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A Perspective on Mazen Asbahi

Earlier this week, Mazen Asbahi, whom the Obama campaign had appointed on July 26 to be their national coordinator for Muslim American affairs, announced that he had resigned his position.

Rany Jazayerli, my friend and colleague at Baseball Prospectus, knows Mr. Asbahi, and wrote me a long e-mail detailing his perspective on the matter. I asked him whether he’d be willing to share his perspective with the readers of FiveThirtyEight, and he graciously agreed. The following are Rany’s words, unedited, and pulling no punches.

On Mazen Asbahi
by Rany Jazayerli

If you’re a politics junkie – and if you’re reading this, you are – you may have read the report in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that Mazen Asbahi, who just 10 days before had joined Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as national coordinator for Muslim American affairs, “stepped down Monday after an Internet newsletter wrote about his brief stint on the fund’s board, which also included a fundamentalist imam.”

Mazen Asbahi is one of my best friends. I introduced him to his wife 12 years ago, which was payback after his wife (a childhood friend) introduced me to my wife the year before. When I attended medical school in Michigan, where he grew up, his parents would invite me over for dinner regularly. Our kids play together and we dine together at least once a month. We’re close. And now, thanks to the work of some racist jerkwads, his reputation has been sullied from coast to coast. Nothing that has been inflicted on the Muslim community in America has made me remotely as angry as what has transpired over the last 72 hours. (Except for 9/11, of course. But I know those guys are getting what’s coming to them.)

The news that Mazen had been offered the position – and that he took a leave of absence from his law firm to work in an unpaid capacity – was celebrated not just among his circle of friends, but throughout the Muslim community in Chicago and nationally. Mazen had spent his adult life preparing for this kind of opportunity. He’s worked for a number of Chicago law firms since graduating from law school, and while most of his legal work has been in the corporate setting, he has always been most passionate about the work he did, much of it pro bono, on behalf of various charitable and social organizations. The opportunity to represent Obama’s campaign, one he strongly supports, to a Muslim community that knows and trusts him, was an immensely fulfilling task for him.

So I’m crushed for him as a friend, but I’m furious as a Muslim because what has happened is that Mazen was forced to resign because of a smear campaign that targeted him for the sin of being Muslim: nothing more, nothing less.

Let’s parse the original Wall Street Journal column, if you don’t mind:

“In 2000, Mr. Asbahi briefly served on the board of Allied Assets Advisors Fund, a Delaware-registered trust. Its other board members at the time included Jamal Said, the imam at a fundamentalist-controlled mosque in Illinois.”

‘I served on that board for only a few weeks before resigning as soon as I became aware of public allegations against another member of the board,’ Mr. Asbahi said in his resignation letter. ‘Since concerns have been raised about that brief time, I am stepping down…to avoid distracting from Barack Obama’s message of change.’”

Where do I start? Let’s start with Jamal Said, “the imam at a fundamentalist-controlled mosque”. The consensus of the vast majority of Muslims in Chicago is that the mosque is not a fundamentalist anything, which is why it has such a large membership. Some of the mosque’s more recent projects include donating a riverfront garden to the city of Chicago (here’s a picture of major Richard Daley at the ribbon-cutting ceremony) and becoming the first mosque in the country to run on solar power.

Said has never been convicted of any crime, or arrested for any crime, or indicted for any crime. He has been accused of supporting Hamas, but has never been found guilty of anything. I’m not here to defend Said; I don’t know him, and unlike the people who wrote this column I prefer to not render judgments about people I don’t know anything about. But the point is that Said is not a convicted criminal, or a mafia don that walks the streets while people cower in fear.

What he is, is the imam of the largest mosque in the Chicago area. Mazen is an active member of the Muslim community here in Chicago. It would be almost impossible for him to be active and not have some contact with Said.

So Mazen happened to serve on the board of an investment fund with Said, until he learned about allegations that Said had been involved in raising funds for Hamas, at which time he quit the board. In 2000. Before 9/11, before Iraq, before the US government shut down Muslim charities such as the Holy Land Foundation after accusing them of funneling money to Hamas and other designated terrorist groups. (Incidentally, the case against the Holy Land Foundation ended in a mistrial.) But in 2000, before our own government felt that these charitable activities were illegal, Mazen decided to dissociate himself from even the hint of impropriety. That doesn’t support accusations that he’s a terrorist sympathizer; it refutes them.

“Other Web sites, some pro-Republican and others critical of fundamentalist Islam, also have reported on the background of Mr. Asbahi. He is a frequent speaker before several groups in the U.S. that scholars have associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Those groups “associated with the Muslim Brotherhood” include ISNA, the largest Muslim organization in the country, whose annual convention draws over 10,000 people. Other prominent speakers at past conventions include radicals such as Karen Hughes. Last year’s convention was co-sponsored by the Department of Justice. The other group Mazen was involved with was the MSA, also known as the Muslim Students Association, which exists on every college campus. I was part of the MSA when I was in college; pretty much every Muslim who goes to college is. It serves the religious needs of students on campus in the same way that Campus Crusade for Christ or Hillel might.

