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James Zogby, a Catholic of Lebanese Descent, Works to Dispel Myths About Arabs

posted on: Oct 21, 2010

In the early days after 9/11, employees of the Arab American Institute huddled in their modest K Street offices, afraid to leave the building. Police downstairs guarded the entrance, serving as protection from those who might deliver on the death threats sent to the nonprofit’s founder and president, James Zogby. Raghead, they had said. I’ll slit your throat.

This is not the story that Zogby likes to tell. He prefers the one that happened next, the one where, in the middle of the threats and the police and the fact that the world had suddenly gone pear-shaped, he heard a timid knock.

“I looked through the door, and I saw the woman from the office next door,” he says. He didn’t know her name. They had never spoken. “She was holding a platter of brownies. And she said, ‘I know you are frightened. I wanted to bring you this.’ ” He shakes his head at the memory, which honors his belief that violent actions prompt kind reactions and that progress progresses.

He saw the brownies and, he recalls, “I wept.”

Zogby, who is of Lebanese descent, is Catholic but is often assumed to be Muslim because of what he does, and responds to e-mailed bile by offering to pray for the senders. He is the brother of the more famous John, the pollster behind Zogby International, with whom he has collaborated on a new book. He is, at a time of “Islamic cultural centers” or “Ground Zero mosques” — depending on how you feel about the proposed New York construction — a man relentlessly tapped to explain what Arabs are thinking, why they are thinking it and how the United States can make better decisions.

“He knows all the Arab leaders, whether it’s [Yasser] Arafat or the king of Jordan or the president of Egypt or the prime minister of Lebanon,” says Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who is also of Lebanese descent and who met Zogby when LaHood was running for Congress in Illinois. “In Washington, if you want to know about Arab issues, you call Jim Zogby.”

And LaHood suggests calling up one of these world leaders. He knows that such dignitaries don’t typically gab on the phone, “but when they hear you’re talking about Jim . . .”

A few days later, Queen Noor of Jordan rings up. Asked what she thinks Zogby’s most important contribution has been to relationship-building between Americans and Arabs, she says, “The work that he’s undertaken today is more important than it ever was — and it will be even more important tomorrow.”

The grand irony of the Middle East: The United States has “sent more money, sent more troops, fought more wars, and lost more lives” than can be calculated, Zogby says. “The investment there is so enormous and yet we just don’t understand the culture.”

At 64, Zogby is a grandfatherly man, gently balding with deep laugh lines and thin-rimmed glasses. His cluttered office — in mid-renovation — is decorated with pictures of his wife, Eileen, and their five grown children.

His frustrations over this knowledge gap resulted in the new book, “Arab Voices,” which is part polling data (using results from Zogby International’s surveys), part history and part personal recollections. It is dedicated, Zogby says, to narrowing that chasm between perceptions and reality.

“We don’t understand that Arabs really do like us [Americans] — that we define a whole culture,” he says. “When someone in Saudi Arabia goes to . . . McDonald’s, it’s not because the food is better than the local fare. It’s because people want to buy a piece of America and do an American thing.” He spoke recently to the board of Starbucks, which has locations from Oman to Bahrain, and cheered them on: “You guys are saving lives every day. You are public diplomats!”

Most Arabs don’t spend their days watching anti-American rants on television, he says. They watch movies. The most popular show in the United Arab Emirates during Zogby’s research was an animated series based on “The Golden Girls.” And most Arabs don’t “hate our freedom” — the simplistic shortcut by which some explained the 9/11 attacks. In the Zogby polling done after 9/11, the majority of those surveyed in five Arab countries liked America’s freedom and democracy, as well as our cultural exports and our science and technology. What they hated were U.S. policies — or their perceptions of them — toward Arabs.

