On the day after Rep. Peter King’s headline-grabbing congressional hearing on Islamic radicals in the United States last month, James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, sat in his downtown office trying to make sense of it all.
The loquacious intellectual and leading spokesman for Arabs in America (and sometimes by default, Muslims) concluded that the hearing, the first in a series, didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t alone. Critics said the entire thing smacked of a McCarthy-like witch-hunt, and that the opening hearing produced plenty of drama and political posturing, but little actual debate or analysis. King, a New York Republican who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, counters that the hearings are a “logical response to the repeated and urgent warnings” from the Obama administration about domestic terrorism.
Ultimately, the much-hyped event became a hearing on the pros and cons of the hearing itself instead of an inquiry into the motivations of Muslim extremists.
“The whole premise of it was questionable,” Zogby said as he sat amidst stacks of boxes and books as his institute moves into newly renovated space across the hall. “Peter King is known as someone who is an Islamophobe … and the hearing never should have happened,” he charged, describing it as “shockingly ill-conceived and poorly executed.”
“This was not a hearing to learn about a situation and help solve a problem,” Zogby continued, lamenting the lack of data-driven discussion. “It was a hearing to score political points. There is a difference, and Congress knows it. You could just watch the way the hearing unfolded — it was clear this was a political football. And this is too dangerous an issue to play that kind of politics.”
Writing shortly afterward in one of his many op-eds on the topic, Zogby was blunt about the dangers of demonizing America’s Arabs. “Islamophobia and those who promote it are a greater threat to the United States of America than Anwar al Awlaqi and his rag-tag team of terrorists,” he argued, referring to the radical Yemeni cleric. “On one level, al Awlaqi, from his cave hide-out in Yemen, can only prey off of alienation where it exists,” Zogby wrote. Islamophobia, on the other hand, would not only “do grave damage to one of the fundamental cornerstones of America’s unique democracy, it would simultaneously rapidly expand the pool of recruits for future radicalization.”
Informed, outspoken and opinionated — all of these adjectives accurately describe Zogby, a New York native and former comparative religion professor who came to Washington in the late 1970s to launch the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. A few years later, he co-founded the nonprofit Save Lebanon and took a job as executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Then, in 1985, he launched the Arab American Institute (AAI) to provide the Arab American community with a policy, politics and research arm.
AAI celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, and in terms of influence, it punches above its weight class for a D.C.-based organization with fewer than 20 employees and a $2 million budget. Zogby is a frequent voice for Arab Americans on national television shows and writes a syndicated column published in newspapers in 14 Arab and South Asian nations. Congress regularly seeks Zogby’s testimony on Capitol Hill, and he travels the country speaking to groups about the Arab role in America, while aiming to dispel stereotypes and misperceptions.
Zogby’s most recent book, “Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters,” confronts these myths with a blend of statistical data from Zogby International (his brother John’s respected polling firm) and personal anecdotes that “help tell the stories of those Arabs whose realities we must understand.”
Reflecting on a quarter century of work while discussing a range of issues including the conflicts in Libya and Egypt, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Zogby told The Washington Diplomat that he was pleased and proud of the strides the Arab-American community has made. He recalled attending a meeting at the White House during the Jimmy Carter administration and learning afterward that his invitation was viewed as a mistake by some White House officials. Because of his pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian stance, he was a potential political problem for the president. A friend in that White House told Zogby he was unlikely to be invited back, and he wasn’t.
“They said it was too controversial,” he lamented.
But times have changed.
“We’ve earned some respect as a community where it didn’t exist before,” said Zogby, who in the 1990s was asked by Vice President Al Gore to lead Builders for Peace, a private sector committee to promote U.S. business investment in the West Bank and Gaza. “We still have some challenges but that kind of zero-sum doesn’t exist anymore. For a while, some [Arabs] didn’t even want to be identified as Arab American. That’s all changed.”
Zogby, a Christian whose parents immigrated to upstate New York from Lebanon, stressed that his institute is political, not religious, in nature.
“I have an aversion to the idea that your political identity is a religious one,” he said, explaining that arguing God’s side in a debate amounts to no argument at all. “I don’t believe God sprinkles holy water on my political beliefs. If it’s just God-ordained, then there is no discussion.”
What Zogby relishes is ideas, politics and policy. An outspoken opponent of the Patriot Act enacted after 9/11, Zogby expressed dismay that three controversial sections of the act were recently reauthorized and signed back into law by President Obama. He said the vast majority of Arab Americans are against terrorism and willing to support policies that thwart violence, but like all Americans, they want their civil rights respected.
