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The ADC Challenge

As a moderator of a panel at the ADC convention this weekend, many have asked me to boycott the event, as well as asked for my opinion on the organization’s reckless silencing of a Syrian-American musician.

I will not boycott the convention. I do not blame those who do and many will, but I think it’s the easy way out, not constructive and is short-sighted. So, I advise against it.

Instead, I challenge those of us who are indignant to take ownership of one of the few national Arab-American organizations we have. Arab-Americans must understand that ADC belongs to them but only if they get involved. That means more than being a member.

ADC’s Malek Jandali Mess

When I found out that ADC told the pianist and composer Malek Jandali not to perform a song – Watani Ana – that could offend the sensibilities of those who either work for or support of the Syrian regime, I was hugely disappointed.

As reports come in about Syrian policemen being killed for refusing to fire on unarmed protesters, as activists sacrifice their lives just to have some semblance of freedom in this police state, and as the “Arab Spring” ushers in an era of hope for real reform, silencing a song that is in spirit – not in words – critical of Syria’s government is deeply immoral.

It is quite common, the norm actually, for organizations to put conditions on performers. The first act of censorship is invisible from the outside – it’s in selecting who to invite and who to not.  However, putting politically-motivated limits on the content of invited guests is just plain wrong.  I understand they want to prevent divisive issues from being raised among the membership, especially in these heated times, but once invited, a singer should not be told to keep quiet about those issues.

ADC claims it won’t take sides in the matter, yet when it recognizes ambassadors and prints their letters in the conference book, it is taking sides in a sense. When it asks a performer it invited to not sing a particular song, it takes sides. I found it an inexcusable act.

ADC’s statement on the decision was also in poor form and unconvincing. It was not straightforward, worded to deflect criticism rather than directly counter it (it blamed the media in the first line), and tried to create a false distinction between performances and personal opinions to rationalize the move.  Sadly, it reflected an old style propaganda form that simply fails in a new media age. It was impersonal, cold, un-reflexively unapologetic and probably did little to assuage the rightfully angry and those calling for a boycott of ADC’s convention.

That said, boycott is not the answer. It’s too easy, a substitute for real work and offers little chance for resuscitating ADC – which I think should be the real goal. If anything, this episode demonstrates that ADC desperately needs an injection of youthful energy and participation.

The Right Path: The Long Haul of Loyal Opposition

In 1999, when Jordan’s King Hussein died, I was active with the chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee at the University of Michigan.  We had been focusing our efforts on bringing attention to anti-Arab discrimination on campus, stereotypes of Arabs in media, and the grotesque humanitarian disaster the US and UN were perpetrating in Iraq through the sanctions. When the old Arab monarch passed, we said and did nothing, thinking it had little to do with the group’s work and mission. Plus, most of us resented the Arab despots.

Our lack of note and mourning angered Jordanian foreign students on campus. They came to our next meeting and berated us for ignoring their King.  Our hot-headed President, a Palestinian, had little time for them and fired back about his betrayal of the Palestinian cause. She was right as a matter of history, but as an organization, the President’s politics should not be the mandate, or the mission (otherwise we’re merely copying the Qaddafi style of a personalized regime).

My response to them was a challenge grounded in the real struggle of building institutions. And it is the same exact one I have now regarding ADC’s outrageous prohibition on Jandali’s song.

ADC is not there to serve you. ADC is the sum of its parts.

I told them that ADC is not there to serve you. ADC is the sum of its parts. With a tiny budget, finite time and energy, it can only do what its constitutive parts let it.  If you are not at the meetings, I told them, ADC is definitely not doing what you want – it’s as simple as that. And even if you are at the table, you, like everyone else, rarely gets exactly what you want. That is the thing about the regularized collective action of institutions.  It ultimately requires that the losers keep playing, hoping to win on the next issue. Every effective group needs both a loyal opposition as well as a tolerance and empowerment of them.  That does not happen if people boycott whenever they are pissed.

I only recognized one or two of the Jordanian students.  I told them that ADC could not be there for them because they were not there for ADC.

I expected my challenge to fall on deaf ears. I knew the mainly well-off foreign students would slouch back into doing nothing about it (I had my stereotypical thinking too!).  To my surprise however my message resonated with one of the students, Ala’.  He joined the group and was soon an agenda-setting power within the group. He committed for fighting for what he believed in within the group, and accepted when he was on the losing side.

