Fear and loathing in Dearborn: The Osama phenomenon

Osama Siblani promoting the Abbbie Bazzi candidacy

Osama Siblani is a very interesting phenomenon. He is the publisher of a community newspaper and a longtime community activist. Anyone who gets involved in matters of public concern expects to be the object of criticism. Even American presidents get all kinds of criticism- fair and unfair.  In a democracy, we all understand that the freedom of expression is sacrosanct.

In the Middle East, people have a lot of opinions. However, in most Middle Eastern countries people are afraid to express themselves for fear of the government and those who have connections. In the US, on the other hand, there is the First Amendment. There is freedom of speech. People are free to express themselves.

I spoke with a Dearborn Arab American about the phenomenon of Osama Siblani and his paper. I have written a column in the Forum and Link based on interviews with Arab Americans regarding the 19th district elections and people did not want to go on the record criticizing Osama Siblani. Why would people, in the United States, be afraid of expressing themselves?

To unravel this mystery, I spoke with a longtime Arab American resident of Dearborn, a man familiar with its politics:

-How do you explain the Osama Siblani phenomenon? 
What makes people reluctant to go on record with their opinions? What we have in this city is “irhab fitri,” terrorism of the mind. Criticism has consequences. Here you have people who left the Middle East to escape repression. But they are fearful to express themselves. Why? Is it because they think Osama is too cozy with the US government? Has connections in Lebanon and can hurt people? Cause them problems when they travel to Lebanon? I am not sure. Maybe a combination of factors.

- But what can he do? He is merely a publisher of a paper?
 In a way people are justified in their concerns. He uses his paper to go after his enemies, real and imagined. Everyone has skeletons in their closet. It is a small community. He would use negative information savagely, and immorally. You yourself have seen it. People talk at length but refuse to go on record.

- You say the US government has helped create this phenomenon. How? There is a reign of terror. Osama’s perceived coziness with US government officials feeds into the fear that people have. US government officials meet with him and take pictures with him, treat him as the representative of the whole community and in return this creates the fear that you see.
This is a serious phenomenon. It is very unhealthy. All those who, by default or by design, helped create this phenomenon are responsible for the monster created. This should not continue. It is unhealthy and undemocratic. By the end of the day, there are more questions than answers.

-But what can Osama do. He has a paper, but there are other community papers?
 Look what happened with journalist Afaf Ahmad. Siblani called her a “whore.” Can you believe that? Who needs that kind of name calling? She is a mother and a member of the community and a man her father’s age calls her a name! Not only that. People associated with him or inspired by him start attacking her in the most despicable way. Why?

-Why do you think Osama acts the way he does? 
It has gotten to his head. He thinks he is greater than anyone else- greater than all these historical personalities that people talk about. He is unwilling to take criticism. Osama and his paper extol the virtues of the first amendment and the freedom of speech. If Osama believes in freedom of speech then he should accept criticism? He does not accept criticism. He reacts to valid criticism and good advice the same way he would react to being called a name? Truly a bizarre phenomenon. Unhealthy and undemocratic.

- Is there widespread unhappiness with Osama or is it Dearborn politics and he is part of that? 
It is widespread. You could be sitting with 20-30 people. You would experience firsthand the kind of dislike, even animosity and hate this man has from many people. But they are afraid to be quoted. What is this man going to do? He is not a gang leader. He is not the dictator of a Middle Eastern country? Still you see people want to avoid being entangled with him.

-I am interested in your pointing out a US government role in creating this phenomenon. The US government officials meet with him and with others in the community. Not only him, why is he special? 
When the issue of the FBI planes over Detroit came up, they met with him in his paper’s building, on his roof, in a friendly atmosphere. Who picked who could attend this meeting? This coziness has contributed to the fear. In a sense, the government has taken sides in inter-community politics. And that is not good. They need to be mindful of perceptions.
The interesting part is that he was asked how you choose those who represent the community or are leaders of the Arab American community. Osama said that he decides who represents the community. There is a perception that the US has a hand in placing Arab dictators in power in the Middle East. With Osama there is the perception that the US government is doing the same thing in the Detroit area too. This is unhealthy and undemocratic.

-But others have regularly met with officials. All over the country Arab and Muslim American activists are meeting with the government? 

What confuses the Dearborn community is his perceived coziness with the US government officials when put together with his public pronouncements. Osama brags about being a Hizbullah supporter. For example, on Facebook, one person accused him of being a Hizbullah supporter. Osama responded that he is indeed a Hizbullah supporter. The sense that people have is that if one says they support Hizbullah, the FBI would be knocking on their door the same day or the next day. People are at a loss. He is the only person in the community who does that.


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