An Arab American gets Dubai`d

For over 20 years, Sami Merhi, a Lebanese immigrant businessman in New Jersey, worked to support his local Democratic party. He raised money, volunteered in campaigns and participated in party functions.

Two weeks ago, his county party leadership rewarded Merhi's efforts by endorsing his candidacy for Freeholder (a county supervisor position). It was, Sami said, one of the proudest days of his life as a US citizen-the fulfillment of the American dream.

The very next day, a state legislator, Gary Shaer, attacked the endorsement, pointing to a four-year-old New York Times story in which Merhi was quoted as saying that the 9-11 attacks on the US were different than terror attacks against Israel. Shaer and a few others argued that if Merhi's name remained on the ballot, New Jersey's Jewish voters might not vote for the Democratic ticket. 

For four years now, Merhi has insisted that the Times quote was partial and inaccurate. He has made clear, that he opposes all forms of terrorism, including attacks on Israeli civilians. But it has been for naught.

Shaer's denunciation of Merhi was followed quickly by equally harsh criticism from New Jersey's newly appointed Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who is also running for election in November. Menendez's rejection of Merhi was seconded by a spokesperson for the New Jersey Democratic Governor Jon Corzine. Upping the ante, Menendez's Republican opponent Tom Kean joined the fray, chiding Democrats for placing the Arab American on their ballot.

No one listened to Merhi's denials and none of these leaders even spoke to him. As momentum against his candidacy grew, one local newspaper likened it to "mob rule." And some Arab Americans termed the effort a "political lynching." 

County Democratic leaders who know Sami Merhi recognized that the charges against him were both unfounded and unfair. Driven, however, by fear that a campaign would be mobilized against their entire ticket, they resolved to rescind Merhi's nomination.

Sami Merhi was "Dubai'd"-that's when you are demonized by unfounded allegations spread by opponents seeking political advantage and then dumped by so-called friends who fear defending you. It is a kind of political terrorism that mixes fear, character assassination, and crass politics. 

The county Democrats who dumped Merhi hoped that this would be the end of the story, that they could now, as one noted, focus on "winning in November." But the matter is not over. There are lessons to be learned from this sordid affair. And there will be consequences, as well.

First, the lessons. 

Politics, shorn of personal loyalty and principle, becomes a crass and hollow exercise. Those Democrats who know Merhi and knew the charges against him were unfair should have defended him. Call me nave, but I believe that voters reward truth and loyalty. Running away from a friend, at the first hint of trouble, is both cowardly and weak. Voters sense that. They might well ask, "If these leaders can't defend a friend, how can I count on them to fight for me?"

Gary Shaer was wrong. Jewish voters are not an intolerant bloc. Merhi had significant support from Jewish leaders who knew him from business and interfaith activity. The demographics of Northern New Jersey are changing. While that state's Jewish community remains a substantial force, there is a growing Arab American and South Asian Muslim community now demanding recognition. As former President Bill Clinton demonstrated, the Democratic Party can and must find a way to accommodate Arab Americans and American Jews-both of whom he cultivated and both of whom supported his Presidency. At the first sign of trouble, instead of submitting to threats, New Jersey's Democratic leaders should have worked to bring both communities together. Zero-sum politics, that, in effect, excludes one group, is not a recipe for winning elections.

That being said, there may well be consequences to dropping Sami Merhi from the ticket in November, and not only in New Jersey. Arab American voters who are both energized and empowered in several key states (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to mention a few), show no sign of accepting to be victimized again by the politics of exclusion they endured in the 1980s. Back then, candidates rejected their contributions and shunned their endorsements.

Having been horrified by the bigoted rhetoric that characterized the Dubai ports debate, in which Arab businessmen were compared with "skinheads" and "the devil," many Arab Americans are not inclined to walk over Merhi's body to vote for his replacement in November.

In the real world of politics, however, the game is never over and opportunities always exist to set a new course. After the Merhi affair, however, the situation does become more complicated. 

Happily some efforts are being made. This past week, New Jersey Democratic Governor Jon Corzine met with Arab American leaders, including Sami Merhi, in an effort to clear the air. The Governor has continued his outreach effort, meeting one on one with Merhi later in the week. And Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell, a consistent defender of Merhi, addressing a major gathering of New Jersey's Jewish community, called for reaching out and including "our Arab brothers and sisters." These steps mark a beginning. Much work remains to be done to heal the breach, but, one senses that this story is not yet over.

