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Juan Cole and Osama Siblani on Middle East Politics, U.S. Media Coverage of the Region, and the Arab American Landscape

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We broadcast from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor–home to the first antiwar teach-in forty years ago this month. Also, the region surrounded by Detroit and Dearborn is home to one of the largest Arab communities in this country.

We spend the rest of the hour looking at issues surrounding the Middle East, both in terms of U.S. foreign policy as well as here at home and how Arab Americans and Arab immigrants have been affected by the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror. We speak with University of Michigan professor, Juan Cole and Osama Siblani, publisher and editor-in-chief of “The Arab American” newspaper. [includes rush transcript]

Juan Cole is a Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the History Department of the University of Michigan. He runs an analytical website called “Informed Comment” in which he provides a daily round-up of news and events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. Juan Cole speaks fluent Arabic and Farsi and has lived all over the Muslim world for extended periods of time.

We are also joined by Osama Siblani, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Dearborn-based weekly bilingual newspaper, “The Arab American.” He helped found the Arab American Political Action Committee in Dearborn and the Congress of Arab American Organizations. Osama Siblani’s influence extends abroad and he has met with several Middle East leaders, including Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by two guests here in our Ann Arbor studios. Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, runs an analytical website called Informed Comment in which he provides a daily roundup of news and events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. Juan Cole speaks fluent Arabic and Farsi. He has lived all over the Muslim world for extended periods of time. We are also joined by Osama Siblani, he’s the Publisher and Editor-In-Chief of The Arab American, a Dearborn-based, weekly bi-lingual newspaper. He helped found the Arab American Political Action Committee in Dearborn and the Congress of Arab American Organizations. Also affiliated with the Arab American and Chaldean Council, one of the major Arab American human service organizations in the country. Osama Siblani’s influence extends abroad. He has met several Middle East leaders, including the Syrian President, Bashar Assad and the Lebanese President, Emil Lahoud. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!. It’s a pleasure to see you, Juan Cole, in person — as you know, we have often had him on Democracy Now!, but on the telephone — and to meet Osama Siblani for the first time. I wanted to start with Professor Cole. We just got a report from Madrid. Can you talk about who it is believed is responsible for the March 11 bombings?

JUAN COLE: Well, the group is as-Salafiya al-Jihadiya. It’s a small group that was founded initially in Tangier at a mosque around a man named Sheikh Fizazi, which gathered steam and then was responsible for a bombing — a set of bombings in Casablanca the year before the Madrid bombings. It established itself also in Europe, made contacts outside the Moroccan community with some Egyptian and other activists who had shadowy links with al Qaeda, and undertook the Madrid bombing. It’s a very disturbing development because this is really a local group. It has its roots in Tangier. It morphed into a kind of franchise of al Qaeda. We’re not sure exactly how closely it came into contact with that organization. And it is in this regard typical of the new situation that we now face with regard to some of these terrorist groups.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Muslim clerics issuing this fatwa, this edict, against Osama bin Laden?

JUAN COLE: Well, the Muslim clerics in the Muslim world have long stood against bin Laden. This is not actually a new development. The Sheikh al-Azhar, the foremost authority in the Sunni Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt, has issued condemnations of September 11 and of acts of aggression of that sort. The Sheikh Yusof al-Qaradawi, whose Muslim — old style Muslim brotherhood in Qatar, a very influential — has denounced bin Laden. So, in fact this is in line with the general opinion in most of the Muslim world that bin Laden has departed from Islamic norms by attacking innocent civilians in this way.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, turning to Iraq, the latest bombing in Mosul. The significance of this and what happened?

JUAN COLE: Well, it’s one of a series of bombings that has targeted the Shiite-Muslims of Iraq. The Shiites are the majority. They have now come to power in the recent elections. The Sunni-Arab minority has not reconciled itself on the whole to the new situation, and there are elements within it who are attempting to foment civil war, civil disturbance between Shiites and Sunnis as a way of destabilizing the country. And they hope that if they can destabilize the country, expel the U.S. troops, they can then kill the new political class, assassinate it, and make a coup. So, probably the people behind this are either radical Muslim groups or old-style Baath military intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: And the latest news about what’s happening around the formation of the new government, what is being decided on March 16?

