Mixed bag for Arab Americans in US elections

Mixed bag for Arab Americans in US elections
Virginia gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. candidate Hala Ayala and Attorney General Mark Herring during a campaign event in Fairfax, Virginia, US, Nov. 1, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 03 November 2021

Mixed bag for Arab Americans in US elections

Mixed bag for Arab Americans in US elections
  • Abdullah Hammoud voted in as Dearborn’s first Arab-American mayor
  • Hala Ayala loses bid to become Virginia’s first Arab-American lieutenant governor

CHICAGO: Hala Ayala on Tuesday lost her bid to become the first Arab-American lieutenant governor of the state of Virginia, in an election wave that appears to be the beginning of a political backlash against President Joe Biden and the Democrats.

Ayala’s chances in Virginia looked promising because Biden had won the state in the November 2020 presidential election with a 10 percent lead over Republican incumbent Donald Trump.

Ayala’s loss to former Republican state delegate Winsome Sears followed the narrow defeat of Virginia’s former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin.

McAuliffe had served as governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018, while Youngkin was chief financial officer and later chief operating officer of The Carlyle Group, a private equity firm based in Washington D.C.

The Youngkin victory portends a potential Republican surge over Democrats in next year’s midterm elections for control of the US House and Senate.

Despite the implications for Biden and the Democrats next year, Tuesday’s elections brought a new dawn for Arab Americans in at least one city with a history of anti-Arab sentiment.

Abdullah Hammoud, a Michigan state legislator since 2017, was elected as the first Arab-American mayor of the city of Dearborn. More than 60 percent of the city’s 110,000 population are of Arab heritage.

It was a dramatic turnaround from 1985, when Michael Guido warned voters of an “Arab problem” before winning the mayor’s office. Guido later befriended Arab Americans.

He was succeeded as mayor in 2007 by John B. O’Reilly Jr., who this year announced his retirement for health reasons.

Hammoud tweeted: “I’m honored & humbled by today’s support. Our residents spoke loudly — we want change & bold leadership to tackle the challenges our city faces.”

He added: “We live in the greatest city in America and I’m excited about what we can achieve together. Let’s get to work!”

There were 14 candidates competing for seven seats on Dearborn’s City Council. Several Americans of Lebanese heritage won council seats, according to the latest Dearborn election commission returns: Michael T. Sareini, Kamal Al-Sawafy, Robert Abraham and Mustapha Hammoud.

Not as fortunate were three Yemeni Americans who entered the race: Sam Luqman, Saeid Al-Awathi, and Khalil Othman.

Dearborn’s Yemeni-American community has grown significantly over the past decade and is fighting for representation.

Last year, writer Adel Mozip became the first Yemeni American to be elected to a seat on the Dearborn School Board.

In neighboring Dearborn Heights, Mayor Daniel Paletko died from COVID-19, creating a vacancy and election battle for two positions: Filling his remaining term in office, which ends on Dec. 31, and to serve a full mayoral term beginning in January.

Lebanese immigrant and former US Marine Bill Bazzi, a Dearborn Heights City Council member since 2018, was selected by his colleagues to serve as interim mayor following Paletko’s death.

He faced off against City Council Chairwoman Denise Malinowski-Maxwell and Anthony Camilleri, and easily won both the completion of Paletko’s term and the new four-year term as mayor.

In addition to Bazzi, three of the seven Dearborn Heights City Council members are Lebanese American and Muslim. Dearborn Heights is 32 percent Arab American, according to 2019 census data.

In Boston, where the mayor’s office has been held by a man since 1630, two women — Annissa Eassaibi George and Michelle Wu — battled to become the city’s first female chief executive.

The daughter of a Tunisian immigrant father and Polish-American mother, George served on the Boston City Council and is believed to be the only Tunisian to ever be elected to American public office.

But Wu, who is Asian American, claimed victory early Wednesday morning. The vote turned on many issues, including whether George was a “woman of color” like Wu.

Back in Virginia, Arab-American Sam Rasoul, who lost to Ayala in his bid to represent the Democrats for lieutenant governor, won re-election to the 11th State Legislative District, an office he has held since 2014.

Rasoul had raised more than $2 million in his campaign, winning more than 64 percent of the vote, according to the unofficial tally.

