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Arabs Seek Allies

Group builds bonds with blacks, Hispanics

By Ron Howell
New York Newsday
May 4, 2003

On the evening of April 24, a group of local Arabs held a special "Building Bridges" dinner to create friendships and alliances with activists in the African-American and Latino communities.

Of 40 or so blacks and Latinos who had said they would attend, only about a dozen showed up, said members of the Arab Muslim American Federation, the group that organized the event.

Still, the organizers took heart from the blacks and Latinos who showed up that night and expressed solidarity with the Arabs.

"We have more in common and we must come together," said Bishop Vincent Cooper, an African-American and pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem.

Cooper spoke against the dropping of bombs in Iraq and against the "profiling" of blacks and Muslims by law enforcement officials.

"Until we come together we are doomed to repeat this over and over again," Cooper said.

Although the host of the evening, Dr. Ahmad Jaber, would later say he was disappointed at the poor attendance, he was visibly moved by Cooper's remarks at the event on Bath Avenue in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.

"He's American-born! He is not frightened!" Jaber, a gynecologist, said, referring to Cooper. " We are frightened. We have to get out of this closet and become more active and involved."

Arab Muslims have been afraid and isolated since the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. And they are desperate to find allies who will work with them and teach them how to organize and confront perceived injustices in their adopted country.

"Who wants to be with the loser? No one," said an exasperated Zein Rimawi, a board member of the Arab Muslim American Federation, speaking in an interview.

"No elected official dares to come [to the annual 'Building Bridges' dinner]. Who dares to come?" Rimawi said.

Rimawi was aware there is one Muslim elected official in New York state. But he expressed disappointment that that official, Assemb. Roger Green of Brooklyn, who is black, has not been in regular contact with Arab Muslim activists.

In an interview with Newsday, Green complained that some Arab Muslims view "jihad" as a war against one's enemies. Green said that he and the African-American Muslims he associates with are adamant in their belief that jihad is a personal struggle for improvement of character.

Informed of Green's comments, Rimawi conceded that what Green said was largely true. Many Arabs do view jihad as a battle with a foe. But the concept is a complex one, Rimawi said.

"The highest one [jihad] is the jihad against yourself," it is true, Rimawi said.

"But also there is jihad against your enemy. It exists and it is part of our religion. If somebody tries to take your home and you try to fight him, this is jihad."

Green told Newsday that he had not been invited to the recent "Building Bridges" dinner, but that he has increasingly been feeling that African-American Muslims should meet with their Middle Eastern counterparts in New York to discuss their common goals and their differences.

He said, in particular, that African-Americans should be more vocal in speaking out against the detentions of large numbers of immigrant Muslims by immigration authorities and the FBI.

"There is a need for folks to begin to speak out. No question about it," Green said.

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