Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Arab-Americans point to bin Laden, too

DEARBORN, Mich. - When the terrifying news first swept through the community Tuesday morning, Dearborn's large native Middle Eastern population largely reacted with the same shock and horror as other Americans.

“There was a genuine sense of sorrow and disbelief,” said Karim Alrawi, editor-in-chief of Arabica Magazine, an international publication based in Dearborn.

“People were saying, ‘Why the World Trade Center?' You could understand to some degree the Pentagon, for people who hated U.S. military policy. But the trade center?”

Then as time passed, and speculation centered on a Middle Eastern origin for the terrorist attacks, fear and anxiety began to take hold.

Osama Siblani, editor of the Dearborn-based Arab-American news, received death threats and threatening phone calls. Yes, he was worried.

“I'm not sure that some of these people can distinguish between Osama bin Laden and Osama Siblani,” he said grimly.

Mr. Alrawi, who is a highly respected playwright and author, is a Muslim who speaks fluent Arabic and who knows his way around the complex world of Middle Eastern politics. His magazine has represented Arabic views that are totally opposed to U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, and he has interviewed members of groups like Hezbollah who the West often considers terrorists but many Arabs consider freedom fighters.

Osama bin Laden, he said, is something else again.

“I think there is a very high probability it is Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Alrawi said, when asked who he thought was responsible for the carnage in Washington and Manhattan.

“But I think it is important to remember that he has been thrown out of more Arab countries than anyone else,” he added.

“He had to leave his native Saudi Arabia. Even Sudan has expelled him. The only country which would give him shelter was Afghanistan,” he said, adding that Americans should remember that while the ruling Taliban there may be fanatic fundamentalist Muslims, they are not Arabs.

Yet why would even bin Laden do this? While radical Arab anger against the United States has grown during the nearly year-long escalating violence in Israel and Palestine, why would the terrorists opt for doing something that was bound to unite the entire nation against them?

Mr. Alrawi thinks he has a clue.

“They are like other messianic sects. They want to provoke a response, They fully expect that America will come after them in force, and then that will force Allah to intervene and save them because they are the good guys.”

Though he is himself opposed to all violence, Mr. Alrawi knows, given an event of this magnitude, there has to be a response - but is concerned about what we will do.

“Yes I do worry,” he said. “I fear that America will do something like what he did,” provoking his anger, and that may move bin Laden to strike again.

“Finding him won't be that easy. If you kill him, you may make him a martyr.”

A better solution, Mr. Alrawi said, would be to put bin Laden on trial for his supposed crimes.

“He is very rich - he was worth $20 million 10 years ago, and undoubtedly is worth more now.”

If bin Laden was in prison and cut off from his funds, Mr. Alrawi thinks his influence might gradually wither.

But the playwright hasn't a clue as to how we get bin Laden in the dock.

The Taliban has repeatedly denied requests to hand him and members of his organization over. The United States has no diplomatic relations with Kabul.

No western nation does. New requests for extradition would be certainly be as futile as those in the past, he said.

And invading Afghanistan itself in an attempt to kill or capture bin Laden and wipe out what the Pentagon calls “terrorist training camps” would be enormously difficult, as the former Soviet Union found out two decades ago.

The aftermath of Sept. 11 will likely take months, perhaps years, to play out.

But among its unseen victims are hundreds of thousands of Arab-Americans, especially those who are Muslim, who have tried to master a delicate dance between two cultures who now seem to be hopelessly at war.

On the very day of terror, Dearborn's growing Arab community was looking forward to a night of celebration.

Abed Hammoud, a local businessman, was making a serious bid to become Dearborn's first Arab-American mayor. He did - narrowly - survive the primary, and will face incumbent Michael Guido in November.

But he got barely 18 percent of the vote, far less than the Arab percentage of Dearborn's population, and less than a third the 60 percent the mayor got. His chances in November seem nonexistent.

And few were in a festive mood on that night of horror. Classes were called off that afternoon at Wayne State University in Detroit, but most Arab-American students quietly had left not long after the first horrible pictures flickered across campus TV screens.

Sometime later, after the campus was closed, someone broke out the windows in the offices of the Muslim Students' Association.

As the death toll mounted and national shock turned to anger, the worst, many feared, was yet to come.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at or call 1-888-746-8610.

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