Syrian American Contributions

Syrian Americans have been part of the rich fabric of American life for over a century. Syrian Americans include members of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Syrian Americans have contributed and elevated American politics, sports, popular and high culture, academia, industry, and civic life for generations.

If Paula was your favorite judge on American Idol in its heydey, you have danced along with a Syrian American.

If Jerry Seinfeld ever cracked you up, you have laughed alongside a Syrian American.

If you’ve used any Mac product, you can thank Steve Jobs, whose birth parents were from Syria.

If you’re a woman pursuing a career in law, you can look to the inspiring example of Rosemary Barkett, the first woman to serve on the Florida Supreme Court, and the first woman Chief Justice of that court, who has Syrian heritage.

If you live in Michigan or follow libertarian politics, you may have been represented in Washington by Justin Amash (R-MI-3), a Syrian American.

If you’ve been able to quickly and easily photocopy something, you can thank Paul Orfalea, the Syrian American who founded Kinkos.

If you attend Wofford College or Purdue University, your school is led by a Syrian American (Nayef Samhat and Mitch Daniels, respectively).

If you ever wanted to take up surfing because that Kelly Slater is just too darn gorgeous, that’s probably because he has Syrian heritage.

If you get your news from CNN, you may hear it from celebrated Syrian American journalist Hala Gorani.

If you’ve enjoyed watching Homeland, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Finding Forrester (etc.) then I’m sure you’ve recognized the acting talent of Syrian American F. Murray Abraham.

If you’re a big hockey fan, you are probably aware of former Blackhawk current Blue Jacket Brandon Saad’s talent on the ice– yes, Syrian Americans even play professional hockey.

If we want to ‪#‎makeamericagreat‬ again, how about we take in as many Syrians as possible, huh?

‪#‎immigration‬‪#‎wakeupamerica‬‪#‎syrianrefugees‬

 

Note: This was originally posted to my personal Facebook page on 15 November, 2015. 

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The Third Jihad and the NYPD

My latest blog post for the Yalla Change campaign, called, “The Third Jihad: Dangerous NYPD Training Materials on American Muslims” can also be read here.

“This is not a film about Islam. This is about the threat of radical Islam. Only a small percentage of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are radical.”
 

So begins The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America, a 72-minute “documentary” which aims to show the infiltration of radical Islam into the United States. Though the film begins with this disclaimer, the method of argumentation throughout directly contradicts it with various misrepresentations of Islam. It describes the first two major jihads in Islamic history as Islam’s original expansion and Islam’s arrival in Europe in the 13th century, while the third jihad supposedly aims to establish a global Islamic state, which will be achieved through a combination of violence and deception. The film “exposes” the “creeping threat of sharia” over Constitutional law, and elicits concern for radicalization in prisons via conversion to Islam. The Third Jihad presents a clash of civilizations approach, with Islam portrayed as incompatible with modernity and democracy, and Muslim integration in to American society framed as part of a 1,400 year holy war. In doing so, the film fosters dangerous and counter-productive anti-Muslim sentiment.

The Third Jihad was produced by the Clarion Fund, the group responsible for the production and distribution of Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West to 28 million U.S. households in battleground states in the lead-up to the 2008 elections. An organization dedicated to producing films about “radical Islam,” the Clarion Fund’s advisory board is made up of such luminaries as Frank J. Gaffney Jr. and Daniel Pipes. Featuring interviews with “expert” Islamophobes including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Walid Phares, and Bernard Lewis, and government leaders including Tom Ridge, former Secretary of Homeland Security, and R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA. The Third Jihad  is a divisive and slanderous attack on the United States’ Muslim communities. It  was also used in counter-terrorism training by the New York Police Department.

Though news of the NYPD’s use of the film was first reported by the Village Voice over a year ago, the New York Times recently revealed that the film wasn’t merely shown “a couple of times,” as NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne originally asserted. Rather, it was shown for a period of three months as part of mandatory counter-terrorism training. Research by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School revealed that almost 1,500 officers watched this film as part of their training. The picture gets uglier: among those interviewed for the film were NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

This incident is just one in a series of affronts by the NYPD towards the Muslim community in New York. A recent report reveals deliberate NYPD targeting of Shiite mosques. The document also argues that, “The Palestinian community, although not Shi’a, should also be assessed due to presence of Hamas members and sympathizers and the group’s relationship with the Iranian government.” If this is the type of “research” that informs the NYPD’s counter-terrorism strategy, surveillance tactics such as these are unsurprising. In an article this summer, the Associated Press reported that, “the NYPD has become one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government.”

