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Bringing the ADC Back to the Democratic Mainstream

by ADC Chapters in the Western Region Monday, Jul. 15, 2002 at 5:18 PM

A statement calling for the reinstatement of Michael Shehadeh, prominent civil rights activist, who was relieved of his role as Western Regional Director.

A Public Statement by: ADC Chapters in the Western Region Los Angeles/Orange County, San Francisco Bay Area, Greater Sacramento-Davis Area, Fresno, Phoenix, San Diego Area

This appeal is borne of an urgent necessity. It seeks to safeguard the unity and togetherness of a civil rights organization built by countless activists, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children over a span of more than two decades and despite great odds. We seek to protect the diverse family of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) from fragmentation and destruction.

In particular, we appeal to members of the National Board and core ADC supporters nationwide who have repeatedly expressed their strong desire to maintain unity and implement accountability, democracy, and direct community input.

The shocking and sudden termination of Mr. Michel Shehadeh, the Western Regional Director of the ADC and a veteran national civil rights leader, is a serious step with dangerous national ramifications that require the immediate intervention of ADC members, chapters, and the community at large.

What follows is a comprehensive assessment of what we perceive to be a recent and dangerous trend on the part of ADC's national office to accept the dictates of the Bush Administration at home and reactionary Arab regimes abroad.

We provide evidence of political purging, undemocratic decision-making, and alarming new efforts to hijack the gains secured by previous ADC leadership bodies and members. We end with a call for internal restructuring with a specific democratic plan of community-minded action.

The ADC family needs your support! Please join us.

On behalf of the signatory chapters, you may call: Elias Rashmawi, Vice President of the Greater Sacramento-Davis Area Chapter, and member of the ADC Western Regional Chapters Task Force - (530) 304-4573, or write to:

Summary of Critical Concerns:

Three weeks ago, immediately following the close of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's National Convention, Michel Shehadeh - a veteran civil rights leader and respected national grassroots activist - learned that he was terminated as West Coast Regional Director of ADC.

Though Michel and a number of representatives from West Coast ADC chapters had been present at the National Board Meeting, the announcement came as a sudden and unexplained top-down decision. The order took effect with a mysterious and objectionable swiftness, despite the deleterious effects it will have on thousands of Arab-Americans who work side-by-side with Michel.

Michel Shehadeh's termination is a dangerous development with adverse political implications for the entire community. In fact, because we view this undemocratic decision in the context of the recent attacks on Arab and Arab-American civil and political rights, we are using this occasion to solemnly mark another critical era in the history of the United States's civil rights struggle.

The goal of the current national office is simple: to muffle the popular grassroots voices of our community and consolidate power into the hands of a fringe few. This unrepresentative but until now decisive minority either unconditionally consents to the Bush Administraton's program, or is incapable of challenging actions that hurt the collective interests of Arab-Americans.

This political purge was made without even allowing a father to prepare for his family's coming days. The ADC National office issued a cold bureaucratic elimination of a civil rights leader, as though corporate commands had replaced community concerns and values. It was a termination that stole from us one of our community pillars, a man who had built the ADC's West Coast to be a strong and active region respected by all. More disturbing was its message that even those who give selflessly, and who are much loved and respected, are nonetheless dispensable to the will of a narrow, unaccountable fringe. Until today, the unilateral decision - taken without consultation from the very chapters with whom Michel works on a daily basis - has not even been formally announced. Yet, the National Office cleared out the essential contents of the Western Regional Office, carting away files and computer equipment to Washington, DC.

The timing of this decision could not have been more alarming and disarming. It came when Michel and the Regional Office are needed the most. Students who have been under attack by rabid pro-Israelis on the campuses throughout the California university system, and who have relied on Michel for guidance, are still unaware of the termination. The community members who found in the Regional Office a sanctuary free of racism, are now bereft of their strong defender; they too were not consulted. The multitude of media outlets, American organizations spanning all walks of life - including elected officials, local and state human rights commissions, religious leaders, trade unionists, and local and state governments who found in Shehadeh and the Western Regional Office an indispensable resource and partner in the construction of civil society, have lost their trusted Arab-American anchor.

This all comes in our name and on our behalf. We are the ADC members at large. It is we who will ultimately be held responsible if we continue to watch this destructive course of action as it threatens to break up the Arab family.

We, the various ADC chapters and grassroots activists of the West Coast Region, have been engaged in an internal struggle with the policies and motives of the current leadership since they came to the helm of the organization following the end of the late Hala Salam Maksoud's productive tenure at ADC. These undemocratic decision-makers are systematically and methodically leading the organization and the community on an ideological path of fragmentation and political destruction against the wishes of the inclusive mainstream. We feel that all of the gains we've achieved are being reversed, and the democratization efforts of the ADC are being rapidly rolled back to serve the interests of a select few.

