Part 1 of 2:
This month I interviewed Imad Hamad, the Executive Director of the American Human Right Council (AHRC), a veteran community leader and activist, with questions about the challenges facing the Arab and Muslim American community. The achievements as well as the challenges.
Below are edited excerpts:
-What are your thoughts as to the Arab and Muslim American community, especially in Michigan?
The community should be proud of its achievements. It is heavily engaged in all avenues of life in Michigan. It is an important community socially, economically and politically. We have a large number of successful business people, attorneys, medical doctors, pharmacists, engineers, educators, etc. The list is long. Name it we have it. Politically, we are represented in government and on the bench. It is an impressive steady progress. Very promising future ahead indeed. However, this is not a free of challenges journey and success.
-What has been an important factor in the political success of the community?
What has helped us is that Arab Americans in public service have proved themselves to be competent people with integrity. Very qualified. People who see our judges, magistrates, our elected politicians and appointed officials, they see that they are just as good as those who belong to other Michigan communities. As a result, they become accustomed to seeing us in positions of authority and are encouraged to vote for others from the same community. Those who have positions now owe it in large part to those who came before them, this is the underline of it.
-What challenges do you see facing the Arab American and Muslim community?
Talking about the community internal affairs now. As any other community we have own challenges that entail the good, the bad and the ugly. We are not an exception.
First-There is no coherent strategic vision nor plan for institutional work. You have a number of institutions/islands doing their work without a grand strategy or cross-institutional coordination. Second, there is institutional overlap. Some overlap is bound to happen in institutional work but we see institutions wanting to be a one stop shop. Specialization is important. It is key to good work. Otherwise, we end up with duplication, much of it mediocre. Third, leadership issue. Some want to be leaders- old school style. Like a tribal Sheikh who is owed loyalty by everyone and gets involved in everything. But it’s a different century, different continent. Such challenges will not last. Such style of leadership will vanish with time. Despite all of these odds, the future ahead is very promising.
-What do you suggest?
The answer is simple and is well known to all. Some like to live in denial. Organizations should respect their mission and other organizations’ missions. They should complement each other. Otherwise, we have internal conflict and self-inflicted losses.
-What is the root cause of dysfunctional leadership?
Outdated ideas and style of communal work and leadership. Some of the behavior we see in our community is worse than the worst behavior in authoritarian countries. It is a control, power and ego issue. And that is not healthy for our community. It is not even healthy for the individual succumbing to demons of grandiosity.
-You mentioned to me the Dearborn Syndrome, sounds interesting- what is that?
This goes back to the time of September 11 national tragedy, where Dearborn was made by design or default the center of media and government attention and continues to be. There are certain individuals who believe that the world revolves around them. They think that they are the center of the universe and that Dearborn is the geographic area that is not only the center of the state but of the country as well. They think it is the center of the country, more important than even Washington, D.C. They are off balance. They have a sense of ownership of the political process. It’s the sad tribal mentality. The outdated political machine personified in one person. This is not sustainable. I still think that it’s a phase.
-Let’s go back to talk about positive developments, let’s talk about Ramadan and the community. We saw a number of activities in the community. There was the daily Break the fast “Iftar” public service. What do you think of that?
Indeed it was a great and creative idea to connect with the other and build bridges of understandings during the holy month of Ramadan. Turnout was strong and the families had a place to go to that was safe for children, even late in the night. That was a great experience. In addition to providing a daily dinner- Iftar throughout the whole month of fasting, there were a number of creative initiatives. We saw active engagement with the rest of American society. We saw more active Muslim engagement with the non-Muslim society. The Islamic Center of Detroit (ICD) was a shining example for creating and organizing this tradition. This unique effort recognized the importance and the value of engagement. There were generous contributors, volunteers and donors, who understand the value of generosity, especially during the blessed month of Ramadan. It was a unique event in Michigan because it was open to all.
-Was there engagement with elected officials and law enforcement?
First, all mosques did a great job and launched great programs during Ramadan. However, the ICD in addition to the iftar available to the public, they organized special and private iftar dinners with different groups of stakeholders. They hosted the law enforcement agencies (local, state and Federal), the US attorney, the mayor of the city of Detroit, interfaith community and elected officials. They held an interfaith iftar dinner. Muslims tend to have a traditional inward looking focus during Ramadan, focusing on family and perhaps friends. The engagement with the larger society is vital, especially during Ramadan. The ICD was able to share the spirit of Ramadan with the bigger society. They know Muslims are not an island, they have to engage with the rest of society. They are to be saluted.
-Isn’t that transparent PR, how is engagement different from PR?
No. Engagement is not PR. PR is about image making, artificially shaping perceptions. Engagement is the real thing. You open your doors every day for 30 days. That’s engagement, substance and that’s transparency. You are sharing your reality. Engagement helps in building bridges and friendships. Islam remains a mystery to many Americans and we know that what’s common among those who are negative or misinformed regarding Muslims is that they don’t know any Muslims. Let’s make Ramadan the national month to get to know Muslims and share a meal with them.
-Are you optimistic about the future of the Arab and Muslim community?
Yes. There are tough and multiple challenges like any other segment of our American society. We are not exceptional, but we have our challenges. But I am confident that we will overcome them. The future is very promising.
Ihsan Alkhatib, JD, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Pre-Law Adviser
Political Science & Sociology
Murray State University