JUAN COLE: Well, the elections brought the Shiites to power in Iraq pretty decisively. They have probably about 54% of the seats in parliament, the religious Shiite parties. And however, you need two-thirds to form a government, according to the interim constitution. So, they needed to get 66%, and the easy place to get that extra number of seats was from the Kurdish alliance, which did very well in the elections, as well, much beyond their proportion of the population. And so, this is a natural kind of alliance within the rules of Parliament, as they’re now set in Iraq. And it’s actually a good sign, because only if the Shiite political parties and the Kurdish ones can come to a set of compromises and agreements about the future of the country with regard to federalism, the place of religious law, the disposition of the oil city of Kirkuk and else — and other such issues, can we hope for a peaceful united Iraq in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Juan Cole, you wrote in “Informed Comment” on Wednesday, “The simplistic master narrative constructed by the partisans of President George W. Bush held that the January 30 elections were a huge success and signaled a turn to democracy in the Middle East. Then the anti-Syrian demonstrations were interpreted as a yearning for democracy inspired by the Iraqi elections. This interpretation is a gross misunderstanding of the situation in the Middle East.” I’d like, first, you to explain this and then I’d like a comment from Osama Siblani.

JUAN COLE: The whole narrative is a little bizarre. The Lebanese have been having parliamentary elections for decades and were among the few to have fairly upright such elections at some points in the 20th century in the Arab world. So, they haven’t learned anything from the Iraqi elections. In fact, the elections in Iraq were a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. I mean, it was a wonderful thing, people came out and risked their lives to vote, but they didn’t know the names of the candidates that they were voting for because of the poor security conditions, and the country had to be locked down for three days. No vehicular traffic at all in the entire country in order to prevent car bombings, so that the elections could be held. So I think most urbane, sophisticated Beirutis would have looked upon this process in Iraq with a little bit of pity, and there’s nothing inspiring there for them. They already had the elections in their country scheduled for May. What happened in Lebanon was local. I think we’re going to see a lot of this — everything that happens in the Middle East from now on is going to be pegged to the Bush administration regardless of whether the Bush administration had anything to do with it, but there’s now, I think, a political struggle inside Lebanon, between those groups, especially the Christian Maronites, the Drews, and a section of the Sunnis who want an early end to the Syrian military occupation and an end to over-weaning Syrian influence in Lebanese politics on the one hand, and then Hezbollah and the generality of the Shiite community, I think, as well as another section of the Sunni community that actually wants the Syrians to continue to play a role.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Juan Cole is here at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Also joining us, having driven in from Dearborn, about a 45-minute drive, we’re joined by Osama Siblani, who is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Arab American. I want to welcome you, as well.

OSAMA SIBLANI: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: You are a Lebanese American.

OSAMA SIBLANI: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you come here?

OSAMA SIBLANI: I came here in 1976. Actually I was there about a couple of weeks ago. When Hariri was assassinated, I was like about 300 meters away from him.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you do then? What happened? You heard the explosion?

OSAMA SIBLANI: Oh yeah. Not I heard the explosion — actually, we had glass where I was. You know, the whole glass just shattered all over the people who were sitting, and I was away from the windows, you know. My chair just jumped like a couple feet. And I saw him just maybe 10-15 minutes earlier. I was supposed to meet with him the next day. Yes, I was in Lebanon. And, you know, Amy, I just rest my case. I think the professor made a very good presentation reflective of the situation in Lebanon and in the Arab world. Yes, he is right that Lebanese have had elections since 1948 and the 1950s, and every your years they had them. After the civil war in 1992, and then in 1996 and then in 2000, and now they’re having them again. It’s a parliamentary election, and it’s not, you know, democratic 100%, but it’s much better than what happened in Iraq, for example. Also, in Palestine, you know, that Mr. Bush is trying to claim credit for the election. There was an election in Palestine, in the occupied territory seven years ago. They elected the council of Palestine, the National Council, and also they elected a president at that time, who was Yasser Arafat. So, nothing really new is happening in the Middle East that the Bush administration could take credit for. And I think the situation in Iraq, the election in Iraq, was something made for television for an American audience, so Mr. Bush can claim credit for something that he really does not deserve. Yes, you can’t fight, you know, back and say, you know, what is happening in Iraq is not a step forward in democracy. It’s much better, you know, to have people have the right to vote under these circumstances, rather than having a dictatorship run by a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein, but again, the situation in Iraq is not about democracy. I met with the President, and he wanted to go to Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction, and he considered the regime an imminent and gathering threat against the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: You met with the President of the United States?

