Ismael Ahmed is about as American a guy of his generation as you can find. Born in Brooklyn in 1947, he came to Detroit when he was 6 and stayed here with his mom after his parents split up.
After high school, he did a hitch in Vietnam and Korea. He came back, worked on the line, was active in the United Auto Workers union, put himself through the University of Michigan-Dearborn, then got interested in helping out his neighborhood and his community.
He helped start a human services organization that has assisted thousands of not only his kind, but other Americans — black, white and Hispanic — and which today is often cited as a model for how private volunteer groups ought to work.
Last summer, the Democratic Party nominated Ahmed to a post he richly deserved, University of Michigan trustee. Based on his background alone, there is little doubt that Michigan’s premier university would have been well-served had he been elected.
But he lost, in large part because of racism and a vicious smear campaign that would not have been tolerated had Ahmed been of any other ethnicity.
But Ismael Ahmed is an Arab and a Muslim, the executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). And he was the target of a vulgar hate campaign led by a creature named Debbie Schlussel, a self-described “entertainment and sports attorney” and media wannabe. She markets herself in right-wing circles as having “unique expertise on radical Islam,” though her expertise on the matter seems limited to a diploma from Southfield High School.
Someone blanketed the Internet with slime-filled articles written by Schlussel. The articles implied Ahmed and ACCESS were supporters of al Qaeda, and said they had funded an “anti-Semitic, anti-American hate-speakers” conference at the University of Michigan. The conference was really one of Palestinian students, and ACCESS’s role was minimal.
Eventually, her lies were denounced by the decent. Prominent Jewish politicians signed a letter calling what she did “character assassination.” Among them, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and his brother, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, condemned her and praised Ahmed. But that got far less attention, say, than the Republicans’ clumsy attempts to tie Jennifer Granholm to Kwame Kilpatrick. On Election Day, nearly 200,000 people who voted for the rest of the Democratic ticket refused to vote for Ismael Ahmed, who lost.
“I still think we gained something,” Ahmed told me last week over coffee in ACCESS headquarters in Dearborn. Barely a year after Sept. 11, a man who openly and proudly proclaimed he was “Arab, Muslim, and left of center” won a major-party nomination for a statewide office, and 1,084,598 people voted for him. Today, he is a key policy expert on the governor-elect’s transition team.
What idiots like Schlussel fail to grasp is that heroes like Ismael Ahmed are our best hope in the war against fanaticism. ACCESS actually is Osama bin Laden’s worst enemy, at least on these shores. Every time ACCESS helps a new Arab family to find their moorings and figure out the system in America, it gives them a stake in the system. The more that happens, the less sympathy the terrorists will have.
Yes, even Arabs who are American citizens are bound to see the Middle East differently than most of us. They may even have sympathy for some of those we label terrorists. And they always will be more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli. But that doesn’t matter. That is even healthy.
Responding to Schlussel’s smears, a Jewish man wrote, “Every time misleading comments are put out, and cries of anti-Semitism made against any who dare criticize Israel, you do a disservice to the Jewish people.”
Amen. You don’t have to be pro-Arab to believe that not everything Israel has done is sweetness and light. America’s hands are not totally clean, either.
To his credit, Ahmed did not denounce the Palestinian students’ conference or the notion that the university ought to get rid of its Israeli-related investments, which I suppose would have been the politically correct thing to do. Nor did he support them.
“These things have to be talked about,” he said. “I did not endorse (divestment). But I did say it was important to have a discussion about it.”
Yes, it is. As important as it was, once upon a time, to have one about Vietnam.
The Debbie Schlussels of this world call — openly — for intolerance. Osama would just love it if we work to make most of our people of Arab descent feel as if they live in an alien and hostile world. People like Ahmed are the best antidote.
“We have worked with Ismael and know firsthand his character and his commitment to building bridges between his community and other groups in the area, including Jewish groups,” the Levins said.
A year ago, Ahmed wrote, “As Americans working together, we can get through this current crisis without racial profiling or immigrant bashing.”
We’ve had plenty of both over the last year. But while a number of Arabs have been dragged off and held incommunicado, not a single terrorist incident has happened in America since Sept. 11. Nor have Arab-American citizens been convicted of aiding terror.
You can thank the Department of Homeland Security if you want to. But I think far more credit is due to people like Ahmed and groups like ACCESS.
Clean and green: Two weeks ago, I discussed efforts by the Green Party to form an alliance with progressive Democrats. This Thursday, there will be a meeting about election reform, including runoff voting and clean money campaigns, and the best way to fight for them at 7 p.m. at the Green House at Nine Mile and Woodward in Ferndale.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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