Confronting the Needless Hostility Within
One of the mistakes our community has made in dealing with Islamophobia has been to ignore the forces behind it, assuming they were far too crazy and marginal to ever gain sufficient traction in the mainstream to mount a serious challenge to our communities. Now, as we see Islamophobes elected to Congress, arbitrary controversies erupting at various sites where Muslims sought to build places of worship, and states passing paranoid laws to fight the imaginary creeping of “Sharia Law,” we know we should not have waited this long to take the threat of Islamophobia seriously.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a different brand of extremism, still in its marginal infancy, is trying to stir up trouble in our community. These are people who stridently claim to be the only authentic Arabs who care about justice for their communities in the US and in the Middle East, and they assign the term “house Arab” to any Arab American who promotes engagement with US policymakers or participation in the American political process.
While Islamophobes oppose Arab and Muslim involvement in American politics on the grounds that we are a potential threat and cannot be trusted, these guys oppose such engagement on the grounds that the US political establishment is such an unmitigated evil that there is no reason to engage it (the permeation of either ideology increases the “otherness” of Arabs and Muslims and the sense that they don’t belong in or are an integral part of this country). Anyone who does engage, so their logic goes, must be doing it to gain favor with the political elite, or for personal enrichment and empty self-promotion as a fake community leader with high connections.
Some with this ideology have anonymously (that is to say under pseudonyms) created a blog called “Ikhras,” Arabic for “shut up,” which is aimed at what they describe as “House Arabs.” Its content is about 5% spot on (occasionally they do go after people in a deserved fashion), about 10% funny and entertaining, but the remaining 85% is malicious, juvenile, and destructive. Intellectual consistency and clarity are completely abandoned in favor of feeble and often self-contradicting ad hominem attacks that are simply too extensive and convoluted to explain in detail.
To give just one example, the anonymous writers at Ikhras pleaded with the youth of the Egyptian revolution (particularly Wael Ghonim) not to associate themselves with the Arab American Institute (AAI), but when these activists took part in AAI’s Gala they were accused of being fake revolutionaries (including Jawad Nabulsi who was shot in the eye while protesting on the streets of Cairo – dare I speculate that this is more than what the anonymous bloggers of Ikhras risked for the revolution?). This is pretty indicative of their doltishly arrogant “either you’re with us or against us” mentality. If they truly believed in such personal attacks, why don’t they have the courage of their convictions to sign their real names to such vitriol?
Recently, Ikhras contributor Tammy Obeidallah (who I’m told is not Arab but who signs her real name) wrote a screed on Ikhras attacking Arab American comedian Dean Obeidallah as “the father of all House Arabs.” What was his crime? He didn’t condemn Israel and the United States in the course of an interview he did on CNN. During an exchange in the comments section on Ikhras and on twitter, Tammy accused Dean and Maysoon Zayid (another Arab American comedian) of being “Zionists” (consistent with Ikhras’ style of wild and baseless accusations). Once you’ve reduced yourself to making enemies out of Arab American comedians and staunch supporters of Palestinian rights like Dean and Maysoon with personalized vitriol, you’ve basically made it impossible to identify the limits of the depths to which you are willing to sink in vilifying anyone who disagrees with you. This type of strident orthodoxy demanded by Ikhras to spare oneself from baseless attacks is the sort of nasty bullying that must be confronted by all of us who value political and ideological diversity within our community before it becomes a poisonous source of unnecessary division and antagonism.
For those who consider themselves reasonable, but nevertheless find themselves partially sympathetic to the attitude of Ikhras, let me say this: there are a thousand approaches to advocacy, and we don’t have to agree with them all. Some of us prefer congressional advocacy, some of us like mass demonstrations, some prefer to write Op-Eds and letters to the editor, and some think BDS is more effective. Some of us prefer the principled stance that the US should end military aid to Israel until the latter abides by international law and respects the rights of the Palestinian people, while others prefer to advocate for what they see as more pragmatic and achievable goals like an even-handed diplomatic approach coupled with more moderate pressures.
The DC-based political advocacy approach requires one to play by specific rules, and they include constraints and considerations that people doing grassroots advocacy don’t have to bother with (maintaining relationships with various governments and government officials and using language and talking points that are suitable for that sphere). Whatever you think of the Washington game, it is what it is. Our political opponents who are so effective in Washington also play the game, and exceptionally well. If you don’t like the game, then find ways to limit the time you devote to it, or don’t play it at all. But don’t waste valuable energy denouncing those who choose to play it because they see the value in giving our community a voice in Washington. If you think you can do advocacy more effectively, by all means the stage is wide open.
And finally, a word to the anonymous folks who run Ikhras: the fact that people like Zuhdi Jasser, Irshad Manji, Nonie Darwish, Brigitte Gabriel and the rest of the self-promoting clowns (who do sell out their communities) don’t provide you with enough material to regularly update your website constitutes no license to expand your list of victims to anyone whose approach to advocacy you happen not to agree with. Had you chosen to focus on those who really deserve harsh criticism and delivered it in a thoughtful manner, your site might have served a constructive purpose. I hope you will take a moment for introspection on the role you play in the causes you say you care about. Sensationalism and contrived controversy is precisely what has reduced public discourse in the US to its current sorry state. The last thing the Arab American community needs is its own version of this mindless, angry divisiveness and McCarthyite stridency. Instead of being distracted and driven apart by irrational and anonymous public hate letters, we need to come together and work, if not in a cooperative, at least in a complementary fashion to advance the causes we care about. Let us elevate the discourse in the pursuit of a better model.
Omar Baddar is new media coordinator at the Arab-American Institute, but this piece is written in his personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of AAI or any other organization with which he is affiliated.