“We did it! We won! It’s been an awesome ride and more work to be done,” he tweeted. “Thank you my friends for giving me the honor of being in public service. Know I love serving with every fiber of my being. Onward.”


‘Serb crimes still fresh in Kosovar memories’ on Recak massacre anniversary

‘Serb crimes still fresh in Kosovar memories’ on Recak massacre anniversary
Updated 48 min 18 sec ago

‘Serb crimes still fresh in Kosovar memories’ on Recak massacre anniversary

‘Serb crimes still fresh in Kosovar memories’ on Recak massacre anniversary
  • Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Lulzim Mjeku appeals for justice and preservation of peace in the Western Balkans
  • Comments come as Kosovar Albanians mark 23rd anniversary of 1999 killing that spurred NATO intervention

RIYADH: The people of Kosovo want to see more international involvement in the Western Balkans to stem a rising tide of hate speech and preserve peace in a still tense region, its ambassador to Saudi Arabia has told Arab News.

In an interview with Arab News in the run-p to Kosovo’s Independence Day on Feb. 17, Lulzim Mjeku cited a statement issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Jan. 14 as Kosovars were preparing to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the Recak massacre.

The statement said individuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in Serbia, have glorified atrocities, praised war criminals, targeted communities with hate speech and, in some cases, directly incited violence.

Mejku said that the OHCHR “called upon the international community to intervene and to take concrete action against hate speech. Unfortunately, we have seen denialism in recent times.” Denialism refers to the practice of rewriting the past and pretending that historical events did not happen as they did.

The incidents the OHCHR was referring to involved large groups of people chanting the name of Ratko Mladic, a Serbian war criminal, while holding torchlight processions and singing nationalistic songs urging the takeover of various locations in the former Yugoslavia.

The hate crimes cited by the UN statement occurred in Serbia and in several locations in the Republika Srpska, an entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina northwest of Kosovo. In one incident, shots were fired near a mosque in Janja in northeastern Bosnia, where local Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were mocked and threatened while returning from prayers.

Muslims populations of the Western Balkans know only too well the ugly history of ethnic hatred. “Forty years ago, the father of Donika Gervalla-Schwarz, Kosovo’s current minister of foreign affairs, was assassinated,” Mejku said, referring to the murders of Jusuf and Bardhosh Gervalla, Kosovar Albanian artists, writers and political activists, allegedly by the Serbian-Yugoslav secret police on January 17, 1982, near Heilbronn, a city in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany.

“The gunmen also killed Kadri Zeka, a friend and collaborator of the Gervalla brothers. As dissidents who opposed Serbia’s oppressive regime in Kosovo and worked for their province’s independence, the three activists had been living in exile since 1980. The assassins have never been brought to justice.”

As a young journalist in 1999, Mjeku covered the massacre which occurred on Jan. 15 in Recak, a village in Kosovo. Forty-five people had been shot and their bodies dumped in a ravine outside Recak, apparently by ethnic Serb policemen and soldiers.

Other massacres of Kosovar Albanians followed, including in Krusha in March 1999, Meja on April 27, 1999, and Dubrava prison on May 22, 1999.

“As we commemorate this month the 23rd anniversary of the Recak massacre, the horrible crime is still fresh in our memories,” Mjeku told Arab News. “As sad as it may sound, the Republic of Kosovo owes its very existence to the crimes that were committed against the Kosovan people.”

Nikola Sainovic, a former deputy prime minister of Serbia, was among those responsible for spreading widespread terror among the Kosovar Albanian population.

In 2009, he was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against ethnic Albanian civilians during the Kosovo War. Soon after he was granted early release in 2015, Sainovic was appointed to the board of the Socialist Party of Serbia.

Allegations of war crimes have also dogged members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main ethnic Albanian guerrilla force in Kosovo which fought against the Serbs.

After politicians unsuccessfully waged a years-long peaceful struggle for greater autonomy or independence, the KLA launched an armed uprising against Serbian rule in the mainly Muslim Yugoslav province in March 1998.

This galvanized a disproportionate response from the Serb political establishment, which did not discriminate between Kosovar Albanian fighters and civilians, sending thousands of refugees into neighboring Albania and North Macedonia.