This research contradicted a 2002 Gallup poll that had presented mass antipathy toward Americans. Zogby challenged that tally and chalked the Gallup results up to overly broad questioning. “America” means different things at different times to different people. Asking whether Arabs hate the country “is like asking a woman whose husband is a serial cheater how she feels about men. She’ll give you one answer. But if you say, ‘What do you think about fathers? What about brothers?’ . . . Pull it apart and you get very different answers.” (The Gallup poll surveyed nine Muslim countries, only five of which were Arab. The Zogby polls focus solely on the Arab countries.)

The key for the United States, Zogby says, is to figure out how to maximize the positive associations and build on them.

“It’s quite a pioneering book,” says perpetual presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who is of Lebanese descent. “Its intent is to break the stereotype of Arab people, to show there’s a very large diversity within these ethnic groups. . . . Once that window is open, you can see how rich the culture is.”

“It’s on my desk right now,” says Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who spoke passionately about the Middle East after a 2009 visit to the Gaza Strip, and who has been a guest on “Viewpoint,” Zogby’s call-in talk show about international issues, which is broadcast on Abu Dhabi television. “I wish all members of Congress would” pay attention to Zogby, Baird says.

“Arab Voices” is, Zogby says, “the book I always wanted to write” and couldn’t without his brother John.

Their Washington offices are in the same building, same floor, across the hallway from each other, with matching Zogby nameplates. John may be the reason that their surname is a brand name among political junkies, but “when he and I travel to the Middle East together, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m traveling with royalty,” John says. “It’s ‘Oh, Dr. Zogby, is there anything we can get you? And who is your little sidekick?’ ”

Their relationship works because “he respects the fact that I know how to poll, and I respect the fact that he knows what he’s talking about,” John says. “I’ve had a lot of practice respecting that because frankly, Jim always knew what he was talking about.”

The Brothers Zogby were born in Utica, a New York town now known as “Second Chance City” for the immigrants who’ve flooded in from war-torn countries. Their father was a Lebanese grocer, their mother a forward-thinking proto-feminist who campaigned for women’s suffrage. Afraid of losing her independence, she had refused her husband’s first marriage proposal at age 19, and she accepted only when he came calling again 20 years later.

A schoolteacher by training, Celia demanded that her sons be informed. Their friends used to joke that the newspaper was required reading for entrance into the family’s home; Celia would sit them around the table and grill them on current events.

Joseph Zogby died when his sons were teenagers and James, three years older, became his brother’s counsel on the mysteries that their mother couldn’t help with — relationships, sports and, John says, “where do I fit in this world?” They grew up in an ethnic neighborhood, but the dominant ethnicity was Irish. “So we were the wrong ethnic group,” John says. “I had a bit of an independent streak, so I relished being on the outside. Jim always relished getting on the inside and being a leader there,” and it was he who showed John how to merge their two worlds.

“If I had played baseball [for a living] or become a corporate lawyer, I never would have experienced any problems because I would have been completely assimilated,” James says. Instead, after an undergraduate degree in economics, he pursued his doctorate in comparative religions at Temple University. For dissertation research, he and Eileen, whom he’d met in college, traveled to Lebanon to interview the displaced inhabitants of Palestinian camps. There, a woman looked at him and said, “Now we’ve told you our story. What are you going to do about it?” On the plane ride home, Eileen — who is of Irish descent — turned to her husband, and they silently stared at each other. One of them said, “I don’t think our lives are ever going to be the same again.”

James founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in 1980, and AAI a few years later. John went on to become one of the most recognized names in the polling industry.

“Religion and politics,” James says, laughing. “My mother always said, ‘If you would have been a foot doctor, then you’d walk into a room and everyone would say, “Look at my bunion!” And you’d be a hero. Instead you went into the two fields’ ” where no one is ever right and everyone is always angry.

James’s oldest son, Joe Zogby — a staffer for Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) — says his father tried to instill a sense of justice in all of his children; their bedtime stories were books about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Joe recalls his fourth-grade Halloween when a bunch of his classmates dressed up as “Arabs,” wearing towels on their heads and carrying oil cans and toy guns. Unable to reconcile that depiction with his family at home, he talked to his father. “He sat me down and explained what stereotyping was, and how he was working to fight against that,” Joe says.