Michel's Termination Constitutes an Act of Political Purging:

In reality, his deplorable and swift termination of Michel aims to install a monolithic corporate leadership who are detached from the needs of the community while purging activists and civil rights leaders, many of whom have paid a heavy price to safeguard our community.

In fact, Michel's termination should be seen in the context of the recent attacks on leaders of all Arab organizations, including those advocating for civil rights, who are under tremendous pressure by the Bush Administration to support US foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim Worlds at all costs.

The application of this pressure has been greatly facilitated by the 9-11 attacks on the U.S. in September 2001. Today, the Bush Administration, with the help of complex new laws, enjoys latitude similar to that provided by the COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) era of the sixties and the seventies. As one of the most dangerous programs against the Civil Rights movement, COINTELPRO effectively co-opted key community leaders, infiltrated and sabotaged well-known organizations, and attempted to destroy the anti-Vietnam War peace and civil rights movements.

A new COINTELPRO is taking place today. The Arab-American and Muslim communities are its primary victims. The creation of an imposed "leadership" outside the mainstream fold that would pose little political challenge to the designs of the Bush administration is paramount to the success of this program. A timid and consenting leadership can play an essential role in politically reinforcing the US geo-strategic cover for Israel as it commits heinous crimes against the Palestinian people, and as the US government prepares for another war against Iraq.

This dangerous "ends justify the means" mentality led to Michel's termination, all while his deportation case is simultaneously being entered as the first case under the USA PATRIOT ACT. The parallels are not only striking but calculated.

The Struggle for ADC Unity and Democratic Accountability

We, ADC chapters and members, recognize the importance of unity and solidarity with each other at this crucial time. But extreme elements within the new leadership of ADC have an alternative vision. We therefore decided to break the silence and come out publicly to inform and reclaim the organization to the grassroots and to stop political purging and victimization. We share the opinion that these undemocratic actions will expose the community as a whole, making it highly vulnerable and politically weak.

We have all joined and tirelessly built the ADC over many years because we believe in its mission and purpose: "The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) is a civil rights organization committed to defending the rights of people of Arab descent and promoting their rich cultural heritage."

Thus, our reason for existence as ADC is to be an informed and vigilant overseer on behalf of the Arab-American community of all institutions and individuals who practice discrimination, bigotry, or any form of racism against our people. Our objective is to mobilize the community and its resources to fight such practices. In addition, the organization serves as a formidable check on the government to protect and defend the Arab American community's civil and constitutional rights in all aspects of our lives in the United States. The ADC does its work within the context of the larger civil rights, peace and justice, and human rights movements. The ADC is a grassroots membership-based organization that spans the political, religious, class, gender, age, national origin, and ideological landscape of the Arab American community. It strives to be the broadest possible coalition of Arab Americans who agree on the common goals outlined in the ADC's mission statement. It is a non-regional, non-sectarian, non-partisan civil rights grassroots organization for ALL people of Arab descent.

Thus, by definition, the ADC is the antithesis of dictatorship, and political and ideological sectarianism. It serves as the umbrella that shields all Arab-Americans, regardless of background, from civil and political harm that they might encounter within the American republic.

The ADC as a whole struggled to uphold these principles until very recently. The recent leadership of the national office undemocratically expanded its control over the organization's direction and purpose and tightened its grip on its resources.

We of the grassroots worked to balance the national office's tendencies by working to expand the margins of democracy within the organization, and have incorporated the mainstream membership in decision-making processes, enhancing the national office's transparency, openness and the accountability of its leadership. We, the chapters, believe that this balanced struggle brings a healthy and vibrant political culture that has enabled the organization to move forward in a win-win fashion. The new authoritarian leadership aims to reverse this inclusive process, and functions in a zero-sum way that leaves no space whatsoever for debate and exchange of ideas.

The Constructive Tenure of Dr. Maksoud:

The former president and leader of the organization, the late Hala Salaam Maksoud, understood these dynamics and masterfully channeled the energy emanating from such debate over ideas in a positive and productive way. Together with the chapters, Dr. Maksoud built a major political force that has the potential of leading the Arab American community from vulnerability to empowerment. Dr. Maksoud understood why diversity of ideas is a source of empowerment and wealth for the organization and for the community. This approach worked. Everybody benefited from her inclusive style of leadership.

During her tenure as the national president of ADC, Dr. Maksoud formulated four principles that hit a favorable chord with the community. These principles are:

1- To achieve financial self-sufficiency of ADC with community resources, and to reject direct and indirect governmental donations and interventions from Arab regimes. She understood the political cost of such assistance.

2- To work with the grassroots and chapters to substantially increase ADC's transparency of political and financial decision making

3- To open the decision making process at the national level to the participation of the grassroots in determining the strategic direction of the organization.

4- To institutionalize and push the organization towards professionalism, and to rid it from dependencies on specific personalities.