“I can’t imagine how we justify the search of library records or medical records, or authorizing anti-terror units to go raid some business and seize records with no evidence of a crime, just to look for evidence of a crime,” he said. “I can’t find a single case where terrorists have been apprehended because of these [techniques].”
Describing himself as a “law and order guy,” Zogby pointed out that virtually all legitimate terrorist arrests in the United States since 9/11 resulted from tips — many stemming from members of the Arab and Muslim community — and “good old-fashioned police work.”
“None of these provisions of searching people’s records or wiretapping phones have produced indictments, so why are we still doing them?” he asked.
In a 2006 interview with The Washington Diplomat, Zogby said he was disappointed with the Bush administration’s failure to use Arab Americans to help shape U.S. policy toward the Middle East. He thinks President Obama hasn’t done much better.
“I’ve been troubled by that,” Zogby said, citing the revolution in Egypt as a prime example. “Have we been actively involved? No. There is an extraordinary pool of talented Egyptian-Americans who have not been brought in [to advise the White House]. I would have expected [administration officials] would be on the phone calling people every day.
“There is not yet the recognition that this is a talented community that can play a real role in helping America,” he added. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”
But Obama has emphasized that the democratic protests sweeping the Arab world must come from the ground up and not be imposed from the outside. Zogby doesn’t disagree with that notion. Rather, he simply believes the president could do a better job of tapping the Arab resources and thinkers in his own backyard.
Indeed, Zogby argues that the battles in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere — popular uprisings against long-entrenched strongmen — are not really America’s to fight, in part because much of the region already resents American meddling in its internal affairs.
Zogby, who collaborated with his pollster brother John on “Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters,” says that contrary to popular belief, the majority of Arabs don’t “go to bed at night hating America, wake up hating Israel, and spend their days either watching news or listening to preachers who fuel that anger.” Rather, according to Zogby, “Arabs go to bed each night thinking about their jobs, wake up each morning thinking about their kids, and spend each day thinking about how to improve the quality of their lives.”
“When we poll, what we find is what Arabs want from us is help in job creation, education reform, health care opportunities,” Zogby told The Diplomat. “They don’t want us meddling in their internal affairs — just as we wouldn’t have looked kindly on Sweden coming over and telling us how to handle our health care.”
Two weeks before a Western coalition led by the United States, France and Britain decided to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, Zogby warned against such a move — at least without the backing of the Arab League and United Nations.
“We would hurt Libya, not help Libya if we sided with the opposition,” he said at the time, echoing the view that a no-fly zone could help Col. Muammar Qaddafi galvanize his supporters against the “foreign enemy.”
Two days after the military intervention was under way — with the endorsement of the United Nations and Arab League — Zogby said he remained “wary” of U.S. involvement in the region. However, he expressed relief that President Obama waited for the Arab world’s endorsement of force.
“He was right to wait for the Arab League, but I still urge caution to not exceed the mandate of what was agreed to,” Zogby said. “We have to tread lightly. We are already beginning now to hear some wariness among some in the Arab region. I’m not sure we defined this mission clearly enough. I’m not sure who the good guys are and what they can do.”
He also questioned America’s ultimate objectives for this latest military foray. “I don’t know if we know what the role of the United States will be if Qaddafi stays in power or if Qaddafi loses and there is a new government,” he said. “Will [the rebels] be capable of governing and how will they govern? These are issues that still need to be thought through.”
What’s clear to Zogby, however, is that the notion of America coming to the rescue in the region is a romantic fantasy.
“Are we going to get involved in nation building in Libya when this is over?” he asked. “Are we actually the white knight on the charger that everyone is waiting for to come in and save the day? The answer is no and nor can we be.”
Overall, however, he gives Obama high marks for his response to the crises in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.
“What the president can do is what he has done, which is articulate principles: We support the right of free assembly, that the government should not use violence to repress, and make clear we don’t encourage the opposition using violence, and we want to see a peaceful transition to democracy.
“I think he’s handled a very complicated situation as well as it could be handled,” he added. “I think they’ve meandered a bit. I think they’ve made mistakes along the way and they understand that, too, but they’ve refined the approach and are doing pretty well with it.”
That praise stands in stark contrast to Zogby’s opinion of George W. Bush and his decision to invade Iraq, often cited as the example of why already-overstretched U.S. forces should avoid getting sucked into another potential nation-building quagmire in Libya.
