Monday, April 30, 2007

Is There a Muslim Lobby in the US

By Alexander Gainem

No real unified Arab or Muslim lobbying platform can be considered to be functional in the United States.

No real unified Arab or Muslim lobbying platform can be considered to be functional in the United States.

When John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard published a report highlighting the efficacy of the Israeli lobby in molding US domestic and foreign policy, charges of malpractice and academic dishonesty were leveled at the authors.

Their paper, "The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy," cited the organizational prowess of pro-Israel groups in marrying the media, think tanks, and numerous politicians into a unified front that muzzles criticism of the Jewish State.

However, in the vitriol exchanged by supporters and detractors of the paper, an illuminating section is overlooked.

Mearsheimer and Walt, in comparing the existence of the Israeli lobby to the likelihood of the existence of a similar Muslim or Arab grouping, say "pro-Arab interest groups, in so far as they exist at all, are weak, which makes the Israeli lobby's task even easier."

Although there is no national consensus data on the number of Muslims in the United States, estimates put the figure between six and seven million, equal to the number of Jews in the country. Each religious group accounts for two percent of the US population. While the global population of Jews is some 15 million, there are nearly 1.2 billion Muslims in the world.

"There is a plethora of often competing Arab and Muslim groups and organizations, which do not adhere to the same agenda."

If the logic of strength in numbers is applied, why then is there no Muslim lobby to balance the strong influence of other lobby groups?

There are multiple answers to this question, often directly mirroring the status quo in Arab and Muslim countries, but chief among them is the lack of a unified socio-political platform.

Diverse Muslim Groups

Muslims in the United States are primarily derivative of an immigrant community and belong to a number of diverse ethnic groups. From a religious and sectarian point of view, American Muslims comprise Sunni, Shiite, Ismaili, and Ahmadi sects, to name a few.

Most sects do not see eye to eye and often do not intermingle. The Ahmadi sect, for example, is considered an apostate group by mainstream Islamic theologians, while other sects have complained of repression in their home nations at the hands of other Muslim sects.

As'ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus, says Arabs and Muslims in the United States are far from being united and are in a state of disagreement over many issues.

"Just as the Turkish lobby acts on behalf of one Turkish government, the Arab or Muslim lobbies can't mirror a single agenda that represents the interests of all Arab or Muslim governments," AbuKhalil says.

"Arab and Muslim governments often conspire against one another, and their rivalries, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, were mirrored in the competition and rivalries between Arab and Muslim organizations in the United States," he adds.

The deep divisions in the Arab world (along sectarian and ethnic lines) only impair the effectiveness of those groups. "In the case of the Arab and Muslim lobbies, there is a plethora of often competing groups and organizations, which do not seem to adhere to the same agenda," AbuKhalil remarks.

AIPAC's Shadow

The Muslim community doesn't possess the required prerequisites to make a difference in the US political arena.

Mearsheimer and Walt's paper points to the Jewish Americans' skillfulness in setting up an impressive array of influential organizations, of which the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the most powerful and best known.

AIPAC operates in near unison with several think tanks, such as the Washington Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Project for a New American Century (PNAC), and others who share a common denominator: pro-Israel policies.

They produce monthly reports culled from "experts" in Israel as well as journalists on the ground. These are then used in a unified assault on the US Congress to influence policy to tilt in favor of Israel.

Similar media exercises from Muslim groups are minimal to none.

Fawaz A. Gerges, who holds the Christian Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence University in New York, and is a senior analyst for ABC Television News, says the Israeli lobby is well-organized, well-endowed, and well-recognized as a powerful influence by friend and foe.

"It is taken seriously by the foreign policy establishment," he asserts.

On the other hand, "[T]he Muslim community does not possess the political, institutional, and financial prerequisites to make a difference in the American political arena. It takes time, organization, and institutional building to do so."

Coining the Term

If no effective organization resembling an influential lobby represents Muslim or Arab interests in the United States, where did the term Muslim lobby originate?

In researching the above question, the author of this article came across several references to the term specifically in news journals, publications, and blogs with a clear pro-Israel, anti-Muslim slant.

In fact, the term Muslim lobby is an artificial construct, with the word lobby being rather misleading.

"References to Arab or Muslim lobbies occur only in the Arab and Muslim press, or in the propaganda of pro-Israeli groups," says Abukhalil.