These democratic principles resulted in the community's enthusiastic embrace of the ADC, which in turn encouraged grassroots participation. For the first time, the ADC stood to regain lost credibility with the Arab-American community after it was about to close shop in the aftermath of the US war on Iraq in the early 1990s.

The Destructive Pattern of the Undemocratic Minority:

For the past year since Ziad Asali and his associates came to power, the national office started to consolidate its grip on the organization, greatly reducing grassroots gains and participation. A blatantly patronizing form of leadership emerged that surrendered basic rights under the pretext of "protecting the community." The new leadership aims to stifle debate within the community, especially at the grassroots level, in order to provide visible ideological (and possibly material) support to its allies in the Bush Administration. The following features characterize Mr. Asali's reign as ADC President:

1. As demonstrated during the McCarthy era, and as we anticipated from the new "counter terror legislation," the ADC's new leadership began purging authentic members of the grassroots who devoted their lives to serving the community and to the ADC for many years. The goal has been to silence them and to send an intimidating message to others in order to eliminate dissent and opposition to their policies. Michel Shehadeh was the first step. He was terminated from his position at the organization under the pretext of corporate "restructuring" when it was clear to us who worked with Michel on daily basis that this was an insidious and destructive move. For the past 15 years, Michel has been fighting on our behalf, and on the behalf of immigrants and victims of civil rights violations, at great personal cost to himself. He consistently worked to defend our constitutional rights as Arabs of all religions, to uphold our right to free speech and organization, as guaranteed under the Constitution. We believe that the decision to terminate Mr. Shehadeh was politically motivated and in accordance with the historical designs of the FBI.

2. The new leadership was shamefully silent in the face of vicious attacks by the Israeli political machinery on our community's institutions in the US, especially against our students on campuses who are working on behalf of peace with justice in Palestine. As the pro-Israeli Anti-Defamation League (ADL) attacks escalate on the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) and the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley and Davis, the ADC's current national leadership maintained total silence -- all while continuously implored to act by the chapter members and by Michel Shehadeh.

3. The new leadership disregards the grassroots in crucial decisions at a time when unity and input are badly needed. The organization at this difficult time needs all the talents and expertise of its members and those of the community to broaden its base, not narrow it.

4. Asali's leadership surrendered ADC's autonomous role as a watchdog of the US government, especially in issues where foreign and domestic policies overlapped, ostensibly under the guise of introducing a "new language."

5. The new leadership systematically disengaged from our natural and historical allies, and the broad coalitions that we succeeded in building with communities that share common interests, and replaced them with Arab regimes and with the domestic governmental forces that are actively attacking our community.

6. Asali's leadership unjustifiably surrendered important issues including civil liberties, Palestine, and Iraq under the pretext of "access to people in power", at a time when we need all our strength and resources to pressure the government to be fair.

7. Finally, the ADC abandoned the Muslim-American community and its representative organizations, who face an unprecedented crackdown on their civil liberties and constitutional rights. These sister organizations and natural allies are an important defense for all vulnerable communities including Arab-Americans.

A Plan for Democratic reform and Accountability:

It is imperative that we unite to salvage our organizations, especially the ADC, from this destructive turn for the worse. We must reject those who want to keep us in the dark, under dictatorships - whether these dictatorships seek to run our organizations or lead our nations. We must reject those who wish to recreate a mirror image of the corrupt Arab regimes abroad by purging those individuals who dare to speak for the interests of the community.

It is in that context that we present a plan to democratize and re-gain the ADC. We shouldn't accept anything less than being first class citizens, both in our country and in our organizations.

Brothers and sisters:

We have a plan that revolves around creating a truly grassroots democratic representation. We call for:

1. The establishment of an ADC Congress that is democratically elected based on principles of proportional representation. This body, together with the national board, will help formulate long-term direction for the ADC. It will convene periodically in conferences to debate policies and recommend directions for the ADC national board of directors. 2. This body will also elect an executive committee that will stay in touch with the national board, helping it implement policies and provide grassroots and community feedback to the board and national office. 3. The national president will be hired as a professional administrator who creatively works to implement the policies of the organization and is accountable to the board, who in turn is accountable to the grassroots.

Towards democracy in our country and in our organization.

Our ultimate goal is to create a system that will invigorate the chapters as they democratically work for the greater good of the community. Such a system will also create a vibrant and competitive electoral process based on performance as opposed to agreeability. We call upon all chapters, nationwide, to unite in this endeavor to democratize the ADC. Our collective task is to complete an important mission that was initiated two decades ago.

In the wake of the World Trade Center bombing, the massacres in the West Bank and Gaza, the imminent threat to Iraq, and the suspension of constitutional protection of Arab immigrants, it is urgent that we move to reclaim the ADC immediately from a fringe that aims to destroy our historical achievements. We can only do it democratically, and only if we work together.

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