Having a police commissioner who says, as Kelly does in the film, that Muslims want to “infiltrate and dominate” America inhibits his ability to properly engage with that community. Interfaith and Muslim leaders have openly protested these surveillance tactics, some by boycotting  New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s annual interfaith breakfast. In addition, the Arab American Institute, a Yalla Change partner organization, has sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano regarding the film. The NYPD’s tactics obstruct their ability to successfully subvert terror plots  by breeding distrust and resentment. Honesty, discourse, and collaboration with Muslim leaders is the most effective way to keep America safe.
 
 
 
To learn more about the Yalla Change campaign, visit our website
.  

Why I Don’t Call It The Arab Spring

This article was originally published in Kenyon College’s MESA Journal, Vol. 3, Ed. 1 (November, 2011).

I can already see the entries in future history books: what began with self-immolation by a frustrated young fruit vendor in Tunisia launched unprecedented revolution across the Arab world. Aided by Facebook, Twitter and other social media, movements spread and autocratic regimes fell. It was the dawn of nonviolence in the Middle East, a time of rapid change: the Arab Spring.
I’m not so sure.

It is not my place to attempt a retelling of the events in the Arab World in the past ten months, nor could I begin to address the scope and complexity of various national movements. Instead, I wish to address the way these events have been presented and interpreted, as well as how the Obama Administration has responded. Finally, I will conclude with how American foreign policy should proceed.

Complexity is at the core of my opposition to the usage of the term “Arab Spring” to describe recent uprisings across the Arab world. The common narrative alludes to a process of rolling ignition, seen in the language of “first Tunisia,“then Egypt” followed by a smattering of other countries in varying chronology. This mode of presentation detracts from the existence of opposition movements that predated the uprisings in various Arab countries, and implies a simple progression from Country A to Country B to C and D and E (with the obvious inclusion of social media as the disseminating agent of protest organization) without acknowledgement of the unique circumstances underlying the protests in each individual country. Tunisia is not Egypt is not Syria is not Libya is not Bahrain, and a euphemistic categorical umbrella does not help our understanding of the unfolding events, nor in accommodating a climate of progressive change across the region.

Many of my objections to usage of this term draw heavily from an editorial in Lebanon’s The Daily Star by Dr. Rami Khouri entitled “Drop the Orientalist Term ‘Arab Spring.’” In the article, Khouri notes that the terminology most popular with Western media, “Arab Spring” does not reflect the language used by those engaged in the movements themselves. The implicit temporality and passivity of the word “spring” should also give its users pause. The phrase does no justice to the millions who have courageously stood up to brutal, malicious regimes, and to the thousands who have lost their lives in those struggles.

The collective movements that allegedly began with vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation did not end with Tunisia’s successful elections last month. While the developments in each country will follow their own respective trajectories, each transition will be most unlike those between seasons (buds to blossoms to barren). The analogy oversimplifies what is certain to be a long, arduous, non-linear process. The reclamation of the political agency of Arab peoples is not a seasonal phase, but a dramatic shift that will take more than passive observation of changing foliage and clime, but tireless activism, strong will, and honest governance. The transition taking place doesn’t involve leaves falling from trees, but people dying at the hands of ruthless autocrats.  Reducing their struggles to an Arab Spring minimizes the importance of their efforts.

The language we use to describe these events is symbolic, to be sure; however, it can serve as a useful mark of the more necessary shift: one in attitudes and actions by Western leaders towards the Arab peoples and the governments that represent them. Khouri argues:
Western powers for the past century and a half or so have assumed that they can shape and control most aspects of power and policy across the Arab world, whether due to imperial self-interest, energy requirements, economic needs, or pro-Israeli biases….Perhaps some in the West also do not want to acknowledge the full reality of Arabs reconfiguring their power structures, because Western powers (including Russia) supported those old, failed authoritarian systems that are now being challenged and changed.

Prior to the outbreak of large-scale revolutionary activity, this sentiment was put another way by Iraqi-Canadian rapper The Narcycist in his book, Diatribes of a Dying Tribe: “If the restaurant of life were an Arab establishment, dictators would be the waiters to a Capitalist chef.” As regimes shift or topple and tides of public sentiment grow louder, it is time for Washington to listen to some Bob Dylan : “The times they are a changin.” What is the intended result of the uprisings of the past year? Agency for Arab peoples.

I hope to look back at the last year as a watershed in the history of American foreign policy
towards the Arab world. I hope to watch Arab political power expressed justly through free and fair elections, through leaders who are appointed by the masses to serve the masses. I hope to see genuine structural changes to the power structures in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and other nations that face unequal and unjust representation. I hope to see the monarchs of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco continue, however gradually, to shift power to elected legislatures and executives.