The term "Muslim lobby" is an artificial construct, with the word "lobby" being rather misleading., a website that has featured commentary by writer Joseph Farah urging the killing of 100 non-combatant Palestinian adults for every slain Israeli, regularly uses the term Islamic or Muslim lobby to refer to advocacy groups trying to combat Islamophobia through education and awareness campaigns.

One such advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has been sufficiently targeted by journalists and pro-Israel groups.

When CAIR contacted FOX network to raise the issue of negative stereotyping of Muslims on the popular TV thriller "24," journalist Cliff Kincaid accused it of being a "lobby" attempting to intimidate the media.

CAIR says its mission is to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding. It does not lobby senators and congressmen to affect pro-Muslim tilt in US foreign policy.

Compare that to AIPAC's mission statement as follows:

Through more than 2,000 meetings with members of Congress — at home and in Washington — AIPAC activists help pass more than 100 pro-Israel legislative initiatives a year. From procuring nearly $3 billion in aid critical to Israel's security, to funding joint US-Israeli efforts to build a defense against unconventional weapons, AIPAC members are involved in the most crucial issues facing Israel.

Consequently, labeling CAIR and other advocacy groups as "lobbies" is an exercise in journalistic inequity and willful disinformation.

Yet, both John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have been accused by Ami Isseroff, executive secretary of MidEastWeb for Coexistence, of being part of an Arab US lobby.

"The Arab and Muslim lobby and the lobbies of Arab and Muslim countries, and the lobby of US oil interests in those countries are together certainly far more powerful than the 'Israel Lobby,'" she recently wrote.

Fueling Islamophobia

In his book Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives have Penetrated Washington, journalist Paul Sperry uses the term Muslim lobby to refer to an "Islamic terrorist" conspiracy to infiltrate the US leadership and influence policy.

Sperry links what he terms Muslim lobby groups, faith-based charities, and a wide network of mosques throughout the United States as a unified subversive front.

He stipulates that this grand lobby of Muslim interests is connected to foreign groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood organization, the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, and Al-Qaeda.

"It's a syndicate, a Muslim mafia, and law enforcement is only starting to get their arms around it. The base of their operations is in Northern Virginia, where I live — right in the shadow of the nation's capital. I call it The Wahhabi Corridor," he said in an interview with Frontpage Magazine in April 2005.

Given that the term Muslim lobby is so loosely used by pundits to elicit Islamophobia and wax paranoid of a misconceived and undue influence of Arab and Muslim interests in US policy-making, the term should be abolished from the Arab and Muslim lexicon.

Not doing so would cater to a demonization of all Arab- and Muslim-American political participation, a right that is enshrined in the US Constitution.

To Build a Lobby

While no real unified Arab or Muslim lobbying platform can be considered to be functional in the United States, the need remains for such a group to be formed.

In late October 2001, former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel Edward Walker urged Arab governments to set up measures to counter Israel's influence in America's policy-making.

"But you, the Arabs, can no longer afford to just ignore Washington. Arab governments and institutions should start considering how to affect public opinion in the US," he told a political discussion forum hosted by the University of Jordan.

However, 5 years later, Walker's advice may have fallen on deaf ears.

What scant lobbying there is usually depends on the behest of individual Muslim governments.

"One can say that there never was a serious attempt to create an Arab or Muslim lobby, and that whatever organizations that exist today under that umbrella of a name have only succeeded in effectively representing the interests of ruling Arab dynasties," AbuKhalil says of Saudi Arabian initiatives to influence US foreign policy regarding the Kingdom.

"But those dynasties don't even rely on those loyal groups and organizations when they wish to advance a particular issue: Instead, they hire 'purely' American public relations and lobbying firms in order not to allow the Arab or Muslim stigma to hurt their lobbying efforts."

With individual Middle Eastern nations opting to choose public relations firms to represent their interests in Washington, the prospect of a Muslim lobby ever consolidating its efforts in the future remains murky.

Gerges says that while an Arab and Muslim lobby in the United States does not exist, Arab and Muslim voices are laboring hard to be heard and recognized.

And those are steps in the right direction, say many Arab and Muslim Americans.

"It has taken the Israeli lobby half a century to arrive at this historical juncture," Gerges said.

"It will likely take the Muslim community as long, if and when the community decides to organize itself politically and institutionally."

"The key word is institutional building, which is in its infancy."

Alexander Gainem is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle East issues.

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