ADC, the leadership decided to eliminate the position of West Coast director. Many believe that eliminating the position was simply a cover for removing the man who occupied the position: Michael Shehadeh, a well respected Arab- American activist.

Not only was Shehadeh critical of the US government and vocal about democratising the ADC, he is a long time activist and one of the well- known members of the Los Angeles Eight (LA8), a group of eight dissidents who have been harassed by the government since 1987. Their case is about to be re-opened under the new US Patriot Act.

Both the ADC leadership "and US officials do not want conflict in the relationship between ADC and the government", Shehadeh told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"This is a time when Shehadeh and the LA8 need the ADC to defend their rights vis-a-vis the Justice Department and the FBI... instead of firing him and inviting the FBI to have a desk at the national convention," says Dr Nasser Aruri, chancellor and professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, who is close to the ADC.

Shehadeh blames the situation in the ADC on Asali's 'vision'. "The manifestation of this 'vision' is to push the organisation towards a path of transformation in a direction of capitulation to the Bush administration's policies of war abroad, curtailment of civil liberties at home, and the elimination of the Palestinian cause and the destruction of Iraq." He says this acceptance of American policy is done in a strategy of pleasing the US power elite in order to "empower" the Arab American community. "The ADC leadership believes that pleasing the powerful will empower them... they don't recognise the big difference between enslavement and empowerment."

Following Shehadeh's dismissal, a number of ADC chapters formed "The National Democratic Reform Committee" which is an ad-hoc union with a mandate of "democratising" the ADC. Its mission statement asserts that "it's not a parallel leadership body to the existing ADC decision-making structure." People outside of the organisation say the new group represents a fissure within the ADC. Shehadeh does not agree saying "it is the membership trying to push the ADC to stay true to its original mission."

Today, observers are wondering about ADC's mission. Critics and supporters are wondering why the most well- established and powerful Arab lobbying group lacks the unity and drive to successfully push its agenda. Ironically, the lobbying role of such advocacy groups has only recently drawn the attention of major organisations in the Arab world. The Arab League has paid attention to the ADC only after 11 September, and last week, Arab League sources said that it will establish an expatriate Arab commission.

Even the issue of lobbying is in need of thorough examination, says Dr Nasser Aruri, "lobbying does not constitute trying to convince a Congressman or his assistants of the justice of your case, but presenting them with your voting power." But the Washington based ADC seems to have developed what Hagopian calls "Washingtonitis -- a belief that one can convince government officials by being moderate." This kind of approach applies to basically powerless groups, she says, "however nothing is really gained by limiting the role of criticism... in fact, criticism serves to alert the government about the possible consequences of its policies and to educate the public as well. The Arab-American community does not have the clout of an AIPAC, which is very powerful."

"American media culture is hostile and what we (do not) need is an organisation that wants to align itself with established government policies, [policies] which do not advance the cause," argues Aruri. For example, what did the briefing of the ADC board by Colin Powell accomplish for the community, he asked. "Not even a paragraph was released by the State Department to the media. If the ADC wants to play a role in the vital American political centre and become a mainstream organisation it needs to mobilise the community at the grass-roots level and to seek coalitions with progressive organisations opposing US hegemony in the world and [who are] standing up to Ashcroft's trashing of civil liberties."

Asali, however, believes that the message of working within the system towards the empowerment of the community, "with the clear objective of impacting the national decision-making, has less appeal to some than revolutionary and tired rhetoric that has so far yielded so much misery and defeat", he told the Weekly. "The Arab world, and issues of crucial concern to us and to our community, can only be met by us if we ourselves are empowered and effective."

Members of the Arab-American community, Asali said, are joining the ADC in droves. "Never in its history has the ADC been more effective or sorely needed, and never has it been so vociferously criticised by a fringe ideological minority. Criticism leveled at the policy, dictated by the National Board, is personalised and trivial. Measured criticism of the administration, filing suits against the government (and winning them as we just have with the detention list issue), filing suits against three multi-billion dollar airline companies for profiling, and forging real alliances of the top leaders of Black, Latino, and Asian Americans are all dismissed as surrendering to the administration and selling out."

To Asali, all this criticism "means that ADC counts and the 10 million hits a year that visit our web page confirm that".

However, Aruri argues that the real challenge facing the ADC is establishing itself in mainstream politics and grass-roots mobilisation.

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