In response to the escalating violence, notably the Recak massacre, NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign that eventually forced Serb policemen and soldiers to withdraw from Kosovo.

After Yugoslavia accepted a peace proposal in June 1999, NATO ended the bombing campaign and the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244, suspending Yugoslav rule in Kosovo and forming the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo with a NATO peacekeeping element, KFOR.

The cessation of violence brought hope to Kosovars at a time of great despair, paving the way for a new reality and prompting a return of refugees.

Many KLA leaders subsequently moved into politics. Hashim Thaci, a former president of Kosovo and a commander in the KLA, stands accused by a court in the Netherlands of responsibility for almost 100 murders.

Mjeku believes now is the time for diplomacy to take primacy. “During all these years, Kosovo as a country has voted for stability and security, not only for its own population, but also for the wider Balkan region and Europe,” he told Arab News.

Kosovo, a country of almost 2 million people, is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. After nine years under UN control, Kosovo declared independence through its assembly on February 17, 2008. Since then, more than 100 countries have recognized Kosovo.

The US, several EU member states and the GCC countries recognized Kosovo’s independence early on. Today Saudi Arabia, which was among 35 states that submitted statements supporting Kosovo, covers the country on non-residential basis from its embassy in Tirana, Albania

Mjecku said that with the generous assistance of its friends, Kosovo has made progress in healing the wounds of the past. Sixty percent of the population is under the age of 30, and many have little memory of the years of grief and violence, he said.

The Western Balkans is calmer than it was 20 years ago, although ethnic tensions are rising again in advance of elections in Serbia in April, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October.

UNMIK, which at its peak fielded more than 50,000 soldiers, is now down to 3,500 men, headquartered in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. The mission seeks to support a normalization agreement, better known as the Brussels Agreement, between Belgrade and Pristina brokered by the EU in 2013.

“As a young nation, we have made great progress in rebuilding our lives and healing our wounds,” Mjeku told Arab News.

“In this long-term journey, we have not been alone. We have had the assistance of our friendly countries, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the institutions of our allies, notably the US and the EU.”


Michigan city council becomes first all-Muslim led government in US

Amer Ghalib, Hamtramck mayor, leads alongside a majority Arab-American city council. (Screenshot/AN Photo)
Amer Ghalib, Hamtramck mayor, leads alongside a majority Arab-American city council. (Screenshot/AN Photo)
Updated 17 January 2022

Michigan city council becomes first all-Muslim led government in US

Amer Ghalib, Hamtramck mayor, leads alongside a majority Arab-American city council. (Screenshot/AN Photo)
  • Yemeni-born mayor leads Hamtramck alongside elected city council which is made up almost entirely of Arab immigrants

HAMTRAMCK, Michigan: Hamtramck, Michigan is the first city in the US to be led by an all-Muslim government.

A city of mostly Polish-Americans for 99 years, locals say the population has gradually shifted to now be over half Arab-Americans. And in its 100th year, the city’s leaders reflect that change. 

“It was a historic achievement that’s never happened before for the Arabs and immigrants,” Amer Ghalib, Hamtramck mayor, told Arab News.

“And I think it inspired many of the youth to go for this field and made them confident in themselves and of their abilities and that they have become an inseparable part of the fabric of this society,” he added.

The Yemeni-born mayor leads Hamtramck alongside the elected city council which, with the exception of one American-born convert to Islam, is made up entirely of Arab immigrants.

Having moved when he was 17, Ghalib considers the two square miles that make up Hamtramck to be his mother city.

“I feel proud and I feel a big responsibility and this is why we have to work very hard to prove that we, as immigrants, can work and succeed in managerial, public service, and political fields in this country,” he said.

Preempting any Islamaphobic backlash or fear, Ghalib assured citizens that they should not expect any changes from an all-Muslim city government, just efforts to revitalize city infrastructure and a commitment to serve its people. 

“There is no difference, because we are all bound by the city regulations and the country’s constitution, with laws and regulations that we cannot violate,” he said.

“All religions promote virtue and our noble Islam promotes doing good and abandoning evil and respecting others and treating them well.”