Yes, a small campus group is very different than an organization with three decades of work and a board of hard-headed, older generation businessmen, doctors and lawyers – some of whom are apparently in bed with various regimes (from the American to the Syrian).  While the stage is bigger and the politics more complex, the same principle applies. If you are not a member of ADC, if you are not participating in the local chapter, if you do not know people who work at ADC and send them angry messages occasionally, as well as accolades for when they do right, you are really in no position to complain effectively, to advance our institutions meaningfully. You have already surrendered ADC in a sense.

The organization is ripe for young active leadership to help rebuild the chapters and infuse it with new energy. ADC went the way it did on this issue because all the people who are pissed now were not engaged enough to impact the calculation, to make clear that a cost is in place internally for such action.  Boycotting when a) you were not going to go to the convention and b) not a member of ADC is truly pointless. It feels good for many, I understand, especially in light of the difficulty of doing anything to impact the Syrian and other Arab police states from afar. And there is always a place for external criticism and boycotts, but in this case a better answer is involvement.

So I am making case for the long haul.  Yes, that takes time/patience, dedication, energy, commitment, and work. Sending Facebook messages calling to boycott ADC is the easy road. Some good could come out, for example if the boycott brought down the old guard of ADC who think close relations with Arab ambassadors of oppressive regimes is an asset. But, I doubt it will.  Those who were never part of ADC really have no leverage in boycott. Those who are involved know the group is in flux, in a fragile state, making it ripe for new blood.  Boycott will likely drain that blood when what it really needs is an infusion.

Those who are involved know the group is in flux, in a fragile state, making it ripe for new blood.  Boycott will likely drain that blood when what it really needs is an infusion.

ADC’s Struggles

ADC was ruthlessly strained under the mismanagement of Mary Rose Oakar.  Its reliance on Arab regimes, strategy of proximity to the DC government and abandonment of the chapters has been fatal. It must reverse course and go back to the grassroots, but the grassroots must also be there, willing to fight for it.

There are large internal problems in ADC, true. ADC’s been suffering a crisis in membership, fundraising and purpose for some time.  This is partially the result of ADC’s perpetual identity crisis.  For example, look at ADC’s awkward and piecemeal engagement in foreign affairs. I’ve been complaining for years about the dangers of merely dabbling in foreign affairs. It condemns Israeli excesses sometimes, but not consistently enough to make it a credible source. It ignored the Arab dictators’ crimes, and treads carefully on other matters of US foreign policy.  For example, it lauded the extra-legal assassination of bin Laden, which I found hypocritical and unbecoming of a rights-based group even though OBL was a brutal enemy of humanity.  I recommended it establish a real foreign policy project and give it independence to really be an Arab-American voice on foreign policy. Its dabbling is a minefield as we can see more clearly now.

Also, and perhaps more fundamental to its identity crisis, it’s a beltway DC organization yet must piece together a weak string of chapters making it a suspended grassroots organization.  ADC staff have been talking recently of going back to the grassroots and I think this is credible – another reason to not boycott but get involved.

ADC’s tough position is not entirely due to its identity crisis.  Arab-Americans have been loath to care about local and domestic politics, whether about their cities or about civil rights, and have found greater interest in events back home (I am guilty of this as well admittedly). This makes ADC’s domestic work harder to gain support for and pushes them to dabble clumsily in foreign affairs.

Also, after 9/11 and the rise of islamophobia, the Arab-American identity is less at focus. Greater religiosity in our community has also shifted the balance away from the Arab-American identity, as well. It is no surprise that ADC is in such a fragile state and so confused.

However, I should note, I would hope the Arab spring boosts that identity and that ADC capitalizes on its spirit of progress. The Jandali affair called into question that hope, admittedly.  I am staying involved in ADC and the convention in an effort to help the group find a new way forward.  But it will take lots of new participants.

What else can we learn from the Arab Spring?  ADC’s board has clearly grown out of touch with younger generations and represents older modes of thinking.  Malek Jandali has exposed this profoundly – preventing a song that anyone can hear on YouTube is just plain silly.

They are a generation that should be stepping out of the way, moving into a position of support, of passing down their rich knowledge, experiences and wisdom.  However, sitting at the top for too long is an Arab disease and its playing out with precision in the Arab Spring.  The ADC challenge is to turn this episode into a moment of re-invigoration.  Let each outraged person attend the convention, get involved or start local chapters and run for the board. If disappoints us, it is because WE let it.

A Way Forward and a Request for Boycotters

I am not against boycotts in general. They can be very useful and make sense in certain contexts.  While I think they do not here, let me make a request: If you must boycott, at least lay down the principles, propose a vision of how ADC should be instead.  The case of Malek Jandali was not an isolated incident but a symptom of ADC’s larger problems – which requires a sustained and critical engagement from the community.  The calls to boycott I am reading are not well thought-out, not grounded in a rationale. Do it for the sake of building something better. I will not condemn or fight boycotters, I just ask they do it the smart and useful way.