“The Justice Department named Mr. Said an unindicted co-conspirator in the racketeering trial last year of several alleged Hamas fund-raisers, which ended in a mistrial. He has also been identified as a leading member of the group in news reports going back to 1993.”

Pardon my Arabic, but what the f**k is an unindicted co-conspirator, and why is our government using this phrase? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? And whatever happened to the notion that indictment is just the first step towards a guilty verdict? A prosecutor is supposed to be able to indict a ham sandwich, so what does it say that they’ve never been able to indict Said? (Maybe that’s his secret: Muslims don’t eat pork.)

In that racketeering trial – which, again, ended in a mistrial – the government listed close to 300 Muslim organizations as “unindicted co-conspirators”, which is tantamount to saying “we think some of them are terrorists, and since we don’t know who, we’ll just blame them all.” So much for innocent until proven guilty. This isn’t even guilty until proven innocent – it’s guilty with no recourse to prove you’re innocent. How can you defend yourself against an indictment which doesn’t exist? Said is guilty by association. Which makes Mazen, apparently, guilty by association with someone who’s guilty by association. It’s McCarthyism squared.

I’m so angry that I don’t know where to direct my anger. I’ve fervently supported Obama’s campaign up until now, having just donated to his campaign again last week, but I’m not sending him another dime until I see some evidence that he’s willing to take a principled stand against this kind of bigotry. If Obama won’t stand up to the flimsiest of accusations linking someone in his campaign, however remotely and ridiculously, to terrorists, then I’m not sure what he’ll stand up against. I realize this kind of feckless approach worked so well for Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, Barack, but could you act like a man for once and grow a pair? Maybe Hillary will lend you hers.

If Obama doesn’t want to stand up for Mazen on principle, how about standing up for him on pragmatism? Maybe he doesn’t feel he needs to, since it’s not like Michigan is a tipping point state in this election or anything. And it’s not like Michigan has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims of any state in the union. And it’s not like Mazen is from Michigan and his resignation is certain to depress turnout in the state from one of the Obama campaign’s most reliable demographic bases. Seriously, who made this decision? Karl Rove?

I suppose I should credit the Obama campaign for having the courage to appoint a Muslim coordinator in the first place. In which case I have to ask, how stupid were they to not expect this kind of attack in the first place? The first thing I said to Mazen after he was hired – after “congratulations” – was “you know they’re going to come after you now, right?” He nodded, and we both knew who “they” were.

“They” are the racists who made these accusations and forced the Obama campaign to respond to them. They came after Mazen with everything they got, and all they landed was a feather punch – only to have the Obama campaign throw the towel in the ring anyway.

What they’re saying is that Mazen Asbahi has a link to people suspected of terrorism. What I’ll tell you is this: Mazen is not a terrorist. He’s not a fundamentalist. He’s not an Islamist. He’s neither a supporter of, nor a subscriber to the ideology of, the Muslim Brotherhood. The only thing he is guilty of, like the witch-hunted Debbie Almontaser, is being a Muslim and being an active member of the Muslim community. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have been qualified for the position in the first place.

As Ahmed Rehab put it in today’s Chicago Tribune, the headline should read “Muslim liaison for presidential campaign resigns after connections to Muslim community are found.” Mazen could not have been qualified to do this job without being associated, in some tenuous fashion, to someone like Jamal Said – just like Obama could not be a part of the political community of Chicago’s South Side without being associated with someone like, say, William Ayres.

Oh, and you know who else is associated with Said? As Jake Tapper pointed out, the board that Mazen and Said both sat on was the Allied Asset Advisor Funds, a subsidiary of the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT). NAIT is an adviser to the Dow Jones Islamic Fund.

Dow Jones. Which publishes the Wall Street Journal. Which broke the story that forced Mazen’s resignation. We’re officially through the looking glass, people.

If Mazen Asbahi is a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist. And if I were named to the same position, I’m sure they would have found a way to label me a terrorist as well. (I’m sure that if you scour my writings over the last 12 years, you’ll find that at some point I’ve threatened grievous bodily harm to a few members of the Kansas City Royals.)

And that’s what this is about. The same people who claim there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim will do everything in their power to slander people like Mazen Asbahi – the very epitome of a moderate, modern, integrated, tolerant, patriotic American Muslim – as an extremist. They will set their sights on any Muslim who seeks to be a part of the political process, and will pick them off, one by one, until there are no more targets left.

The world is at war right now, but it’s not a war of Christian vs. Muslim. It’s a war of moderates vs. extremists, and the two groups are battling it out in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But they’re also battling here in America. This week, the extremists won. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them continue to win without a fight.

Rany Jazayerli is a physician, and co-founder of Baseball Prospectus. He lives in Naperville, Illinois

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.