Texas terrorist demanded release of Al-Qaeda figure months after similar call by Anjem Choudary

a sign is displayed outside of the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Dallas. (AFP)
a sign is displayed outside of the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Dallas. (AFP)
Updated 17 January 2022

Texas terrorist demanded release of Al-Qaeda figure months after similar call by Anjem Choudary

a sign is displayed outside of the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Dallas. (AFP)
  • Malik Faisal Akram was shot by police on Saturday after holding four people hostage at a Texas synagogue
  • He called for release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year sentence for her part in a 2008 New York terror plot

LONDON: Extremist British cleric Anjem Choudary recently urged his supporters to help free notorious Islamist Aafia Siddiqui “physically or by ransom” — the same person a British terrorist demanded be released while he occupied a synagogue in Texas on Saturday.

Choudary, who was profiled by Arab News in its “Preachers of Hate” series, called in September last year for the release of Siddiqui, known as “Lady Al-Qaeda.” It came three months after his release from a British prison where he had served time for supporting the terrorist group Daesh.

“The obligation upon us is to either free her physically or to ransom her or to exchange her,” Choudary wrote on social media platform Telegram. “However, until such time as we can fulfill one of these obligations the minimum that we can do is to use all that we have to raise awareness about her case, to keep her name in the hearts and in the minds of Muslims.”

His call for action was allegedly echoed by Malik Faisal Akram, the man who held four people hostage for 10 hours at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas on Saturday. It is 25 miles from the federal facility at Fort Worth where Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence.

Akram, 44, died during a shootout with law-enforcement officers that ended the synagogue siege.

Choudary is believed to have influenced about 100 British jihadis through his online lectures and videos.

Siddiqui was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 while carrying 2kg of sodium cyanide and plans for a chemical attack on New York City. During her trial she demanded jurors be subjected to DNA testing to check whether they were Jewish. She also attempted to shoot a guard during interrogation.

A neuroscientist by training who earned a scholarship to study biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1991, Siddiqui attended the same mosque later frequented by the Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. She took part in firearms courses run by the National Rifle Association, was for a time on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted list, and was publicly named by Daesh fighters as a candidate for a prisoner-swap deal for James Foley, the American photojournalist who was murdered in 2014.

A profile of Siddiqui by the Boston Globe in 2014 suggested that she had been radicalized by the outbreak of the war in Bosnia, after which she became a member of Al-Kifah Refugee Center, thought to have been Al-Qaeda’s operational hub in the US at the time.

Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism expert, told the Globe: “Aafia was from a prominent family with connections and a sympathy for jihad. She was just what they needed.”

Waqas Jilani, at the time a graduate student at Clark University, told the Globe that Siddiqui had boasted she would be proud to be on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and urged fellow Muslims to take up arms and fight.

“She was always mouthing off about the US and the FBI being so bad and all,” he said.

Siddiqui’s former husband, Mohammed Amjad Khan, described how, having married her over the phone from Pakistan, he arrived in the US to discover she would regularly watch videos of Osama bin Laden and spent weekends at training camps with other members of Al-Kifah.

“I discovered that the well-being of our nascent family unit was not her prime goal in life,” he said. “Instead, it was to gain prominence in Muslim circles.”

He added he felt unable to introduce her to professional colleagues because she would “only want to talk about them converting to Islam. Invariably this would lead to unpleasantness.”

He added: “Her focus had shifted to jihad against America, instead of preaching to Americans so that they all become Muslims and America becomes a Muslim land.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Siddiqui demanded that the couple return to Pakistan and get divorced. It is thought she later married Ammar Al-Baluchi, the nephew of 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.


Far-right presidential contender convicted of hate speech

Far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour at the Foreign Press Association headquarters, in Paris on Jan. 17, 2022. Zemmour was convicted of inciting racial hatred over 2020 comments he made about unaccompanied migrant children. (AP)
Far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour at the Foreign Press Association headquarters, in Paris on Jan. 17, 2022. Zemmour was convicted of inciting racial hatred over 2020 comments he made about unaccompanied migrant children. (AP)
Updated 17 January 2022

Far-right presidential contender convicted of hate speech

Far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour at the Foreign Press Association headquarters, in Paris on Jan. 17, 2022. Zemmour was convicted of inciting racial hatred over 2020 comments he made about unaccompanied migrant children. (AP)
  • A Paris court ordered Zemmour to pay a fine of €10,000
  • Zemmour said he will appeal the decision

