Where do we go from here? An interview with Dr. James Zogby

October 18, 2019


JZ: We’re both Donald Trump and the Lady in the Harbor. The point is, we have to remember both. If you only think that we are the one, then you fall prey to a sense of despair, that we are never going to get out of this.


S: From Georgetown University, this is Voices on Islamophobia, a podcast by the Bridge Initiative. I am Sanaa Anwar, and I am joined by my colleague, Imrul Islam. 

I: Thank you, Sanaa. A little more about our guest today. Dr. Zogby is the co-founder and Director of the Arab-American Institute, and served two terms as President Obama’s appointee to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He has also served in leadership roles in the DNC, and has worked for decades to build Arab-American political power in the United States.

S: Our conversation with Dr Zogby underscores the importance of recognizing the strides Arab Americans and Muslims have made in the United States, and the need for optimism in the face of despair. 


S: For our listeners, could you tell us a little more about yourself and your  work at the intersection of civil rights, advocacy, research, and polling?

Z: I remember in Graduate school, my first year, speaking at an anti-war rally, and somebody shouted out, “Why are they letting the Arab speak?” and I looked around like: Who’s the Arab who’s speaking? I was an Arab-American, I was of Arab descent but I wasn’t the “Arab,”  the “foreign guy.” But that persisted, and I sometimes tell people that I became aware of this issue by reflex. I mean people were pushing me because I was the Arab guy and shunning me in some instances because I was the Arab guy. And I had obviously started reading after the ‘67 War about the issue and had spoken up in a few instances. And I remember in 1970 getting a death threat at my home: “Arab dog. You will die if you set foot on campus again or spread your Palestinian propaganda,” and I remember thinking: I wasn’t spreading anything; I was just talking about the issue and being who I was and talking about the issue in different meetings. I was doing my dissertation research and I went to a school to talk about it. They gave me a grant to go to Lebanon. I was in a PhD of Religion track but also doing some work in Anthropology and revitalization movements and the idea was that I would work with Palestinian refugees to see what the pressure of being in exile and in the camp had done to their consciousness. So I went to Lebanon, went to the camps, heard their stories, and it was transformative. I remember on the way back saying to my wife: “We are never going to be the same again,” and we weren’t. It was truly an experience. I learned a lesson that I write about in my book that if you truly listen to people, you then have a responsibility to act on what you’ve heard. And this old, old woman in the camp the day I left looked at me in the eye and said, “We told you everything. What are you going to do about it now?” And it haunted me. I went back and got my PhD and started doing some work. In ‘74, I started the Palestinian Human Rights Campaign to focus on human rights individual cases in West Bank and Gaza, in particular, in the Occupied Territories, working with a couple of Israeli attorneys who were helpful in getting the cases to me. By ‘78 it was a full-time job. I left teaching and I moved to Washington to run the campaign. We were quite successful in mobilizing people. We had most of the folks who had been around Dr. King in the Civil Rights Movement, most of the anti-war people, people like that. And some pretty prominent church organizations, the Methodists, the Lutherans, etc. In 1980, former Senator Abourezk came to me and said, “We’ve got to do something about discrimination against Arab-Americans and their defamation in the Media.” And I said I don’t want to give up the human rights campaign, but one of the people on my board said he would take it over. So I left and we started the Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). I did that for four years and it was really quite an extraordinary experience. Meeting with network executives and trying to see if they would understand the problems that they were creating; unfortunately they didn’t. I have some really humorous stories from that period which were just kind of mind-numbing about how ignorant people could be.

