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Arab-Americans and Muslims Remember John Dingell as a Friend

posted on: Feb 15, 2019



Earlier this week inside a dimly lit auditorium in Dearborn, mourners filed in to pay their respects to John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress.

As they paused before his casket draped in an American flag, some used their hands to give the sign of the cross, a traditional Christian gesture, while other visitors turned their palms upward in a traditional Islamic sign of prayer as they quietly recited Arabic words.

There were Muslim women wearing hijab, the Islamic headscarf, embracing Dingell’s wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, and Shia imams with turbans and robes from the Islamic Center of America greeting the Dingell family as they mourned. Other noted Arab-American leaders waited in line for hours to honor Dingell.

The scene Monday at Dingell’s public viewing at Ford Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn  — part of a week of ceremonies that ended Thursday — reflected the close ties that he had to the region’s Arab-American and Muslim communities. He lived in Dearborn, a city whose population is approaching half Arab-American Muslim and was from a region that is known nationally as a center for people with roots in the Middle East.

In the last 20 years of his time in Congress, Dingell often spoke up for the civil rights of Arab-Americans and expressed sympathy for Palestinians and Lebanese when they were embroiled in conflicts with Israel. While the community found itself under attack from bigots, Dingell was quick to protect them.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Dingell was on the front lines in trying to defend the rights of Muslims, one of only 66 House Representatives who voted against the Patriot Act, and speaking out against hate crimes. He voted against the Iraq war in 2003, said in 2006 he was neutral in the war between Israel and Hezbollah, and over the years, was critical at times of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. In 2011, he praised metro Detroit’s Muslim-American population during Congressional hearings on Islamic extremism, telling Republicans not to “blot the good name…of Arabs or Muslims or other Americans en masse.”

“He was always open to us, he listened to us,” said Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab-American News in Dearborn and a leader with the Dearborn-based Arab American Political Action Committee. “He gave us a lot of time to express our views on issues. It was a powerful friendship that we had. He consulted us on most of the issues related to the Middle East and Arab-Americans, immigration, foreign policy.”

After Dingell’s death, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Arab American Institute, Arab American Civil Rights League in Dearborn, American Human Rights Council in Dearborn and other groups put out statements mourning the legislator known as ‘The Dean.’

His death comes at a time of renewed discussion about the very issues Dingell wrestled with. The election of the first two Muslim women to Congress —U.S. House Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Ilhan Omar of Minneosta — and their recent comments about Israel have ignited a fierce debate that echo similar controversies that Dingell faced when he was in Congress.

Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, the religious leader of the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights and the former imam at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, knew Dingell for more than 20 years. In 2003, Dingell invited Al-Qazwini to deliver an invocation in the House of Representatives, the first Shia cleric to do so.

“The Muslim community lost a great friend and staunch supporter,” Al-Qazwini said. “He was a genius and a principled man, an example of a decent politician. … He always stood by the community, always defended the community and his constituents. And he was one of the individuals who didn’t harbor any fear in his heart when he was about to tackle very complicated or complex issues. Personally, I lost a great friend.”

In October 2003, when Dingell invited Al-Qazwini to speak from the House floor, he personally came to Al-Qazwini’s hotel to drive him to Congress, gave him a tour, introduced him to colleagues, and had lunch, Al-Qazwini recalled.

“He was a very bipartisan man,” Al-Qazwini said of Dingell. “He had an ability to reach out to his colleagues on the other side of the aisle, on the Republican side. He was very well respected by both Democrats and Republicans.”

Dingell’s legacy of Arab support

A review of previous Free Press reports and the congressional record over the past 20 years show that Dingell frequently criticized Israel and the U.S. government when he felt they were mistreating Arab people.

In June 1999, Dingell wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressing concern about Israel’s attacks in southern Lebanon that affected some Dearborn residents. In October 2001, he voted against the Patriot Act, warning it would hurt the civil rights of Americans. And in October 2002, he voted against invading Iraq.

In May 2006, he was one of only 37 House Representatives to vote against the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, saying it was too one-sided. He also blasted the Bush administration for the Iraq war and civil rights violations:

“This administration is perhaps the most deceitful and dishonest that I had seen in the 50 years I’ve served in this body,” Dingell said on the House floor in 2006. “They either don’t know what they’re talking about or they deliberately mislead. They told us about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They told us about Iraqi connections to al-Qaida. … They tell us that they’re protecting our civil liberties while they’re tapping our phones and spying in our libraries and looking into our bank accounts.”

And when war broke out that summer between Israel and Hezbollah, he sparked controversy when he told WDIV in Detroit: “I don’t take sides for or against Hezbollah, or for or against Israel.”

TV anchor Devin Scillian then asked him: “You’re not against Hezbollah?”

Dingell answered: “No, I happen to be — I happen to be against violence. I think the United States has to bring resolution to this matter. Now, I condemn Hezbollah, as does everybody else for the violence.”

His remarks were criticized by some Republicans and pro-Israel groups, but were applauded in Dearborn’s Lebanese-American community, which was affected by Israel’s attacks in southern Lebanon.

In July 2006, he was one of only eight House representatives who voted against a resolution that passed 410-8 expressing support for Israel in its war with Hezbollah, the Associated Press reported.

In 2009, Dingell continued his criticism of Israel after its conflict in Gaza with Palestinian groups. But he did add in a January 2009 House floor speech that he supported Israel’s “right to defend itself.”