Arab advocate

Mar 19, 2003 at 12:00 am

Dearborn’s Osama Siblani cringes when he discusses American news media.

The editor and publisher of the Arab American News, the nation’s largest and oldest Arab-American newspaper, says mainstream reporters in general, and TV reporters in particular, are guilty of shallow coverage that fails to probe government policies as the United States prepares to invade Iraq.

For his stance — rarefied in the world of televised debate, compassionate to Arabs, critical of U.S. foreign policy and Israel — Siblani, 48, has become an international media darling. He’s interviewed constantly, appearing recently on everything from “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and “Crossfire” to “The O’Reilly Factor.” Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Siblani has become a leading voice of the nation’s Arab community — a group some 3 million strong.

“It seems to me that in this sea of ignorance, I am half-dumb, but more informed than others,” says Siblani with a chuckle. “We have intelligent people in the United States, but they are not allowed [by the media] to say anything that makes sense.”

Just last Thursday, Siblani gave interviews to the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Flint Journal, an Austrian television crew and a Turkish reporter. All this on deadline day — when Siblani puts to press his free weekly newspaper, which carries stories written from as far away as Jordan and printed in both English and Arabic. The paper has 25,000 subscribers across the globe.

But it was Siblani’s appearance during his busy day at Southfield’s UPN 50/CBS Detroit Channel 62 television studio that could have been scripted to prove his point of view.

On camera

Siblani arrives at the studio at about 3 p.m. to discuss war and security for a new show, “Street Beat.” Joining Siblani on the panel are Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, county Director of Homeland Security Tony Shannon, Free Press nation/world editor Carol Cain and state Republican Party vice chair Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski of Farmington Hills.

Before filming begins, Raczkowski, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, talks excitedly about the movie Black Hawk Down. Though it’s “gory,” he says, “It’s so accurate ... You’ve got to see it.” He notes that he just obtained a “brand spanking new” M-19 gas mask; he’s prepping for deployment.

Siblani frowns quietly.

The show’s hostess, Tara Wall, takes her seat. She turns to Siblani, saying, “Before we start, let me ask, are you Arab or Palestinian?”

Siblani informs her the question is like asking a Michigander if she’s from the United States.

He explains that Lebanon is his native land.

The taping begins. The first subject is the cost of the war, and Wall throws out the number $30 billion. Cain says the six-month estimate is closer to $100 billion. Siblani says the figures don’t include “bribes” President Bush is offering for nations to support a U.S. invasion.

The discussion pops around. Wall, formerly Republican Gov. John Engler’s liaison to Detroit, says, “War is certainly, I think, the only option at this point.”

She asks Siblani, “Shouldn’t Saddam just leave?”

Break time. The panelists, talking among themselves, whip up a discussion about the media.

Wall stands to the side, waiting to begin the final bit of taping. She talks loudly to a woman on the film crew, saying she’s ready for the war to start — she’ll have so many things to discuss on her show.

“It’s going to happen. We need to get behind it,” says Wall.

“We could do a show a week” on the war, says the crew woman.

“It’s going to be quick,” says Wall. “We’re going to go in there and blow them out. Are you kidding me? There’s no competition.”

The crew woman brings up the issue of death: “Women and children, that’s what they’re going to throw up at us. That’s what they’re going to use against us.”

Wall shrugs off the suggestion.

“When you have war, people die,” Wall says. “That’s how it goes.”

As Wall closes her show, she informs her audience that war is sad, “but inevitable.” Soldiers, she says, “want true freedom,” and “that’s the price they’re willing to pay.”

As the panelists prepare to leave, Wall tells Siblani, “You can tell I watch a lot of Fox News. I love Bill O’Reilly,” a conservative broadcaster who often yells over show guests and favors attacking Iraq.

Siblani tells her that if he had known, he wouldn’t have shown up.

Outside, smoking a cigarette, Siblani says Wall’s off-camera comments are hypocritical.

“How about she gives her life?” says Siblani. “It’s easy to offer life when it’s not yours, or your family’s, or your people’s.”

The show is typical television news, he says.

“It’s entertainment,” he says.

“Sometimes, the media has no substance,” says Siblani. “Sound bites are no longer the way to go, especially when we are dealing with such a complex and sensitive subject. We’re sending people to kill and be killed. We need to go in-depth. Here’s a reporter on the show that doesn’t know if I’m Arab or Palestinian. It’s indicative of what you see. Reporters don’t know the difference between Arabs and Muslims; they have no idea what’s going on in the Middle East.”

Siblani says American media lacks the potency of its military.

“It seems to me the American media is not up to the international obligation it has to its readers and listeners. The media is supposed to lead and to inform.

“It seems to me the media is acting, unfortunately, like a mouthpiece of the government. We can’t be preparing for war without asking why are we doing it.”

Giving voice

At The Arab American News in Dearborn, Siblani sits at his desk surrounded by leather couches. His office contains books on politics and history, oil paintings and decorative hookahs, used to smoke flavored tobacco.

Siblani says he came to the United States in 1976 to study electrical engineering at the University of Detroit. After working as an engineer, he became a vice president at Energy International, an import/export company.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Siblani wanted to give voice to Arab-Americans, who, at the time, he says, were disorganized.

Siblani launched the paper in 1984, the year he became a U.S. citizen, to “shed light” on Arab issues and opinions missing from mainstream press.

The Arabic and English sections of the paper have different content. Siblani says the Arabic section is geared toward the older generation and new immigrants, while the English section is aimed at the younger generation.

The Arabic section has a stronger focus on the Middle East. A recent cover photo shows a close-up of a bloody hole in the chest of a Palestinian, killed by Israelis in Gaza, with other men lying wounded and bleeding nearby. The English section is more subdued. In the same issue, the front of the English section has a picture of George W. Bush walking on a huge red carpet.

Both sections are anti-war and carry heavy criticism of Bush, Israel and U.S. foreign policy, along with business, financial, arts and health stories. Headlines from the recent print and online editions include: “Bush’s war is not about democracy,” “U.S., U.K. and Israel: The real axis of evil,” and “Iraq poses no threat to U.S.”

Siblani is Muslim, but the paper is secular and geared toward all Arabs, Christian and otherwise, he says. He notes that most Arabs in America are Christian; worldwide, Christians are a small percentage of the Arab population.

Siblani says he’s not heard from the FBI regarding the content of his publication. But he’s heard plenty from readers. Siblani often gets calls from people who criticize him as anti-American.

“We put articles in the paper that reflect our opinions. We don’t give a damn about people who criticize us for being unpatriotic.”

As is the case with most Arab-Americans, he says, “our loyalty is to this country. This country gave us the opportunity that our original homeland didn’t give us. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to say, ‘screw it.’ As journalists, we have a role to play, and I intend to play it. I’ll never quit, because I know what I’m doing is making a difference.”

He says that despite his vast connections in the Arab world, in Washington and overseas, he’s not to date heard evidence of a single potential terrorist. He says if he ever receives information suggesting a threat to America, he’ll go straight to the authorities.

Siblani says he’s frustrated that American reporters don’t question government claims about terrorists or the threat posed by Iraq.

“This has not been debated,” Siblani says. “Mainstream media is sending reporters to cover the war … The old-fashioned way is to investigate whether the war is necessary, and to investigate if what the government says and claims is true.”

For instance, the president claims the war will liberate Iraqis and usher in democracy. But Siblani believes an invasion will spark chaos in Iraq and the region, for the country is “bitterly divided” along ethnic, religious, economic and political lines.

“We don’t even know who our friends and enemies are over there,” Siblani says of the United States.

“All the neighbors of Iraq are saying no, don’t do this. The Bush arguments don’t hold water. Why isn’t this getting reported?”

European media fare far better, he says.