And in ‘84 Jesse Jackson came to me and said, “Would you be the deputy campaign manager for my campaign? I’m running for President.”  Up until that point, Arab-Americans had never been involved in a presidential campaign. We had been shunned. Campaigns actually had given money back. Presidential campaigns had rejected our endorsements. So I thought:  This should be an interesting opportunity. I told him,, “I’ve been spending the last four years organizing the community; I don’t know if I can give it up.” And he said, “Look, you’re going to do more in the next four months than you’ve done in the last four years.” And he was right.  People were so excited. The events we did! I went around the country […], raised money for the campaign, did work to get people to run for delegates, to go vote. And it was truly extraordinary. After the campaign was over, we decided, a group of us, what was precisely missing from the community. That if you’re weak and you have no political power, then you can get defamed, then you can get defined by those who have power. But if you are organized and you have political power, you define yourself. And so we realized the problem was: Arab-Americans did not have political power. In Dearborn, Michigan in ‘85, right after we started the Institute, [we wanted] to build on the work of the Jackson campaign.  We had a fascinating experience of a woman who was ArabAmerican, who was running for City Council at the time, [and] called me and said, “The guy running for mayor is running on a platform of what to do about the Arab problem. They’re dirty, they’re smelly and they don’t share our values and they’re ruining our darn good way of life.” I went up to Dearborn; we all got mobilized to do stuff. We went up the next day to the clerk to get the voter rolls and we went through them as meticulously as we could, and we found 700 registered voters. Now, this is in a city of 93,000 people, of whom about 19,000 were of Arab descent, mostly Lebanese, who had come over after the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon. And I thought to myself: There’s almost 19,000 people — in other words, almost 20% of the population — and they only have 700 registered voters. Of course, the guy is going to use them as a scapegoat, as a target, because they can’t do anything to hurt him. They can’t do anything to help him or to hurt him So we started a Voter Registration Project. By 1996, we had grown to more than 5,000-7,000 registered voters. The same guy was still mayor. [He] came to an event that we did, and spoke a little Arabic, quoted a couple of things from the Quran, spoke about “my dear Arab brothers and sisters.” He knew how to count. 

Today there are 14+ thousand registered voters of Arab descent in Dearborn. President of the City Council is Arab American. The  majority of the City Council is Arab-American. State representative is Arab-American. We had three judges who were elected who were Arab- American. They are the promise and the future of Dearborn because they have the power to define themselves. 

So my involvement in civil rights, in other words, grew as the experiences that I [had] had made me aware of not just the problem but how to deal with the problem. And have we solved it?, no. But do we have the capacity to solve problems today?, tThe answer is yes. 

A: Thank you.  S, so much of what you just said is actually a great segueway into our conversation as we go a little bit more into the weeds. The Arab- American Institute took a very early critical position on Countering Violent Extremism programs, or CVE programs, and how they would affect civil liberties of American citizens at a time when many organizations were quiet and would later become critical of those exact programs. Could you please talk us through the Institute’s position on CVE? 

Z: And some [organizations] were supportive of them in the beginning.

S: Exactly, exactly. 

Z:  I remember meeting early on in the Obama administration with the folks that wanted to do the work. One of the guys had done his work in London, and he was applying the London model here. And I was completely baffled. I said [that], I had written a paper in 2004 and 2005, that I gave at conferences in Warsaw and Berlin and it was called “The Difference” and it was that America’s got problems. But we are fundamentally different because successive waves of immigrants have come, and become American. And [I said] that, within a generation or less in most instances, a transformation takes place so that, it’s almost like alchemy. You come here as an immigrant from such and such, your consciousness is this;, your consciousness literally becomes transformed. You find your favorite baseball team. You find your favorite this. And you start thinking in a different way about yourself and the world. At the same time you become America, America becomes changed. Because we are the one country in the big industrial countries, where the idea of “What does it mean to be American?” is amorphous at best. For those bigots on the right [ who say,] “Well, they’re not real Americans:,”  Exactly who is a real American? And what is it? I remember at one point somebody saying, “Do you know how to make American food?” And I remember thinking: W, what the hell is American food? Is it spaghetti?, Is it Chinese? American food, American culture, American art, American fashion, and American, almost everything we do, has roots some place else. And we, the descendants of immigrants, we’re the ones who made this mosaic the country that it is. From the beginning that’s true. You can be three3 generations in Germany, and you’re still a Turk. You can be three3 generations in France, and you’re still Arab. You can be three3 generations in the UK, and you’re still a Paki. And, I remember it was in London in the aftermath of an election –, this is just about ten10 years ago –, the Sunday Times had a headline that said, “Record number of immigrants elected to Parliament.” And I thought, Wait:, I know some of these guys. They were born there; they’re not immigrants!  While the bigots say that, the reality in America runs totally counter to that. And sure they have their day and they’re having one right now, but in the end, we come back, and we assert ourselves. Stephen Miller is going to be a dark spot on the history of America. He will not define our future. Donald Trump will not define our future.  

