DEARBORN — The importance of the Arab American voice was the recurring topic during day one of the Arab American Institute (AAI)’s National Leadership Conference, on Friday, October 25. The issue was reinforced by several key leaders throughout the many panels, forums and discussions that took place throughout the day. At the “United We Stand?” lunch forum, several leaders in the field of civil rights gathered to discuss issues of concern to the Arab American community. The panel included ACCESS Executive Board President, Noel Saleh, and ACLU Michigan Executive Director, Kary Moss, who both spoke about campaign issues that will directly affect the community in Michigan. Among the topics discussed were civil liberties, immigrant rights, and national security, all of which will serve as wedge issues during the 2008 presidential election. Immediately following the forum was an address by U.S. Congressman and Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul, who made the appearance as part of his national campaign, entitled “Hope for America.” Paul made his way past a lobby full of supporters waving signs before addressing the luncheon attendees. During his speech, he touched on the key issues of his campaign, including foreign policy, national security, and the country’s current economic situation. Paul spoke of the countless accounts where the civil liberties of Arab Americans have been violated in an attempt to maintain national security, and claimed that a change in policy needs to occur soon. “We need to figure out how to reverse this trend, undermine this psychology and fear that we have built among the American people that everything must be done because there is a terrorist around every corner, and therefore we as Americans are supposed to sacrifice our civil liberties,” Paul said. “I don’t believe that we should ever have to do that.”
“This change in attitude about habeas corpus is horrible,” he continued. “The fact that an American citizen can be hauled into court, declared a potential enemy combatant, and never have due process in court, essentially reversing our 200 year history, is appalling, and is something we have to reverse.”
Paul also discussed the situation in Iraq, stating that there is much work to be done to repair the damage that has been caused to the region. He claimed that the main priority is to bring the troops home, and that there should not have been U.S. intervention in the first place. “We have created instability and chaos in Iraq,” he said. “There are a lot of ideas about what to do in the region. I approach it from a strategic, historical viewpoint. The advice from our founding fathers, I believe, was absolutely correct: ‘don’t get involved in the internal affairs of foreign nations, mind our own business.’ We have always benefited from this position.”
Paul stated that although the nation’s current situation calls for immediate attention, there is hope for a better future if there is a drastic change in leadership. “Though we have many problems, they are coming to a fruition,” he said. “We cannot continue on as we are. It is a failed foreign policy, a failed monetary policy, and a failed social policy here at home. The answers are available to us only if we join together to spread the message and make sure that we can turn things around in the next election.”
Ron concluded by saying that the Arab American community will play a significant role in the upcoming campaign, and that individuals joining together for change is the key to a better future. Later that evening, the AAI Conference moved to Byblos Banquet Hall in Dearborn for the “Yalla Vote ’08” Gala Banquet. As part of AAI’s continued efforts to promote Arab American participation in the U.S. political process, this campaign is attempting to mobilize and educate the community during the pivotal 2008 election. In recent months, almost 40 organizations nationwide have signed on to endorse the “Yalla Vote” campaign and join in its mobilization efforts. At the banquet, conference attendees were joined by several elected officials and local community members who gathered to emphasize the strong message of the “Yalla Vote” effort. U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow delivered remarks to the audience, and spoke of the growing voice of the Arab American community.
“Your voice is getting stronger everyday, and I want to congratulate and encourage you to keep it up,” she stated. “We all know the struggles and the suffering that continues to occur today, but ultimately, we know in Michigan about the strength of the American community being a part of our fabric as a state, and as a country as a whole.”
Stabenow recognized the ongoing struggles that the Arab American community faces as a result of recent events, both local and international. She stressed that Arab Americans are a vital part of the political process, and their voices should be heard. “We have a lot of important work to do,” Stabenow continued. “Your diversity is your strength, and is our strength. Your voice is very critical for the future of our country. We’ve gone through some very challenging times, but we cannot be the best we can be without you.”
During the dinner, special recognition was given to Ismael Ahmed, Director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, for his outstanding work as Executive Director of ACCESS and in his current position. Ahmed, who was appointed to his position by Governor Jennifer Granholm, was presented with the Seal of the State of Michigan by Representative Gino Polidori. Ahmed spoke to the audience about the accomplishments of the Arab American community, but stressed that there is much work to be done in the field of politics. “It is incumbent on us to become a part of the political process,” Ahmed stated. “Even with all the great work that we’ve done so far, we have so much farther to go. We cannot be political one night a year. We have got to be part of the process from the very beginning to the very end, and our country will be better for it.”
The banquet also hosted the Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, Mark Brewer, and the Vice Chair of the Michigan Republican Party, Jane Abraham, who both spoke of the importance of the presence of Arab Americans in the political process and the upcoming election. Despite a campaign boycott of Michigan because legislators moved up the date of the state’s primary, Democratic candidates were given special permission by party leaders to attend the conference. Several took the opportunity to reach out for Arab American votes. Paul was the only Republican to address the crowds during the three days of political speeches and workshops. Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards sent video messages. U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Mike Gravel and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson gave speeches in person. Kucinich spoke about having made two trips to the Middle East in the last 14 months, visiting Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. Obama reminded the audience that he opposed the Iraq war from the start. Edwards’ video was the most elaborate, touching on Iraq, preserving civil liberties, torture, health care and global warming. Both Edwards and Richardson said that, if elected, they would close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp on their first day as president. Richardson drew some noticeable tension in the crowded room when he spoke about toughness towards Hizbullah and Hamas as terrorist groups, without mentioning illegal Israeli settlements or military actions. Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, also attended the conference, saying Sunday that the values of Democrats match those of Arab Americans. He pointed out the diversity among the Democratic candidates, who include a woman, an African American and a Hispanic American, and that the libertarian Paul was the only Republican candidate to attend the conference. “Their candidates look just like they did in the 1950’s… Nary a face of color in the whole show,” Dean said. The three day conference ended with a meeting of a group of about 20 youths from different universities to discuss collaboration between Arab student groups for efforts to get out the vote. Despite the poor turnout among candidates, organizers pointed to past events and said things have improved. In 1984, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale “returned contributions” to a group of prominent Arab American businessmen. In 1988, despite Republican nomination candidate Bob Dole speaking at the Arab American Institute’s annual leadership conference, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis rejected an endorsement from the Arab American Democratic Federation. And in 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole refused to meet with Arab American Republican leaders.