Saturday, April 29, 2017

Interview with Imad Hamad, American Human Rights Council Executive Director

The American Human Rights Council (AHRC) is holding its annual banquet on Thursday May 18. I interviewed Mr. Imad Hamad with questions about the banquet and about AHRC. Below are excerpts.

Q: Another year, another banquet. What are the highlights of this year’s banquet?

A: This year we are having our third banquet. We are awarding remarkable individuals from diverse backgrounds for their work advancing human rights. We expect a strong turnout, a full house- just like last year. Last year we had over 800 attendees. This year we have a special guest whose appearance is a great honor for the banquet.

Q: Human rights is a new type of advocacy in Arab and Muslim circles, does this present a challenge to AHRC?

A: It used to present a serious challenge. Before AHRC, I advocated for years for civil rights and civil liberties, locally, nationally and internationally. Advocacy for civil rights and liberties has been around for so many years that almost everyone understands the concept and the work. Human rights advocacy in Arab and Muslim circles is relatively new. When we started AHRC many people would ask me: What are human rights? How are they different from civil rights and civil liberties? We don’t get these questions anymore and I consider that a benchmark of success.  Human rights are largely God-given rights or natural rights while civil rights are largely man-made rights. That’s a key distinction here. Our goal at AHRC is to create a culture of awareness of and respect for human rights. The fact that people know what we do and understand it is a measure of our success.

Q: Do you still do civil rights work?

A: Yes, very often we have a case where an individual would insist that we get involved and help them. It’s not our primary goal but we don’t see a conflict- human rights are inclusive of civil rights. We are selective in which cases we get involved in. One constraint is capacity- our office is very small staffed. We have a high success rates in our involvement in civil rights matters. Constructive professional credible engagement is the key to our success. We have an open door policy if we can’t help them, we direct them to where help could be obtained.

 Q: You are based in Dearborn. How would you respond to someone saying that AHRC is yet another Dearborn organization added to a myriad of others?

A: Our office is in Dearborn. We are part of the Dearborn/Detroit organizational network. We are proud to be based in the great city of Dearborn. But we are not a parochial organization- our focus is local, national and global. Take our board for example and compare to other organizations’ boards. Our board is impressive in its diversity and talents. 90% of our board is outside Dearborn. Our awardees and banquet attendees are also very diverse and not limited to Michigan.

Q: What are the biggest human rights challenges of this year?

A: Syria and Yemen by far are the most challenging. There are also ongoing crises in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to the domestic challenges that drastically increased due to the new political era in the United States.

Q: How has the challenge of sectarianism affected your work?

A: Sectarianism exists overseas and in the US as well. It is a universal challenge. We stay true to our mission- human rights. We advocate for human rights regardless of the identity of the victim and the identity of the perpetrator. Human rights are about our common humanity.

Q: Is funding an issue- What we hear from secular activists is that there is strong religious giving in the Arab and Muslim American community while secular organizations struggle. Is that still true?

A: To a large extent yes. You always see new religious centers being built and added. These institutions are important. But what we don’t see the support needed to keep secular organizations advancing missions that help everyone- including the religious. It is relatively easy to get money to build a religious center or to dig a well or feed the needy but harder to get contributions to secular organizations. We advocate for everyone- we help everyone. Everyone should contribute.

Q: You have a prisoners’ rights program, how does it work?

A: We advocate for the religious rights of prisoners with the Michigan Department of Corrections- the Ramadan issue for example. Muslim prisoners need to be accommodated as to meal time during the month of fasting. We have succeeded in improving Michigan’s accommodation of the fast of the inmates. This issue continues to be a challenge and requires more work.  We also partner with a great Michigan based charity, Life for Relief and Development (LIFE), in providing family gift to inmates. We complement the work of other organizations in this area. What counts to us is helping people not the credit for it.

Q: You worked at one time on government-community engagement. Are you still involved in that?

A: I still believe in the community-law enforcement partnership model that provides a channel for dialogue that builds trust- genuine dialogue and partnership. But take Detroit now. I was the co-founder, along with the former US Attorney Jeff Collins, right after the national tragedy of September 11 attacks, of  BRIDGES. BRIDGES is a premier law enforcement- community forum that I co-chaired until 2013. I was invited nationally and internationally to speak about BRIDGES. Now, sadly, you hear many are questioning the integrity of the process itself- it has lost its inclusivity. Those who are allowed to participate in it are chosen on the basis of who knows who and other ill- defined criteria. As a founder of BRIDGES, I urge all, especially the government stakeholders, to objectively reassess and evaluate the engagement process.

Q: What do you think needs to be done with BRIDGES?

A: The value of engagement is measured by keeping it an inclusive body that is not mandated or governed by parochial, irrelevant to the forum, political agendas and limitations. This is a forum of dialogue to all and it should include all the stakeholders- not only those who are of politically convenient. These days this engagement is direly needed given the many divisions we see and the challenges the community, the country and indeed the whole world faces. Time is overdue to return it to its original mission. BRIDGES is valuable and a model of community-law enforcement engagement. It has to be restored to its old inclusive self. Otherwise, it is perceived that the government stakeholders are taking sides in small community politics and community rivalries that are irrelevant to the process. The government stakeholders have to be careful not to be perceived as taking sides in internal community disputes.

Q. The DHS Secretary visited Dearborn about a month ago. What happened there?

A: That meeting was a good example of dialogue done wrong. Key voices were excluded- it defeats the purpose. AHRC and others were excluded from the meeting. This violates the letter and the spirit of BRIDGES. Many people feel the same way.  I feel I have an obligation to speak out on this issue since I am a co-founder of BRIDGES.

Q: How is AHRC’s relationship with the media?