Obama didn’t get it. The last time he went to a mosque in Baltimore, he gave a great speech; and then just literally trashed his own speech at the end,; by calling them the front line in the fight against terror. I looked at the audience. They were old men and young kids. It was like that time at one of the Democratic debates where they asked that question about going to a mosque and Hilary Clinton said, “Yes, it’s very important that we speak at the mosques because they’re our front line against whatever” and Martin O’Malley, who I thought gave the best answer ever, said, “I go to mosques.” I had actually arranged a couple of meetings for him at mosques. He said, “You know why I go to mosques? Because they’re my friends. And they’re my constituents. And they’re my neighbors. And I want to know what they need. And I want to tell them I’m here for them.” Bottom Line. Period. Boom. That’s the response. That’s the way to behave. My argument on Countering Violent Extremism, is that it often times fed the very problem it was trying to solve. Short- sighted and counter- productive.  

I: Thank you so much for that. I want to shift gears here. When I look at a lot of your work, it seems to get at the question of belonging, to broaden what we see when we picture an American. In recent years, that idea has come under attack. In an essay published in January 2018 in Huffington Post, you outline how you yourself are the son of undocumented immigrants, and a member of a family that benefited from provisions that allowed families to be reunited. Do you think that story of America as a land of and for immigrants has shifted in the past few years, especially through policies like the Muslim Ban? What do you think we stand to lose when we choose exclusion?

Z: You know, it’s going to take time to recoup what we lost these last couple of years. The real loss for me, though, is not that. I think that we’ll get it back. The Lady is still going to be in the Harbor long after Donald Trump is gone. What’s lost for me are the immediate families. The kids who will never recover from the trauma. The mothers who will never recover from that. The refugees who will find no place to go and be stranded. And that to me is the biggest problem. Until we get help from behind this beast that has been created, there are a lot of people who are going to pay the price. But will we recoup? I think we will. Do we get back to Obama numbers?, I would hope. I think it’s going to be a while. I’m just not positive that Democrats are going to have the courage to go from 0 refugees to 100,000, which was the Obama number. I’m not sure that they’ll have the courage to deal with the undocumented in a way that we were pushing the Obama people to do. 

I think another problem is the framing of the issue. This has been made into an issue of “foreignness” and one of the ways in which it has been “foreign” is that it involves dark people from the South and dark people from the rest of the world. It’s Arabs, it’s South Asians and Africans and folks from Central and South America. Well guess what? If you look at the DACA numbers, Mexicans are a huge part of that component. But if you had the European numbers –, the Poles, the Irish, the Czechs, the Swedes –, they go up to number 99 in the group; if you add the number of people waiting for family reunification and you look at Europe. Part of the problem has been the framing of it. If we approached it as a universal problem,; as America not [currently] being who we are,; not living up to who we want to be. I’ve always thought that one of the problems of the framing of this is if it’s always framed as “they demand a right to come in,” you lose. But if it’s “We, America, welcome the world as the world welcomed us,” then it is a possible win. And I argued with the Obama people about that too. That the framing of it was wrong. That instead of making it a Latino issue, it needed to be a broader issue. You needed to get the Polish- American and the Irish- Americans and the Italian- Americans invested in it. And they never got it. I don’t know why;, I don’t want to attribute motives to it. But they just didn’t get the need to broaden the focus and make it definitional. Because that’s what it is at the end of the day. It’s a definitional issue of who we are and who we’re going to be as a country. I think when we define the difference between the Lady in the Harbor and Ken Cuccinelli, I know who wins. But we just haven’t framed it right. But one almost needs to have a Christian view of original sin to understand. We’re all flawed. We all have this weakness. But we also have grace. We also have the ability to rise aboveabout the weakness. So when I look at America I see two Americas, never one: the myth of “, We’re the great, we’re the wonderful, we’re the beautiful; we’ve seen the ugly.” But the other one, that “We’re all ugly,” [that] people sometimes get into –, it’s an evil country, it’s a colonialist, whatever. That’s also not true. We’re both. We’re both Donald Trump and the Lady in the Harbor. The point is, you have to remember both. You have to remember that if you only think that we are the one, then you fall prey to a sense of despair that we’re never going to get out of this. But if you only believe the other, that we’re the good and the beautiful and wonderful, then you’re vulnerable to when the Donald Trumps of the world and the Pat Buchanans of the world [and others] come along and threaten it. You have to live with the knowledge that evil is present., But you also have to live with the knowledge that good will win if only enough good people come together to fight for it. And so I believe that we’ll win, but I also know that we have to keep watching our backs.

