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A self-described “nonpartisan” group, the Arab American Institute (AAI) was established in 1985 to promote “Arab American participation in the U.S. electoral system” and to advocate for the “domestic and policy concerns" of that demographic. Toward that end, AAI developed a strong reputation for organizing "voter-education" campaigns and acting as a liaison between the Arab American community and the major national political parties.
Operating on an annual budget of about $1 million, AAI’s major activities include the following: convening national and local organizations for “national leadership summits to respond to crisis situations”; holding meetings with policy-makers and U.S. government officials; helping establish Arab American Democratic and Republican leadership councils; hosting events at national and state party conventions; conducting get-out-the-vote drives and candidate forums; “registering and informing” Arab American voters in “key” states; producing a variety of issue briefs on topics of concern to Arab Americans; publishing an annual “congressional scorecard” detailing how elected officials have voted on various matters; periodically organizing member-mobilizations; conducting polling and research of Arab American voters; and organizing trips to the Middle East for members of Congress and other U.S. delegations.
AAI also conducts media outreach and provides public information via several regularly distributed publications, including: (a) its weekly e-newsletter AAI Bulletin; (b) Countdown, a weekly update that covers political developments in Congress and the White House; and (c) AAInsider, a seasonal magazine for Institute members.
Moreover, AAI co-founder, President, and leading spokesman James Zogby is the author of Washington Watch, a weekly column for the Arab World and the Arab American press. Zogby also hosts Viewpoint, a weekly policy program that airs on Abu Dhabi TV and Link TV. Formerly the Executive Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Zogby is a major figure in Democratic Party affairs. He advised Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign and was close to President Clinton.
James Zogby's brother John, who runs a polling business, is an AAI Board member, along with international marketing executive and AAI backup spokesperson Jean Abi Nader. The Institute's Executive Director is Nidal Ibrahim, formerly the founder and publisher of Arab American Business Magazine. AAI's Chairman is the Republican George Salem, a partner in the Washington, DC law office of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, a firm that has been prominent in defending Saudis accused of involvement in terrorism.
Subdivided into numerous community branches, AAI is extremely active on university campuses nationwide. Prior to September 11, 2001, the organization enjoyed immense popularity in the U.S. media, especially among liberal and peace-oriented American Jews, for its seemingly moderate position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Following 9/11, however, the tone of AAI’s public pronouncements underwent a striking change; with ever-increasing frequency, the Institute denounced its opponents as racists, extremists, and Zionist agents. Moreover, it vehemently denied charges that Saddam Hussein had ever supported terrorism. According to Islam scholar Stephen Schwartz, in the wake of September 11th AAI “moved from the center to the extreme left of the American public square.”
Among the issues AAI is currently focused on are: opposition to America's war against Iraq; opposition to Israel's construction of a barrier in the West Bank to prevent would-be terrorists from entering areas populated by Israeli civilians; and the denunciation of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's land-for-peace proposals at Camp David in 2000. Characterizing Israel as a brutal oppressor of the Palestinian people, AAI was a signatory to a May 20, 2004 Joint Muslims/Arab-American Statement on Israeli Violence in Gaza, which "strongly condemn[ed]" Israel's "indiscriminate killings of innocent Palestinians, including many children," and its "demolition of Palestinian homes."
AAI also denounces what it depicts as widespread civil liberties violations directed against Arab Americans in the post-9/11 period. “The USA Patriot Act and initiatives launched by the Attorney General in the aftermath of September 11,” says James Zogby, “have endangered basic constitutionally protected rights of due process and judicial review.”
“Since 9/11,” Jean Abi Nader concurs, “Arab-Americans have watched their dream of being fully a part of American society subject to the stresses of federal initiatives … that produce fear and intimidation in their community. … Being an Arab has become a liability in this country. We are being told, essentially, that we are not good enough. … The civil liberties of Arab-Americans and American Muslims came under attack, and we have been treated increasingly as second-class citizens in this country.” Abi Nader further laments the “systematic degrading of Islam by conservative Christians, neoconservatives and the right wing,” who he portrays as chief among those who view Islam as a “religion of liars and terrorists.”
During a panel discussion at an October 2003 conference of the Arab American Institute, Marwan Kreidie of the AAI National Leadership Conference referred to “that lunatic [John] Ashcroft,” the then-Attorney General who was the chief enforcer of the Patriot Act. “Anytime Ashcroft comes to Philadelphia, we hand him a copy of the Constitution,” said Kreidie.
AAI was a signatory to a March 17, 2003 letter exhorting members of the U.S. Congress "to oppose … 'Patriot [Act] II'" on grounds that it "contain[ed] a multitude of new and sweeping law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers … that would severely dilute, if not undermine, many basic constitutional rights." In addition, AAI has given its organizational endorsement to the Community Resolution to Protect Civil Liberties campaign, which tries to influence city councils to be non-compliant with the provisions of the Patriot Act. AAI also endorsed the Civil Liberties Restoration Act of 2004, which was designed to roll back, in the name of protecting civil liberties, vital national-security policies that had been adopted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
AAI has received funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the ChevronTexaco Foundation, the Fannie Mae Foundation, the Ford Motor Company Fund, the Open Society Institute, and the Seaver Institute.
Parts of this profile are adapted from the article "An Activist’s Guide to Arab and Muslim Campus and Community Organizations in North America," written by Stephen Schwartz and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on May 26, 2003.