Muslims charge they are being scapegoated

Both candidates in the New York Senate contest have refused to meet with Arabs. Is that really the way to court the Jewish vote?

Published November 2, 2000 7:00PM (EST)

In a move likely to send shock waves through New York's Senate race, a local chapter of the American Muslim Alliance is expected to endorse Hillary Clinton on Friday, according to a source close to the group. The alliance has already endorsed Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.

"This is the first that we're hearing of this and we would not accept such an endorsement if it were offered," said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson. "This is an organization that has made statements counter to the things that Hillary believes in. If you look at the AMA's Web site, there is a statement on there indicating the belief that armed violence is an acceptable political tool."

Last week, Clinton returned a $50,000 donation from the group, in addition to a $1,000 donation from Abdurahaman Alamoudi, former executive director of the American Muslim Council. Alamoudi has made recent statements voicing support of the Arab terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. But the AMA is considered a more mainstream political group. That hasn't stopped her opponent Rick Lazio from calling the alliance's contribution "blood money."

Contributing to the appearance of hypocrisy on this issue is a letter discovered online by Salon, sent by Clinton to open the American Muslim Alliance's 1998 convention.

"As I have traveled throughout this country and around the world, I have learned that in too many places individuals are blocked from participating fully in the political lives of their countries," Clinton wrote in the letter. "We choose not to hear the voices of many; and in too many places, there are those who never learn to project their voices. I commend you for your efforts to encourage others to work to make their voices heard in the present and for the future. Please accept my best wishes for a wonderful convention."

But this year, rather than criticizing Lazio for baiting and stereotyping Arab-Americans, candidate Clinton has been complicit in the complete isolation of Arab voters in New York.

"Since the 1950s in Alabama, we haven't seen a situation where an entire group of voters become disenfranchised during a campaign," said Jim Zogby, director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington. "In an election as close as this, where everyone else is being courted, [Arab voters] are being told, 'We don't care how close it is, we don't need or want your support.'"

Zogby saved some of his harshest criticism for the New York Republican Party for making 500,000 phone calls last weekend linking Arab and Muslim political groups to the terrorist attack on the USS Cole. He also lambasted Lazio for refusing to criticize the phone calls. "They've done this phone calling stuff which is really dangerous, because it amounts to the act of incitement," Zogby said.

But he added that Clinton has simply played into Lazio's hands by returning the donation from the alliance, at the expense of isolating New York's Arabs. "I would say when it first happened I was very offended by her decision to do this. The problem is not the response of giving the money back. The problem is that throughout the campaign, she has not met once with Arab-Americans in the state."

Leaders in the Jewish community have also been eerily silent as this outrageous scapegoating of Arabs continues. When asked to comment on the story, a spokesman for the Anti Defamation League refused, saying they did not involve themselves in political issues. When reminded that the group had voluntarily knuckle-rapped Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman for talking too much God on the stump, the spokesman still demurred.

Arab and Muslim communities have been critical of Lazio, even while Clinton's campaign has not shown the courage to take up the line of attack.

"We condemn Rick Lazio in the strongest possible terms for his deceitful accusations about American Muslim organizations and individuals," read the release from eight national American Muslim and Arab-American organizations, including the AMA and Zogby's AAI. "In a desperate bid to win November 7 elections, Mr. Lazio is trying to turn Muslims into the Willie Horton of 2000."

Local AMA board member Ghazi Khankan said both candidates were to blame for fanning Arab sentiment in the closing days of this campaign in what has undeniably been the ugliest chapter in a hard-fought Senate race. "It's a shame," he said Thursday. "Muslim Americans and Arab-Americans are being muddied and universally associated with acts of terrorism. This is a race for the U.S. Senate, not the Knesset," he said, referring to the Israeli parliament.

Even as the president put on his civil rights hat at a black church in Harlem Tuesday night, there was no mention of the way Arabs have been marginalized in this campaign.

For his part, Lazio has been unrepentant, seeming proud to wear the badge of Arab ire as some kind of proof of his strong support of Israel. That, of course, defies logic -- everywhere but in New York, that is.

When asked if the congressman felt any sense of regret that Arab-Americans may be stigmatized by this back and forth between the campaigns, Lazio spokesman Dan McLagan said: "Certainly. I think it is unfair for innocent people to get caught in this crossfire. It's too bad that Mrs. Clinton and her campaign made this an issue by taking these kinds of contributions." Not exactly an apology to the Arab community.

Unfortunately, this trend of neglecting the state's Arab community is par for the course in New York politics, according to Zogby.

Nationally, it's a different story. Although George W. Bush received the endorsement of the same group that may endorse Clinton Friday, he has not shunned the endorsement the way Clinton has. And Al Gore met with Arab leaders last week in Michigan -- a key swing state with a large Arab population.

When asked if Lazio had met with Arab leaders or had any Arab contributors, McLagan could not say for sure. "I'm sure he has. He's been a congressman from this state for a long time. And we don't screen our voters to see what ethnicity they are."

Part of the confusion surrounding the issue has been due to the New York Daily News' conflation of the American Muslim Council and the American Muslim Alliance. Lazio has capitalized on the confusion, continuing to treat the two groups as the same.

But the New York Observer reported Thursday that Lazio solicited donations from Faroque Khan, chairman of the alliance's New York chapter. "It's the height of hypocrisy," Khan told the Observer. "On the one hand you want to take money from whoever wants to give it to you, and on the other, you are criticizing your opponent for accepting money from the same people."

Lazio said his campaign would have returned any donation from Khan.

McLagan points to the Daily News story to explain why he called the AMA's contribution "blood money." When told that the Daily News had erred in conflating the AMC and the AMA, McLagan said essentially that it wasn't his campaign's problem. "We rely on the news reports. They did say that members of the group said they had gone to the White House and stood up for Hamas."

Khankan of the AMA said Lazio in particular had been fanning the flames of anti-Arab sentiment, capitalizing on the emotions surrounding the deterioration of the Middle East peace process.

"I think Lazio is more to blame than Clinton, by his statements calling our donation blood money and so on. Arabs and Muslims are being hurt by this.

"It harms the harmony and the livelihood of our children in schools and our people in business," he added, "because the more the media talks about it, the more they associate the name of Muslim and Islam with violence and terrorism, the more it becomes lodged in the psyche."

But Khankan said Clinton didn't help by returning the alliance's $50,000. "Personally, I'm glad she returned the money," he said. "We can build another place of worship, God willing. I personally do not believe in donating money to any politician. Any money paid to a politician is a form of bribery."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton Race Terrorism U.s. Senate