I: Today’s the 18th Anniversary of 9/11 so when you look back over the course of the last 18 years, how have you seen American social and political life changed since that day?.

Z: I’ve been thinking a lot about the day itself:; the shock, the horror, the fear. We like everybody else were watching TV and grieving for… I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of those people who were carrying the pictures of their loved ones and were standing theretheir with the police barricades — “Missing” — and you knew they were never going to see them again. You knew they were gone, but they had that hope. I was driving down in the morning, my radio was broken in the car;, I was driving down Connecticut Avenue., when a woman pulls up next to me;, never saw her before in my life. Rolls her window down;, I roll my window down. And she says, “Ddid you hear?” And I say, “What?” And she said, “Planes crashed into the World Trade Center. My father works in that building. I haven’t heard anything. Do you know anything?” Light changed, we pulled up;, never saw her again. But the look on her face is something that I will never forget. We were dealing with it and then –, our office is two2 blocks from the White House — so we were told to evacuate. Then we started to get calls from people and I said, “We can’t leave.” People in the community were frightened. They were concerned about what was going to happen. And then we got our first death threat. “Zogby, you Arab raghead. I’ll murder you and slit the throats of your children.” And we called the police, FBI. They provided protection.  W, we had police cars out in front of our building. I had them come with me everywhere that I would go. We were on lockdown in the building. Then I remember one day, a woman from the office next door, knocked on the door. We were told not to open the doors for anyone. And she was standing there holding a tray of brownies that she made. And I got choked up. I said, “You know, as gratuitous as the threats were, acts of kindness were equally gratuitous.” And I didn’t do anything to deserve it;, she was just being a nice person. And then I got a call — on either the second2nd or third3rd day;, I get a call from Ted Kennedy. I got a call from John McCain. I got a call from Joe Lieberman. I got a call from John Edwards. Some I had never spoken to; some of them, will never speak to again. They just wanted to say, “We heard you were being threatened and we want you to know that we are here to help you if you need it.” John McCain even asked if we wanted to go out to his ranch. It was amazing that people wanted to be good. And I think that we’ve lost some of that but, you know, whenever there is a crisis and a tragedy there are people that will react to that with evil. But there are many more people who will react to that wanting to be good,; wanting to do a good thing. And I think we’re still there. I think that what’s changed is the landscape. If you had told Orwell back when we wrote 1984 that we would have surveillance cameras everywhere, that we would go through metal detectors, he would be like:  “Y, you’re crazy; I wrote this as fiction.” We’ve actually come to accept a lot more intrusive behaviors than I would have thought possible. And I’m disturbed that we were never able to repeal the parts of the Patriot Act that we should have repealed. We’ve come to accept behaviors on the part of law enforcement like the militarization of police. Once you begin doing this stuff on national security, then it’s not a big stretch to bring it down to a local level. When I saw the pictures of Ferguson and tanks driving down the streets and these guys dressed like they’re going to war,. I said,  “This is it;, this is the worst that I could imagine it being.” And the fact that we have police departments training with the Israelis as if we are living under occupation,; the aspects of policing and surveillance:, those things have bothered me. But people haven’t changed. People have stayed as good or as evil as they’re capable of being. And the good ultimately outweighs it. I think we have a lot of work to do, though, on correcting the way we approach national security, . That, to me, is disturbing and fundamentally corrosive of freedoms that we take for granted, that we should recognize. 

I: Thank you for that, Dr Zogby. I have one last question for you, and it’s a simple one. Where do you think we go from here? Where does America go from here?

Z: I think that we’re in a different world. Can we be in the situation where people are discriminated against because they’re of this ethnic group and be denied citizenship?. Can America be America and survive as a unified country if the ideology of the Donald Trumps and the Ken Cuccinellis continue? The answer is no. So I think what all of us need to do is to focus on who we are and challenging that narrative. If I were to say there were a Muslim, or a Christian or an Arab, or a Hindu or somebody from India or Pakistan, whatever the country or the ethnicity is, what is the challenge we face? The challenge we face is, regardless of religion or background, it’s to argue for America being the Lady in the Harbor. That’s the vision we all ought to be putting forward and fighting for. And that becomes the unifying goal. You don’t get it, Donald Trump. We get it. We’re going to define America. You’re not going to define America. It’s our kids who are going to bury the ideology that you have poisoned the water with.