A fierce skeptic of the Iraq war, Zogby says that almost 10 years after the initial U.S.-led invasion, he sees very little good coming out of that protracted and expensive conflict. In fact, he says the American public significantly underestimates the wide-ranging ramifications that the now largely forgotten war will have on U.S. interests in the region for decades to come.
“I don’t think any event has been as disastrous for America and American policy and our image as that war,” Zogby declared. “Nobody won. The Iraqis certainly didn’t. There’s 100,000 of them dead.
“Yes, there was a brutal dictator, but the collateral damage of that war has been devastating. We brought such damage to that country, we destabilized an entire region, emboldened Iran, and we did grave damage to the American image,” he argues. “This was the war that was supposed to make America the hegemon, in the new century, but instead it has weakened us.”
For Zogby, if anything Iraq proves the folly of U.S. attempts to ride in on a white horse to save the day, spreading democracy and improving lives.
“What [supporters of the war] don’t realize is that George W. Bush shot the horse and tarnished the knight,” he says. “We want to set the standard but we lowered the bar. I think they have no idea what lasting damage they have done to our image in the world…. We have been discredited in that part of the world.”
Another issue that Zogby believes has damaged U.S. credibility in the region is the long-festering and currently moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He’s disheartened by the stalemate — and American “politics as usual” that he blames for perpetuating that stalemate.
“There was a time when I used to say I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful,” he said of the conflict. “I’m losing hope. Both sides have pathologies they’re not able to overcome and the U.S. has demonstrated it cannot play a meaningful role given the domestic politics here. A Republican now in control of the U.S. House and the Democrats in the House are not supportive of real change either.”
And there’s no real change coming at the moment from either the Israelis or Palestinians. Zogby says the best that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can give “is nothing close to what the Palestinians need and the Palestinians can’t give any more than they’ve given because frankly they’ve lost enormous credibility with their own constituency.”
“I’m not seeing change in the offing unless it comes from an external source.”
But the most influential external source — the United States — isn’t seen as an honest broker by much of the world. Zogby, a Democrat, doesn’t view Obama as the problem, saying the president seems to understand that peace can only be achieved with meaningful concessions from both sides. But he accuses the most prominent foreign policy officials in Obama’s administration — including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — of showing obvious favoritism to Israel.
“This president has tried to change direction but it’s not easy when you’ve got half the political establishment in Washington nipping at your heels and the other half are nervous nellies who don’t understand that you’ve got to do some bold things,” Zogby said. “He’s probably the only one who does get it and it’s a lonely position to be in. But I do give him credit for trying.”
As his Arab American Institute turns the quarter-century mark and plunges into this still-new millennium, Zogby said he’s both optimistic and concerned about the state of Arabs in America. On the one hand, they’re assimilating and accruing influence like never before. On the other hand, he’s worried that the growing anti-Islamic fervor on the political right could potentially undo some of this nation’s historic progress.
“What concerns me about what Peter King and the Islamophobes are doing is they’re threatening to unravel all that,” Zogby said. “They’re saying to young Muslims, ‘You don’t really belong here, you’re guests, you’re foreigners, and you’ve got to take a special oath of loyalty to our country, or you can’t build a mosque here because your not welcome.’
“These are very dangerous things to do and I worry about it not because of what it can do to Muslims, but what it could do to the country.”
Zogby said the great thing about this country is that if you’re born here, you’re an American. Period. That isn’t the case in Europe, for example, where even third- or fourth-generation Arabs are still treated as immigrants, and by extension, as outsiders.
“When I was a Lebanese kid in America going to school, I read American history,” Zogby recalled. “I was in the boat with George Washington crossing the Delaware. I was at the Alamo with Davy Crockett. I went on that adventure with Lewis and Clark. It was my story. I didn’t just get citizenship, I got a new definition of who I am.”
In the recent op-ed “The Change We Need,” Zogby says Islamophobia is just one of the hurdles that needs to be overcome to fulfill the true American dream of one nation, “with liberty and justice for all,” that gives the United States its moral high ground around the world.
“Unless our political leaders can put aside ‘politics as usual’ and end their callous disregard for the suffering of Palestinians; unless leaders are willing to challenge their political fears and do what is right, instead of what is convenient; unless we can stand up against the Islamophobes who threaten to tear apart the fabric of our nation; unless we can restore our commitment to fundamental freedoms and constitutional protections; and unless we can stop ignoring Arab concerns and truly listen to what Arab voices are telling us about their needs and aspirations — we will continue to operate clumsily, and, at times, brutally on the wrong side of history.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.