OSAMA SIBLANI: Yes, when he was running for election in May of 2000 when he was a governor. He told me just straight to my face, among 12 or maybe 13 republicans at that time here in Michigan at the hotel. I think it was on May 17, 2000, even before he became the nominee for the Republicans. He told me that he was going to take him out, when we talked about Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And I said, 'Well, you know, I totally disagree with you. You just can't go around taking leaders out of their countries, you know. Let the Iraqi people do it. They can’t do it on empty stomachs. Lift sanctions. Keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein, but lift the sanctions on the Iraqi people. People can’t make moves on an empty stomach. Once they start establishing, you know, a connection with the United States and helping democracy inside, they will overthrow him.’ And then he said, 'We have to talk about it later.' But at that time he was not privy to any intelligence, and the democrats had occupied the White House for the previous eight years. So, he was not privy to any intelligence whatsoever. He was not the official nominee of the Republican Party, so he didn’t know what kind of situation the weapons of mass destruction was at that time. But what I am saying now is the President is trying to claim credit for something that really had nothing to do with him. The Palestinians had elections seven years ago. They have had an election last month, and also the Lebanese, what the professor said that this is a situation that is happening in Lebanon because there is a — there is a formula in Lebanon that always, always Lebanon — part of the Lebanese communities try to get help from the outside in order to gain more power and bring more cards to the table for bargaining.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the situation right now in Lebanon with the president, who you have met with, the Lebanese President Lahoud, reappointing the Syrian-backed Prime Minister?

OSAMA SIBLANI: Well, there is no doubt that Syrian influence is all over Lebanon. But the Syrians have been there to work out with the Lebanese the details of the Taif Accord that was signed back in 1989 and that ended the civil war in Lebanon. Definitely, the Syrians have made mistakes. Definitely, the Syrians are interfering into the Lebanese situation and little details. The President, Bashar Assad, who I have met also, admits to the mistakes that the Syrians have made in Lebanon. And the Syrians should get out of Lebanon and pull their security forces. Most of the Lebanese would agree now. Some of the Lebanese, I would say the minority, would like to see the Syrians humiliated on their way out. Others, which is the majority in Lebanon, would like to see them out, leaving with dignity, and keeping the relationship between Lebanon and Syria. If you look at the geography, where Lebanon is, it’s between Israel and Syria, and the Mediterranean. So, the only really breathing space that Lebanon has to the world is through Syria. So, we cannot really have a bad situation and bad relationship and bad blood between the Syrians and the Lebanese. That will create more trouble, especially that we have already a bad situation with the Israelis.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Osama Siblani. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Arab American, which is a weekly bilingual newspaper in the United States here in the heart of Arab America. We’re also joined by Juan Cole, Professor at the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor. This is Democracy Now! We’ll come back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We are having a conversation about the Middle East, and I also want to talk about the Arab American community here in the United States, so we’re joined by Professor Juan Cole. You have heard him on the telephone. Now we’re in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan where he is a Professor of Modern Middle East History. We’re also joined by Osama Siblani, who is publisher and editor-in-chief of The Arab American based in Dearborn, Michigan. He is a Lebanese American, has been here for several decades. I wanted to ask, why did you come to the United States? Why did you move here from Lebanon?

OSAMA SIBLANI: I came here at the beginning of the civil war to get an education, because of — the universities were just actually closed, because of the civil war. So I came here in 1976, and my brother was here, and I stayed here. My brother went back, though, and I stayed here.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were vice president of a —

OSAMA SIBLANI: An international company, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Of an international company, but you gave it all up to go into journalism here —

OSAMA SIBLANI: That is correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And start this newspaper, The Arab American. Why?

OSAMA SIBLANI: Well, I started The Arab American news back in 1984, but I started really thinking about doing something in the media, you know, and paying back, you know, the world, and my country, the United States, that — at that time, and also my homeland, because of the Israeli invasion into Lebanon in 1982, and the silence and the propaganda and the spin, you know, that was put on this war. It was personal because my own house in Beirut that I built for my mother — God rest her soul, she died two years ago, and I was the youngest in the family, so I had to build her a house. And the Israelis destroyed it and burned — all of my youth went up in flames. I don’t have anything from when I was young, because our house was totally destroyed. And everything was burned. I took it personally, and also I thought that maybe America deserved a little bit of the truth, or at least the other side of the story, and that was not told. And I took it upon myself to start the process of putting some, you know, of our opinion in the media, and that happened in 1984 on September 7. We started The Arab American, and we have been published weekly since then, in both languages.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe Arab America to us?

OSAMA SIBLANI: Well, Arab Americans are really not one of the thick society. They are from 22 Arab nations. Most of the Arab American communities in here are from, you know, a few countries. I would say, number one, probably Lebanon. They’re still the top of the Arab American community are from Lebanon. Then Iraq, most of the people here are from the Christian community. There are, of course, Palestinians, from Jordanians and Syrians and Yemeni, a community. Very few Egyptians in Michigan, but in New York probably we have a little more Egyptians than we have here. But basically this is the very few families from the Gulf region.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did Arab immigrants come to Michigan?