A: The media is crucial to our message and they have been great. We have a great relationship. AHRC is often sought for comment on matters related to human rights. I also write a guest column on human rights matters in the Detroit News. Our voice is definitely heard.

Q. What challenges do you see for NGO work in the Arab and Muslim American community?

A: There is a need for a strategic plan. There is some progress but we still see that our work overall is reactive and crisis driven. We need to respect specialization. We can’t all be doing everything at the same time regardless of our mission. We should complement each other’s work. The Muslim Ban issue brought us all on the same page, but what happens after a crisis fades? We need a strategic plan.

Q: What are you thankful for?

A: The donors, the board, the supporters and the volunteers. Our board consists of diverse talented people who are vital to our success. The young interns we have are extraordinary and reassure us that the future is promising.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Syrian conflict and Hezbollah: Are there winners in the Syrian conflict?

The Syrian conflict and Hezbollah: Are there winners in the Syrian conflict?*

The Wall Street Journal is one of America’s finest papers. It is also the paper with the biggest paid circulation. Even those who are liberal and not fond of its editorial policies have to admit that the reporting is professional, objective and accurate. There is a so-called Chinese wall between editorial writing and news writing.

Inaccurate and Unbalanced

On the Middle East, the Journal has good writers that have written deep and incisive pieces on the region. Understandably, Syria and Iraq get the bulk of the attention in Middle East reporting. One of the Journal’s reporters in the region is Maria Abi Habib. Recently, she wrote a piece on the Syrian conflict. Her thesis was that Hezbollah is the winner in the Syrian conflict. It seemed as if it was written by Hezbollah's PR department to raise the morale of its fighters and its core constituency.

The page one article by Maria Abi-Habib was entitled “A winner in Syria’s civil war: Hezbollah,” and it appeared in the paper of April 3, 2017. Abi-Habib article was an inaccurate and unbalanced report that overlooked the major losses and challenges Hezbollah is confronted with due to its immersion in the Syrian quagmire. Abi-Habib claimed that the intervention in the conflict strengthened the group. Far from strengthening it, the involvement has been costing it dearly and has weakened it.

Iran’s franchise

 In her article, Abi-Habib repeated a widespread myth in Middle East studies. She stated as settled fact that Hezbollah was founded in the 1980s to “fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon.” That is completely not true. The group was founded by Iran in its effort to export its revolution in the Arab world. Before Hezbollah the leading Shiite political group in Lebanon was the Amal Movement, founded by Sayed Musa al Sadr. The Amal Movement, beginning with Sayed Musa, allied itself with the Syrian regime. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were providing military training and indoctrination of Shiites in the Bekaa valley. Amal, while not antagonistic to Iran, valued its Lebanese and Arab identity and refused to become an Iranian proxy. There are two excellent books on Lebanese Shiites that must be read by those who care to understand the community- one is Fouad Ajami’s The Vanished Imam and Shi'ite Lebanon: Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities by Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr. Eisenlohr’s is especially useful in understanding the political dynamics of the Shiite community and its complicated relationship with Iran.

The myth of the Israeli occupation as the reason for the existence of the group is also belied by the fact that Iran has set up other Hezbollah franchises in the Arab world in countries that never had an Israeli occupation. The only successful franchise was in Lebanon due to the weakness of the state and the nature of the Lebanese political system. The Israeli occupation provided a pretext to build the capacity of the group to the level that it is today.
Iran: Ideology, weapons and funds

The group had no choice but to intervene in Syria. The strategic decision was taken by Iran. There was no room for dissent since the group gets its ideology, weapons and funding from the Iranian regime that is led by an infallible leader. Important Lebanese voices have spoken against the group’s involvement in the Syrian war. Former top security official and former Justice minister Ashraf Rifi warned the group that involvement in the Syrian war is akin to committing suicide and invites retaliation against the Lebanese by the Syrian opposition. A former leader of the group, Sobhi Tofaili, also criticized the group with very strong language. 
Constrained finances, ballooning liabilities

Abi-Habib claims that the group is the “winner” of Syria’s war and “has grown stronger fighting Syrian rebels.” Far from it. Thousands of its fighters have been killed or injured in Syria, many permanently disabled. Hezbollah is on the hook financially to provide for the families of its war dead and injured while facing dwindling financial resources. As far back as 2015 Newsweek reported on the group’s financial difficulties: ‘"Now our family only gets half of the medical care and medicine that we need,” she says. "This used to come every month without any problems, but today we are suffering." She’s not the only one. As critics continue to blast the party for the war in Syria, the slowdown has also led to a gradual reduction in social services, along with payments to Lebanese political allies. One Druze politician allied with Hezbollah used to receive $60,000 per month from the group, according to Khalil and a Lebanese political source close to the party. Today he gets just $20,000 each month. Both claim that another Lebanese politician used to get a monthly stipend of $40,000 but now must settle for $15,000.’

It has steadily gotten worse for the group. The arrest of its major financier Kassim Tajideen and his extradition to the US is part of several successful and effective measures to clamp down on its finances. This increased financial pressure coincides with increasing financial liabilities due to the Syria war- not a recipe for strength. Also, in addition to the thousands of dead and injured, the group has lost top operational commanders in Syria including Imad Moghnieh and his successor Mustapha Badreddine.   

The biggest Loser: Soft power

Most importantly the group has lost its soft power in the Arab and Muslim world. The group used to be immensely popular but after its involvement in Syria there was a tidal shift in Arab opinion away from the group and not just among the viewers of al Jazeera. A testament to this loss of soft power is the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council classifying it as a terrorist group and clamping down on its financial supporters and many others in its core constituency.

There are simply no winners in the Syrian quagmire. 
*A part of this entry appeared as a letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal of April 13, 2017.
Abi Habib's article: