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American Muslim

The Willit News – December 5, 2003

“We, the people means all the people”
Positive actions help shake off prejudice, says Sundas

By Joe Campbell

Samina Fahim Sundas spoke warm, positive words Monday evening Dec. 1, bringing her audience together in caring. She described daunting, dismaying experiences of her people in the Untied States as they meet the rights destroying effects of the Patriot Act.

She spoke at the Willits United Methodist Church, where her remarks were questioned by audience members who, near the conclusion of her talk, strayed from her topic.

Some folks have long wondered by the United States seems to lean so far in support of Israel, while on the other hand there has been a strong post-9/11 reaction against Muslims and Arabs.

As possibly the oldest person in the room, I might have told them that for more than 200 years Americans have known Jews as friends, neighbors and a group discriminate against.

Comparatively, Arabs and Muslims are just coming over the horizon of awareness.

As individuals, we learn about different peoples in a variety of ways. The speaker told her audience – even the bitterest ones – that in order to shake off prejudice, we need to try positive actions.

In my earliest memories, I saw Arabs almost through adventure fiction, fanciful love stories and beautiful horses. Islam as a faith was almost unknown. When I was old enough to read I learned from Rafael Sabtini some idealistic stuff about Islam, and some bad stuff on the subject from PC Wren’s Beau Ceste.

Many of the Arabs who came to the United States in the 1920s and 30s were in fact Christians.

In the 1950s, as a reporter coving Washington and the United Nations for an Urdu daily newspaper in Lahore, Pakistan, I became closely involved with individuals and groups with Middle East interest. On the personal level, there is nothing quite like receiving an Easter card signed “Mohammed.”

My professional sources included a retired Ambassador to Lahore who had helped to organize a group called the American Friends of the Middle East. This group has long since vanished, but is survived by its fellow, the scholarly Middle East Institute.

These worthies antedated many of the old and gas discoveries, and concentrated on promoting the modest goals of tourism, trade, education and positive international relations. They treasured personal friendships, and admired the peoples of the Middle East for their enterprise and their ancient scholarly tradition. A precursor to penicillin was used by court physicians of the Moghul emperors (1400 to 1700s). Algebra was invented by Al Jab’r – but you knew that.

In the early 1960s the Middle East diplomatic community was advised to look to its image. So prestigious Washington public relations firm was hired.

Was it Ruder and Firm? Hill and Knowlton? I forget. They did not understand Arab culture and better than most Americans. An Arab businessman set up the Arab Anti-defamation League. Honest! This has been followed by many more sophisticated groups with better defined goals. With seven Arab Americans now in Congress and one in the Senate, the goals may be in sight. Clearly, public confidence has been gaining on some levels.

But the most significant source of influence on most of us is the family in the neighborhood. Folks become known through community organizations, local charities, and their kids in school. They are “real people” with problems and experiences like the rest of the neighborhood. They become important parts of local life.

“Dad, Hamid Chaudhry is down with the flu. Our soccer team is going to lose, big time!”

“Mrs. Shoaib contributed a recipe called a “Carrot Sweet” for the school’s cook book. Mom, it has silver in it!”

Sure, it won’t all be a mutual and interesting. The grownups and the kids will misunderstand a lot about their neighbors and they will make some blunders. In fact, may be they will even get peeved at each other.

I will cringe when I think of the dumb things I said to Jewish friends and associates years ago. Was I really that ignorant? Yes. But mostly they forgave me, and a few even took time to teach me.

Are we ready to learn from neighbors who are different from ourselves? Can we Anglos learn from the rich history of our Hispanic neighbors? Do we realize there is apparently an 1886 treaty with the Pomos the U.S. has not broken? Have we Christians accepted an invitation to a Seder dinner? Do you know there are actually a few black families in the area? Are we acquainted with them?

We better get busy. It is all of us in the neighborhood who must-together-bring our country up to the standards set by the writers of our endangered Constitution. We cannot afford to be divided. This is what Sameena Sundas is so eloquently telling us.

Joe Campbell is the editor of Ecotopics International News Service, dedicated to the environment and human rights.