PARIS: French far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour was convicted Monday of inciting racial hatred over 2020 comments he made about unaccompanied migrant children.
A Paris court ordered Zemmour to pay a fine of €10,000 (more than $11,000) and several thousand euros in damages to anti-racism groups.
Zemmour said he will appeal the decision.
“I’m one more time the victim of a political justice,” Zemmour told reporters, adding “I absolutely do not regret” the comments.
Zemmour, who has two prior hate speech convictions, went on trial in November on charges of “public insult” and “incitement to hatred or violence” against a group of people because of their ethnic, national, racial or religious origin.
Samuel Thomas, president of Maisons des Potes (“Homes of Friends“), a network of anti-racism associations, said the sentence is “very light.”
“We had hoped for him to be deprived of civic rights,” Thomas said. “So Éric Zemmour will be able to continue his political career.”
He added: “When you’re inciting racial hatred, you’re also responsible for crimes that are committed by far-right thugs.”
Zemmour, a 63-year-old former TV pundit who is running in France’s April 10 presidential election, is drawing fervent audiences with his anti-Islam, anti-immigration invective. He is considered among the major challengers to centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who is seen as the front-runner, according to polls. Macron has yet to confirm he will run for a second term.
The case against Zemmour focused on September 2020 comments that he made on French news broadcaster CNews about children who migrate to France without parents or guardians, calling them thieves, murderers and rapists who cost France money.
Zemmour wasn’t present at court for his trial or the verdict. In a statement in November, he denounced “an attempt to intimidate (him)” from prosecutors and anti-racist groups. He maintained his comments and said the political debate doesn’t take place in courts.
Zemmour also has an appeals trial Thursday on a charge of contesting crimes against humanity — which is illegal in France — for arguing in a 2019 television debate that Marshal Philippe Petain, head of Vichy’s collaborationist government during World War II, saved France’s Jews from the Holocaust.
A court acquitted him last year, saying Zemmour’s comments negated Petain’s role in the extermination, but explained that he wasn’t convicted because he had spoken in the heat of the moment.
Zemmour has repeated similar comments in recent months, and lawyers contesting his acquittal plan to cite that point as evidence in the appeals trial.
Zemmour previously was convicted of incitement to racial hatred after justifying discrimination against Black and Arab people in 2010, and of incitement to religious hatred for anti-Islam comments in 2016. He was sentenced to pay court costs and a 5,000-euro ($5,660) fine.
He has also been tried in other cases where he was acquitted.
Zemmour is a descendant of Berber Jews from Algeria. He was born in France in 1958 to parents who came from the North African country, then a French colony, a few years earlier.


At least 26 killed in Afghanistan earthquake

At least 26 killed in Afghanistan earthquake
Updated 17 January 2022

At least 26 killed in Afghanistan earthquake

At least 26 killed in Afghanistan earthquake
  • The victims died when roofs of their houses collapsed in Qadis district in the western province of Badghis
  • The shallow quake was magnitude 5.3, according to the US Geological Survey

HERAT: At least 26 people were killed after an earthquake hit western Afghanistan on Monday, an official said.
The victims died when roofs of their houses collapsed in Qadis district in the western province of Badghis, spokesman for the province Baz Mohammad Sarwary told AFP.
The shallow quake was magnitude 5.3, according to the US Geological Survey.
“Five women and four children are among the 26 people killed in the earthquake,” said Sarwary, adding that four more were injured.
The quake also inflicted damage on the residents of Muqr district in the province but details including of casualties were still unavailable, he said.
Afghanistan is already in the grip of a humanitarian disaster, worsened by the Taliban takeover of the country in August when Western countries froze international aid and access to assets held abroad.
Qadis is one of the areas worst affected by a devastating drought, benefiting little from international aid in the past 20 years.
The country is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.
Earthquakes can cause significant damage to poorly built homes and buildings in impoverished Afghanistan.
In 2015, nearly 280 people were killed when a powerful 7.5-magnitude earthquake centred in the mountain range ripped across South Asia, with the bulk of the deaths in Pakistan.
In that disaster, 12 young Afghan girls were crushed to death in a stampede as they tried to flee their shaking school building.