OSAMA SIBLANI: Basically, the reason that they came in at the turn of the 20th century is — 19th century, beginning of the 20th century — is because of the auto industry. It gathered a lot of Arabs from Lebanon, in particular, and the Syrians at that time — there was not a Lebanon; there was a greater Syria — came and emigrated to the United States, particularly to Detroit to work in the auto industry. And then, later they started going to Dearborn, because Dearborn had a huge Ford plant. And they’ve situated themselves in Dearborn and around the Dearborn area. The family bonds, you know, that brought more families. And, you know, brothers brought sisters and brothers and cousins, and they started — now they don’t work in the auto industry. They have their own businesses, and they are professionals. But that’s why they came to Detroit, to the United States, and then to Detroit, in particular, and Dearborn, most particularly.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about the media, you have a newspaper, a weekly newspaper. Juan Cole, you do your blog on a regular basis every day, really collating Arab news from around the world. Before blogging was in style, how do you develop this approach to media and communications? Why did you get involved with it?

JUAN COLE: Well, I actually worked for a newspaper in Beirut in the late 1970s. And I stuck it out longer than Osama did. I was there until 1979, and I finally gave up and decided to come to the United States for my education. So —


JUAN COLE: Well, it was for the Monday Morning Company.

OSAMA SIBLANI: Oh, Monday Morning.

JUAN COLE: And which had an English language newspaper at the time.

OSAMA SIBLANI: Now, it’s The Daily Star, isn’t it?

JUAN COLE: It’s now The Daily Star. One of my jobs at the newspaper in Beirut in the late 1970s was to read the Arabic wire services, put them in inverted pyramid form with the most important news first as the Americans do it, and translate them into English. So, I did that —

AMY GOODMAN: Who, what, when, where, why?

JUAN COLE: Yes, that sort of thing. Well, they don’t come that way. The Arabic wire service is like the French. You know, you might have a little meditation on the nature of human existence before you get to the news. And so, I did that for about a year and for many hours a day, and I learned to read Arabic news and skim it pretty quickly and also to think about how you would paraphrase it in English.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are you from originally?

JUAN COLE: I’m from a service family. I guess my family has roots in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. But I grew up all over the world in bases, France, Ethiopia and so forth. So, I’m rootless cosmopolitan in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did you turn that experience in Lebanon into blogging here in the United States?

JUAN COLE: After September 11, I had a similar experience to that of Osama after the Lebanese civil war, in that I felt a great many ignorant opinions were being expressed in our mass media by people who really couldn’t even pronounce the names correctly and had no idea what they were talking about. And it annoyed me, having spent a long time in the region and having studied it professionally. And in the old days before the rise of the internet, it was hard to get one’s voice out for — people think, well, an academic has some sort of special access, but no. I think a lot of journalists were convinced that academics can’t write straight, and you should keep them away from the public if at all possible. So, I couldn’t get my op-eds published. And my credentials really meant nothing in the journalistic world. It was only once I started keeping the weblog and commenting on al Qaeda and the development of the war on terror and then especially the Iraq war that the journalists started reading me for information, and I often could get access through Arabic sources on the internet or in the media to a texture and detail of information that wasn’t available on the west.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you come up with the title of your weblog, “Informed Comment?”

JUAN COLE: Well, it was a little bit of a joke at first, because there were all of these very informed comments coming out of the mass media and the mainstream media, which are somewhat laughable. If you go back to the transcripts and read what people were sayings, it’s amazing the ignorance that was presented to the American public. So I was kind of joking around, saying this is the informed comment. But, unfortunately, now it’s become popular and sounds maybe a little bit pompous, but that’s alright.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about the crackdown here at home. When it comes to Arab Americans, Arab immigrants, but also on campus. You have been targeted, for example, and we’re seeing this increasingly in universities around the country. Can you talk about that?