“Why is Blair in trouble? Because the British are smarter than Americans? No. Because of the media in Britain, they are more informed. Why is France questioning the war? Because the French are smarter? No. I think it is because of the media.”

West vs. Islam

Ask any Arab or Muslim what the war is about, Siblani says, and he’ll tell you it’s a war against Islam, and against Arabs. Siblani calls it a U.S. “armed robbery,” an attempt to grab oil. He says Middle Easterners laugh at the suggestion the war is meant to liberate Iraq.

Of course, many Arabs, Iraqis in particular, want Saddam Hussein ousted. But Arabs in general do not trust America’s intentions, Siblani says, for several reasons.

For one, America has supported Israel in what Arabs see as brutal oppression and apartheid on Palestinian territory. He says the Palestinian suicide bombings are not justified, but they’re “explainable.”

“Of course it’s not the best way to defend yourself. It’s a desperate way. I would prefer to see them using F-16s and Apache helicopters, like the Israelis use against the Palestinians.”

Secondly, the United States has supported many governments that repress freedom and foster poverty in the Middle East; he cites Saudi Arabia. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia is a bane to many Arabs and Muslims, and a best friend of the United States.

“In Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Algiers ... we [America] offer them dictators and oppression,” says Siblani. “In Jordan it costs $7 for a gallon of gas and the people can smell the stench from the Saudi oil tanks. It makes you angry that you can’t feed your family, and who is stealing the wealth? The Americans are. And the Saudis are spending billions on their entertainment in Vegas — there are too many questions unanswered.”

When the terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, the U.S. media made scant attempt to determine possible causes for the murderous antipathy, he says.

“Why not ask, ‘Why? Why do they hate us?’ They love freedom like us. Their tears are salty; their blood is red. They do not hate us because we have [riches]. They hate us because of what we’ve been doing to them and against them for a long, long time,” says Siblani. “Our foreign policy is run by hoodlums. But does the American public have any idea of what has been going on overseas? I don’t think so.

“The subject here is very complicated. It needs time. And it needs space in the newspapers. The media has created confusion by not clearing the air.”

American arrogance infuriates the Arab community, Siblani says.

“I care about Iraqi life, not because I’m Arab. Because I’m human.”

Paper’s role

Arab-American leaders say Siblani’s paper is important, especially in a time of turmoil.

Imad Hamad, the director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a powerful Arabic lobby group and defender of civil rights, is himself an oft-quoted spokesman for Arab-Americans. He says Siblani’s newspaper is well-read, and a vital resource for immigrants who don’t read English.

“The role of the Arab-American media, as humble as it is, as simple as it is, is very important,” says Hamad. “I see a great need for this communication. This community gets caught in the middle, in the U.S. foreign affairs, not by choice. It’s very confusing, very tense.”

Satellite television is another resource. Hamad says he avidly watches Qatar’s Al-Jazeera — a popular and controversial network that debates Middle East politics. In addition, Arab-Americans can watch satellite TV from several Middle Eastern countries.

Hamad says the Arabic media often give the case against war, while the American media present the case in favor of war. Yet there have been “big, big, big” improvements in U.S. print media, he says, especially by the local newspapers. For that, Hamad says, he is “grateful.”

“That does not suggest our challenge with the media and struggle for even, balanced coverage is over. I think we have a long way to go. But it’s promising and it’s going in the right direction.”

Not everyone is as gracious. Dr. Anan Ameri, director of cultural affairs for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), thinks the American press is dreadful.

“I’m always surprised by how little dissent there is in the media to the official government stance. Is it possible that every major newspaper thinks war is the answer? That every newspaper thinks what Israel is doing is OK?

“There is not one serious newspaper or one serious journalist who makes a stand, on the case of Israel, Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan, back in the ’80s against Nicaragua. Remember South Africa? Only the media caught up when the government position changed.

“The media is not a vanguard. The media is a follower,” says Ameri. “To me, that is not a free press.”


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Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]