Around that time, the family sat down to watch “Black Beauty,” in which a couple of “Arabs” steal the horse. Joe watched a silver-screen depiction of his classmates’ Halloween costumes and said to his dad, “Boy, that will be good for business.”

Another childhood memory is more chilling. In 1985, the Washington offices of the Anti-Discrimination Committee — which James had recently left — were set on fire. A few months earlier, a bomb had exploded near the group’s Boston offices. And in the ADC’s Santa Ana location, a bomb planted in the building killed the organization’s West Coast director, who was also Zogby’s good friend.

Joe was terrified for his father. It was the first time he realized that there were people who not only opposed his father’s work, but hated him for it. But James told his kids that his parents had immigrated here for the freedoms of religion and speech, and that it was his patriotic duty to keep fighting.

There he was, protecting a country where a few intolerant citizens had just killed his former colleague. Throughout his career, there he was, the recipient of anti-Muslim hate mail from Christians, because the senders didn’t know he — like 63 percent of Arab Americans — is Christian. There he was, hearing people say negative things about Judaism because they assumed that he would agree, but were surprised when he didn’t. There he was, offering his organization’s support to public figures, only to have them respond that it was not needed — that an Arab association might damage their reputation.

In the early days, James says, he sometimes felt like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” witnessing all the nastiness that humanity can spew when it thinks no one else is looking.

In 1985, shortly after AAI’s founding, James Zogby got an urgent call to come to Michigan. He had to see what was happening in Dearborn.

What was happening was that Michael Guido, the Republican candidate for mayor, had mailed out a broadsheet with a question in block letters: What was the Detroit suburb going to do about its “Arab Problem?”

The candidate was smart — though the city had a substantial Arab population, almost none of them were registered to vote — they couldn’t sway the election. Zogby launched a voter-registration campaign that exponentially increased their numbers by the next election. Guido was elected, but his attitude gradually softened. By 1996, he was addressing his Muslim constituents as “My brothers and sisters,” and presenting Zogby with a gift of Lebanese worry beads — a token key to the city. Zogby pointed out the progress to the man sitting next to him at that ceremony; the man said, “I guess the mayor can count.”

There are lots of stories like this, of ways that relationships have improved.

He counts among his friends Susan Turnbull, the chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and a board member on the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. They collaborated on a Democratic Party resolution regarding divestment from Israel, ultimately urging that divestment not occur.

“We’re an unlikely duo,” Turnbull says. “But we’ve found over the years that we have much in common. . . . He once asked me, ‘What is your favorite thing to do in the world?’ ” Turnbull confessed that she loved snuggling up with old episodes of “Little House on the Prairie.” “And he said, ‘Well, I love ‘Matlock’!”

(The Jewish Anti-Defamation League lists AAI in a lengthy list of “Anti-Israel Protest Groups,” but notes only that Zogby is a “leading spokesman” in the Arab-American community, while several other groups on its list are condemned for their violence or extremism. A spokesman from a prominent pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said that he “couldn’t be of much assistance” in commenting on Zogby or his work.)

The physical renovations underway in AAI’s offices are symbolic of larger questions Zogby is asking himself. AAI is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and Zogby wants to pause, step back, figure out whether the group’s efforts should be reevaluated or redirected. “When I came to Washington 30 years ago, there were four of us [in the country] doing this work,” Zogby says. “And now on any one day, there are a couple hundred people doing this work.”

At a recent lecture sponsored by the World Affairs Council, Zogby outlines the arguments of his book and then pauses for questions from the audience.

Isn’t it true, one business-attired Capitol Hill type asks, that even if moderate Muslims aren’t engaging in terrorist activities themselves, they are at least tacitly supporting them? Why aren’t those Muslims doing anything to stop their compatriots?

Zogby listens to the question, then wryly smiles. The questioner, he says patiently, has hit on at least three myths and misunderstandings about Arab culture.

The education begins anew.

Monica Hesse
Washington Post