JUAN COLE: Sure. Well, there is — obviously, there has been for some time in the United States a lively set of culture wars, and I think there are people who are very disturbed by the way in which universities have resisted being taken over for ideological purposes. You know, most opinion in the United States that’s presented on the media now, and you can — this can be proven statistically — is coming out of think tanks. And what are think tanks? Some wealthy group of people endows these institutions and hires people to be in them, academic scholars, often, but to present a particular ideological point of view, and of 17 major think tanks, 15 are pretty far right. So, the universities really have had an end run pulled on them. Their voices are much less heard in the mainstream. And I think that there’s frustration that they’re still there at all, that there are professors who speak, who don’t tow the party line, so to speak. And so there are various forces that are working to try to use Congressional funding as a carrot to move universities in a particular ideological direction. There are campaigns of harassment. I, for instance, at one point was targeted to get 1,500 emails a day in order to cripple my activities on the internet. And people are blacklisted. They’re libeled. I have been accused of being an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, because I objected to the Likud Party policies of military occupation and colonization of the West Bank. So, this is an ongoing campaign. And it’s nothing new in American history. We have seen these things before, but it is very worrisome.

AMY GOODMAN: Osama Siblani, how does the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, but not only that act, affect activism in the Arab and Arab American community? How was your newspaper affected, how were you?

OSAMA SIBLANI: My newspaper is not affected, frankly speaking, because I really don’t care what they’re going to do. And I will continue to voice my opinion the same way I voiced them, even harder and more straightforward because the situation calls for it. But I think in the general public and the Arab American community, that have really destroyed our activism. Now we’re trying to put it back together. And it’s not easy at all. It’s ironic, you know, and shameful that we are — that this administration that claims it’s spreading democracy thousands of miles away from our country while we are losing democracy here at home, and being — harassing people because we disagree with them, you know, politically. That’s happening in our community. I get every day complaints about crackdown and about people who have been harassed. We have doctors that have — you know, a couple of doctors have talked about how much they have been harassed directly because of the — because of their opinions, because they have been associated with people like in Florida with Dr. Mazen Al-Najjar or with Dr. al-Arian, who is right now in court — his case in court just because guilt by association. And how many people have been put in jail and/or turned away from the United States, and they broke families apart because of — because of just guilt by association. And this have really almost put our community out of business as far as activism, because people are afraid. They could come and, you know, pick on you and say, you know, you are from Hezbollah or you are from — support Hamas or you donated — in your past donated $10 to the charity that supported that. Now, we cannot even bring any help to the needy in our community because of the crackdown on charities. People don’t know where to donate. When the tsunami disaster happened, you know, we wanted to raise money, and we couldn’t even get our community to donate to anybody, because they would say, you know, who are we going to donate to? And this is really a real, real problem in our community.

AMY GOODMAN: How hard-hit is Dearborn? How many Arab Americans, how many Arabs are in Dearborn?

OSAMA SIBLANI: There are about — close to about 35% of the town, which is about 35-36,000, in Dearborn. Most of them are from Lebanon. Iraqis are now being, you know, considered a good portion of the community, but still the majority, the 90% of the population of Dearborn and the Arab community is Lebanese, from the south of Lebanon.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor in Dearborn?

OSAMA SIBLANI: The mayor of Dearborn, unfortunately, is a person that was elected in 1985, with an anti-Arab platform. And he continues to be the mayor of the city until now, and he has never apologized for his nasty and racist remarks against this community.

AMY GOODMAN: Have many people been arrested in Dearborn, and is there a large F.B.I. presence there?

OSAMA SIBLANI: There have been people arrested. And we really can’t get you — I mean, I don’t know. We still are trying to figure out how many people have been arrested, but recent — most recently a person was charged and convicted with — you know, he had to make a settlement on associated with Hezbollah. You know, when you look at the charges that have been mounted against several people, and they haven’t been able to make it stick on one single individual in court, that after terrorism and stuff like this. The community is, of course, scared, but I can tell you from my experience, and I do this every day, and I have — this is my full time job, that our community is a loyal community, and they never wanted to see anything happen to the United States, because they ran away from trouble and from war and conflict. They want to live in peace. And they want to raise their children and give them education, and they don’t want to see anything — or harm to the United States, but they’re definitely scared.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you had any trouble with your first name?

OSAMA SIBLANI: Yes. You know, with Orrin Hatch, maybe, but you know, with a few people, you know, but I have always maintained that I am older than Osama bin Laden. He is younger than me, so I couldn’t be named after him. He’s probably named after me. And I will make good on my name. Actually, it’s good name. Osama means the lion, right? It’s one of the names of the lion. It’s a very famous name, and a very proud name in the history, and Osama bin Laden is not going to make it bad. I won’t let him.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Osama Siblani, I want to thank you for being with us. Your website for listeners and viewers around the world?


AMY GOODMAN: And Juan Cole, Professor at University of Michigan here, Ann Arbor, your website.

JUAN COLE:, “Informed Comment.”

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both very much for joining us here in Ann Arbor.

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