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute and can be reached at [email protected]

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Older Comments:
Romesh Chowder! ... Unmistakably your signiture. So, the Jews are smart! Christians are second to them and Muslims third? Where do Hindus come to? Or Sikhs? This is reverse Nazism like reverse Racism. The Jews were deemed by the Nazis as the buttocks of humanity, now you turn them into heads! What a ridiculous ..! Be known to you the Arab adage: "I am not more than anyone else and anyone else is not more than me. There are different circumstances and opportunities." Don't try a superman cult here on this web-site with the promotion of a master race,e.g.,Jewish because it won't catch on. We are past the Nazi Germany and we learnt a hard lesson in humanity. Bottom line, there are no master races and none is stupider than the other only shares in better or worse of luck. You and Sameena should get together since you like so much one another. Anyway, Sameena is as much a Muslim as you are a Hindu. You guys disgust me to the bone.
Peace out!

Chander, you are mistaken. The US is not a theocracy, constitutionally speaking. The founding fathers never wanted that. Zinedine is correct in his assessement of neoconservatism. Your fallacy lies in generalizing and obfuscating political realities which I'm sure is tied to opportunism. I suggest you watch some cheesy 3 hour bollywood flick and leave politics and relevent discussion to the adults.

To Zindine:

You don't understand. USA is not a muslim country; it is essentially a christian country, so it is going to be dominated by Christians. There are probably less Jews in US than are muslims. But Jews are very smart; they have lots of advanced education, have earned tons of money and hence can influence the government in their favour. When are muslims going to be as smart as are Jews and have influence on US Government? Just stop crying. And try to become smart or smarter than Jews and even Chrisitans; then you will not need to complain.

The question that arises now is: When are most American voters going to wake up from their deep slumber and realise that their countries is currently under a Zionist & Christian Right rule. It is actually intelectually & spiritually infested; politically, economically and militarily occupied territory. Please do something positive to change yourselves and your country?

Sigh, I like the cut of your jib.

I remember after the invasion of Iraq, going to anti-war rallies in Toronto, and seeing virtually no Muslims. Then, unfortunately as the movement began to lose momentum, more and more visibly Muslim people began turning out. "Hooray", I thought, "the Muslim community is finally willing to get involved in political issues".

Now sometimes I wish they hadn't.

Everyone and their brother is writing articles about 'Islamophobia' and how hard done by Muslims are. Canadians are racist. Americans are racist. Europeans are racist. Western influence is unequivocally dangerous and bad. Stereotypes, and ill-informed judgements spouted one after another - but these same people demand that people try harder to understand Islam. Racism within the Muslim community is ignored - in fact, ALL of the shortcomings of the Muslim community at large are ignored. It's just a big cry-in.

There has been almost no attempt to find common ground - to understand the concerns that people have about Islam. Please, I am a Muslim, and I have concerns about the Muslim community - why shouldn't others? I know that racism exists, and then Muslims tend to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop as far as good PR goes. But that does not excuse our inability to listen to legitimate criticisms of the Muslim world without justifying it somehow.

Oh, nothing unusual there. After all, politics is not a game for nice people and amatuers. It is a game for the rough and tough. Hey, even people like Tom (HAMMER) DeLay can be forced to withdraw from politics, what is poor Merhi compared to Tom Delay.

If you cannot stand the dirty game of politics, then don't get into it. Nobody is going to change the rules of politics, which really has no rules.

'Sigh' - you have a point, but, its too simplistic. Muslims are not doing justice to themselves and their faith, it is true. But, if we think the western double standards of violence - the torture in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the continuous violence and killing against innocent civilians in Iraq is a flag for western civilization and democracy - then we are completely ignorant of world events and affairs in this Global world of ours. We betray, narrow mindedness, bias and also a sense of superiority over other faiths and ways of life. Knowledge of the truth of what is really happening in our world today, and dialogue with each other will make us better citizens of the world. Ignorance never helped anyone.

I wonder if this could be termed as terrorism?
It is a shame democracy is being denied at home while other countries are required to live it!

One can view something as understandable without at the same time saying it is justified. Unfortunately, it is understandable why Islamophobia like this is rampant right now, as opposed to, say, Bah'ai-ophobia or Shintophobia. Until we fully grapple with the global reality of the unspeakable violence committed in the name of Islam - whatever the provocation, then our complaints about poor treatment will be shallow, and sound hollow. There is more than one way to respond to provocation. The children of Islam are not doing their religion proud.

The media has made all Muslims label as terrorist regardless in America, Europe. The governments
are using double standards.
I guess you're not alone.

You see, the "beauty" of Merhi's denounciation by the powers that be is that, both the Democrats and the Republicans denounced him. The US is mainly a two party state, with a minor Independent fringe. So if the Muslim bloc is to shun Sami's detractors they would have to shun both the democrats as well as the Republicans! They should vote independent, which basically translates to a vote lost, due to their limited voter base. I would say that the Muslim boc really cannot do much.

One also wonders, why his Jewish "friends" did not come forward to claim that the charges against poor Sami are unfounded. Or perhaps they did, but they were too few and too powerless to mention.