Some will resist my challenge to join ADC and fight to take it over.  Why not start a new organization, they may ask. Like boycotting ADC, that seems easier, but ultimately this does little for the greater good. ADC has three decades of history, did a lot great stuff in its history, even lost a member, Alex Odeh, to an assassin’s bombs, and has been part of the community.  If we do not take ownership and rebuild it, we lose what others did. That amounts to lost time, energy and failed progress.

Also, this trend of what Edward Said used to describe – for every three Arabs there are four organizations – must end. It will not get us very far as each new organization will eventually be replaced by another one.

If you are too displeased to attend the convention, go ahead and voice your protest that way.  But do not leave it at that.  The first step in the ADC challenge is join or start your local chapter.  We must shift the weight of the organization away from the center and to the chapters. Building institutions is key for future generations of Arab-Americans, we must make this the long goal. Or else, what do we leave for them? Will our legacy be weak and fragmented, or many tiny, institutions? I’d prefer not to be remembered for that personally. Do you?

UPDATES

-One of the administrators of the famous Khaled Said Facebook page that was an early forum for dissent against the Mubarak regime in Egypt set up a Facebook Cause called, “ADC: Human Rights or Human Wrongs?” It could be a good forum for discussion.

-At my panel on “social networking” with Jillian York and Dean Obeidallah, which is at 10:45 AM Saturday, we plan to discuss this issue and the role of social media.

 

 

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Discussion

16 Responses to “The ADC Challenge”

  1. Actually, I would rather see Israel boycotted.

    Who will publicly push for that, on campus, this Fall?

    Posted by Boycott Israel | June 10, 2011, 3:53 pm
  2. The national divestment movement began in the year 2000 when Will led an ADC workshop on the subject. The ADC newsletter publicized it. Huge credit goes to Will for that.

    It's hard to imagine ADC going back to those divestment roots. But that would make it a lot more appealing for students.
    Is that asking too much?

    A national campign to divest from Apartheid, led by every ADC chapter, and by ADC headquarters?

    Posted by Boycott Israel | June 10, 2011, 3:57 pm
  3. You present some really good reasons to pursue a collaborative strategy–not just the cliche: "if you can't beat 'em join 'em" rhetoric. You also raise a really good point about what it means to be a grass roots organization. I felt that the "American" identity was marginalized as well in this controversy b/c our US administration has condemned the actions of the Syrian regime. Hence, an Arab-American organization would find it in its membership's interests to reflect the official American position as well. For that matter, a lobbying organization holding a panel on "Popular Arab Uprisings" has already "taken a stand" by simply arranging a panel with possible dissenting voices. In this vein, and to your point about selecting who to invite, you are right: by creating a short list of invitees, an organization is implicitly taking a stand on some level. Therefore, an artist expressing a voice could easily be balanced by allowing another artist an opportunity to sing a pro-regime song–if such an artist exists. Thanks for a great piece, and keep up the entertaining tweets!~Pitapolicy

    Posted by pitapolicy | June 11, 2011, 3:59 am
  4. Hey Will,

    I fully agree that the question of whether or not to boycott ADC is mainly a strategic question. It seems to me what this sordid affair and your story both point out is that ADC is conflicted partly because the Arab community in America itself has been extremely divided across class and political tendencies. Maybe, as you argue, the ADC (either in the form of local chapters or the national organization) is the appropriate forum to deal with these disputes and create a unified platform to fight for for Arab-American rights and interests, but it does not seem like that national organization is in any way interested in facilitating that conversation. Therefore, as much as I would hope the recent resurgence of Arab democratic movements might energize national Arab-American organizing for greater democracy both here and in the Middle East, it is not clear at all that ADC will be a sufficient venue for that work. Moreover, I would argue that supporting the democratic Arab movements is THE issue that Arab-Americans can collectively organize around and take lessons from in our own context. If the ADC leadership cannot be made to see this soon, I don't see why our energies are best spent trying to change its agenda rather then creating alternative Arab-American organizations that DO (at their core) recognize the connections between ourselves and those dying for freedom in Syria, Lybia, Yemen, Bahrain, Eqypt, and Tunisia (to name a few).
    Maybe you see a revived ADC grassroots project as having this character, but I don't know enough to know if this is realistic, and what I do know about ADC makes me very skeptical that this is even possible without the threat of more dynamic alternatives.

    Posted by Badr Albanna | June 11, 2011, 4:07 pm
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