As desirable as those outcomes may be, it is not the role of American foreign policy to produce them. Instead, the U.S. should craft a foreign policy that respects the agency of Arabs, encourages struggles that align with our nation’s founding principles, and rejects political violence against civilians. The continued hypocrisy of the Obama Administration toward unfolding events in the region violates our nation’s values and ideals and inhibits our ability to act as an impartial arbiter of peace within the international community. While our economic and national security needs may remain, the means through which America meets its strategic interests in the region must change.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak has revealed that the military holds the real power in Egypt.  The seasonal change that seemed so evident in February has not occurred at a rate suitable to anyone save the army and its interests in the business sector. Delayed elections, difficulties in developing and organizing new political structures and military trials of civilians by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces have shown that Egypt’s revolution remains incomplete.  Political stagnation isn’t the only issue facing Egypt: recent incidents of violence by security forces against Coptic Christians, growing popular support for well-organized Islamist political factions, and an attack on the Israeli embassy have left many concerned about Egypt’s prospects for a smooth transition to representative democracy.

These problems are real and complex and will need to be solved through persistence, cooperation, and empathy by the Egyptian people and their leadership. Yet, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

The great stumbling block in [the] stride toward freedom is… the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; … who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.

Dr. King’s description corresponds with what has been labeled the Arab Spring, and it is far from over. Rather than set a paternalistic timetable, or attempt to gloss over the distinctive aspects of each revolution, we must allow change to take its natural course. Majorities in many Arab countries have chosen instability over injustice, and the U.S. should no longer stand in the way of their causes to advance American interests. What is required is not a new season in American foreign policy, but an entirely new paradigm: one that replaces collectivism toward the region with informed analysis, and shuns convenience in favor of integrity and legitimate governance.

Asking the Right Questions

Just finished reading Yassin Alsalman’s “Diatribes of a Dying Tribe,” his master’s thesis and multimedia collaboration with Omar Offendum, Excentrik, and Ragtop in “Fear of an Arab Planet, also known as the Arab Summit. I thoroughly enjoyed his analyses of the interactions between hip hop, identity, cultural appropriation and the political realities of “Middle Westerners,” those of us of Middle Eastern descent living in the West who are faced with the types of questions that have risen to thematic ubiquity in my recent writings and musings. The questions of home and belonging, otherness and loyalty are important and contentious; i.e. what does it mean for me to have watched Egyptian police throw tear gas that was “Made in the USA“?

The book is academic poetry, and well worth the read. Download the Arab Summit or buy the book here.

“If the restaurant of life were an Arab establishment, dictators would be the waiters to a Capitalist chef.” (37)

65-31

With today’s vote in the Senate to (finally) repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, American’s move closer to a society free of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice. In a country where our liberty is supposed to allow for the pursuit of happiness, thousands will now be able to choose to serve America in uniform without having to hide their identity. With this vote, we move closer to justice and equality.

This letter is a beautiful and heart wrenching reminder of what today is about.

Andrew Sullivan’s reactions here.

Remembering Katrina

“If there is any real, fundamental danger to America (as opposed to all of Fox’s made-up stuff, that is), this is it: That the country will fail because its government does not provide even minimally competent services to its citizens.” -Mark Coatney

This is belated but still worth posting.

I went for a week of reconstruction 11 months after the storm, and learned how to build and demolish walls. I also learned how to listen, re-build trust, and work in a community of strangers. I discovered the power of hope, I delighted in the altruism of my peers, and I didn’t realize, until then, what real gratitude looks like.

we didn’t start the fire

“… we are seeing forces that cannot ultimately be stopped by anyone – until they have wrought the hideous consequences so many zealots on all sides desire.”

Andrew Sullivan discussing the current political and emotional climate.

My heart aches… I seriously pray he is wrong.

As I have grown and sought my education and broadened my global awareness I have watched fundamentalism, literalism, dogmatism, and xenophobia grow globally.

How do we move beyond difference, toward peace?

Phobic

Here is a fabulous article by Sally Steenland of the Center for American Progress about the Islamophobia present in the debate about the Cordoba House, and the ensuing debate.

She makes important arguments about the risks of anti-Muslim rhetoric,  and reveals hypocrisy:

“It’s time to look at this problem another way. In order to truly see how distorted, offensive, and dangerously wrong anti-Muslim rhetoric is, it is useful to switch religions for a moment and substitute Christianity for Islam. This might seem hard to do at first because Christianity is so embedded in our culture and such a familiar part of our nation’s founding and heritage. But what if we knew nothing of Christianity except what we learned from extremist groups and critics of the religion? What if we viewed Christianity through the same distorted lens that is too often used to view Islam?”

a must read.