Jul 27th 2010

I Understand Shirley Sherrod

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

As an Arab American, I can empathize with Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia Department of Agriculture official who, last week, after being falsely accused of making anti-white racist comments, was forced to resign from her post.

For those who don't know the story:

On July 19th a right wing blogger posted a video excerpt of a speech Sherrod gave to a Georgia NAACP dinner in which she related an event that had occurred 24 years ago. A poor white farmer had come to Sherrod asking for assistance and she told her audience how she had dismissed his appeal thinking "his own kind would take care of him."

The video excerpt became a sensation and was highlighted by commentators on the Fox News Channel as evidence of the reverse racism tolerated by the Obama Administration. Within hours of enduring these attacks, the Secretary of Agriculture, concerned that this would politically harm the Obama Administration, forced Sherrod to resign.

Only then did the entire story come to light. When the full speech was aired, it became clear that Sherrod had only told her audience about this episode as part of a confession of a painful mistake she had made that had caused her to reexamine her behavior and recognize her responsibility to all who were poor and in need. In fact, she had helped that poor farmer, who came forward to tell the national media of the gratitude he and his family felt toward Sherrod.

By week's end, President Obama personally called Sherrod to apologize as did the Secretary of Agriculture, who offered her an elevated position.

In the midst of this crisis, I wrote a number of short pieces on a few websites charging that Sherrod had been "lynched" and was a victim of a hysterical mob spurred on by lies and cowards in authority who, out of fear or political calculation, had sacrificed her to a mob refusing her right to a fair hearing.

I understood her plight because I, and many other Arab Americans and American Muslims, had endured similar treatment. Over the years a veritable industry has developed of anti-Arab groups and individuals whose job it has been to track our progress and to challenge our every advance with smear campaigns. Taking our quotes out of context, making patently false and sometimes bizarre claims that fabricate connections with terror groups and extremists, these characters and the websites and right-wing publications who use their work have directed their attacks against many prominent Arab and Muslim Americans and those in government or business who work with us.

This is what happened to my son more than a decade ago, when he worked for a time at the Department of State. The same types of attacks have followed my every move for decades. When in 1993, Vice President Al Gore asked me to head up a project he was launching to support economic development in the West Bank and Gaza, one of the professional Arab bashers wrote a piece suggesting I had been supportive of terrorists. Using this material, a prominent liberal magazine editorialized that Gore should remove me from the post. To his credit, Gore defended me and arranged a meeting with the magazine's editor. When the editor produced the quote I was alleged to have made and I shared with him the full text of what I had said, he recognized his error and apologized. But the attacks never stopped. When I was invited last year to deliver the closing remarks at a Department of Justice conference, a right wing researcher published an article describing me as "[Attorney General Eric] Holder's Hizbollah Buddy" and when I addressed last year's Pentagon Iftar dinner, another of these anti-Arab hatchet men wrote a piece in a conservative magazine noting that a "well known Wahhabi supporter" spoke at the Pentagon.

Much the same has been experienced by others in my community. An Arab American state legislator in Michigan, and even the newly crowned Miss USA were falsely accused of Hizbollah ties. Young attorney Mazin Asbahi was forced to resign from the Obama campaign over similar fabricated charges.

And even now a new storm is brewing. A new mosque is being planned in an area near Ground Zero, the site of the terrorist attack that killed 3,000 innocents on September 11, 2001. Some local groups have objected and have been supported by the likes of 2012 presidential aspirants Sarah Palin, who called the mosque a "stab in the heart", and Newt Gingrich, who saw the mosque as part of a larger challenge arguing that "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization".

A conservative magazine accelerated the assault with a personal attack on the mosque project's leader, Imam Faisal Abdul Raouf - a truly honorable man with a long record of promoting peace and reconciliation. Using the now familiar tools of half quotes, fabricated connections (described by another writer as: "his wife has an uncle who used to be "a leader" of a mosque that now has a Web site that links to the Web site of an allegedly radical organization"), and innuendo, the article attempts to portray Imam Faisal as a suspicious and even dangerous threat. And now Congressman Peter King, the Republican ranking member of House Homeland Security Committee has called for an investigation into Faisal Abdul Raouf.

And so I understand Shirley Sherrod. I know what she has endured and while I celebrate her vindication, I know we, as Americans, are not yet out of the woods. Something is fundamentally rotten in our "gotcha" political culture - where groups seeking political advantage can so easily make victims of innocents and cowards will let good people pay a price rather than defend their rights to a fair hearing.

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