Under the pretense of investigative journalism, Free Arabs is accused of being funded and nurtured by pro-Zionist, pro-war, and Islamophobic lobbies. No problem, we have a sterling sense of humor.
The website Electronic Intifada published an article authored by Max Blumenthal and titled “Weddady’s Free Arabs, American Islamic Congress, and the pro-Israel funders who helped them rise”. The self-branded “journalistic investigation” aims to demonstrate, in a nutshell, that the American Islamic Congress (AIC, a DC-based, non-profit advocacy institution) receives funding from pro-Zionist and anti-Palestine lobbies, and also from Bush-y neo-conservative and Islamophobic circles. The readers of the article are thusly invited to draw the following conclusion: both Nasser Weddady (who is one of AIC’s staffers) and Free Arabs (of which Nasser is a co-founding member) are guilty “by very close association” of Islamophobia, neo-conservatism and pro-Zionist penchants.
In the few hours that followed the publication, Electronic Intifada’s fans flooded the social media sphere with an impressive torrent of insults. Nasser Weddady was called “Uncle Tom”, “house Muslim”, “Islamophobic propagandist”, and even “human garbage”. AIC on its part earned the moniker “pet Muslim organization”, while Free Arabs was branded a “Zionist mouthpiece”. The wording choice says a lot about its bearers, but wait: Electronic Intifada (EI) cannot be held responsible of its followers’ outrageousness. In fact, while their army of trolls was all-out witch-hunting, Mr. Blumenthal and EI’s executive editor Ali Abunimah were busy taking an elegant pose: that of the investigative journalists who are confident enough in the solidity of their facts to claim, with imperceptibly disdainful courtesy, their eagerness to “correct any factual inaccuracies”. Quite a classy attitude, I must say.
I will let Nasser Weddady and AIC defend themselves the moment they deem appropriate, and the way they see fit. I will just say here that Nasser is an esteemed and recognized pro-democracy activist, a highly honorable individual, and someone I am proud to call my friend. I will also say that AIC’s track record of life-changing activism in favor of countless individuals from Baghdad, Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, speaks for itself. And I will finally observe that, regardless of where its funding comes from, AIC was never involved in anti-Palestine or Islamophobic activities—had it happened once, you bet Mr. Blumenthal wouldn’t have missed it for the world. (By the way, someone should tell AIC’s Islamophobic patrons that their protégés go as far as denouncing Islamophobia in the US congress. How's that for backstabbing?)
However, I feel the onus of defending Free Arabs. Based on the findings of Mr. Blumenthal’s investigation, Mr. Abunimah affirmed that the web magazine of which I have the honor to be the founder and editor-in-chief, was “spawned by a lot of Islamophobic and pro-Israel money”. This rich accusation relies on three established facts. One: Nasser Weddady is an employee of AIC. Two: Nasser Weddady is also a co-founder of Free Arabs. Three: The hatching of Free Arabs’, as transparently indicated on our website, was “facilitated” by AIC—which, as we know now, is funded by Islamophobic pro-Israeli moneymen. Therefore Free Arabs is guilty, QED.
Even though Mr. Blumenthal spent what appears to be a tremendous amount of time digging into Nasser Weddady’s shady connection with Free Arabs, he missed something. Admittedly, it was very well hidden: who would think of checking Nasser’s Free Arabs biographic notice? The latter describes him as “Civil Rights Outreach Director at the American Islamic Congress by day, co-founder of Free Arabs by night”. The wording sets a pretty clear separation between Weddady’s professional and personal activities—unless we consider he’s on professional mode 24 hours a day, and everything he touches is irreparably contaminated by the mean spirit of his employer’s secret funders. (In which case, let it be known that Boston’s Mirabella pool, which Nasser regularly attends after his office hours, is a Zionist swimming facility).
As for the indication that Free Arabs’ creation was “facilitated” by AIC, the standard journalistic investigative procedure would have consisted in contacting yours truly, first responsible of this website, and asking him what exactly is that mean. But no troubles, I am happy to answer the question Mr. Blumenthal didn’t ask me. For that, allow me to go a little back in time.
My first contact with AIC was in 2005. I was then serving as the publisher and editor-in-chief of a weekly newsmagazine in Morocco and as such, was facing jail time and a prohibitive fine for allegedly “defaming” a government official. AIC’s Jesse Sage, who visited my office in Casablanca on a brief trip to Morocco, spontaneously offered to help by launching a solidarity campaign in the US. The same offer was reiterated 2 years later after I was accused of “offending” the King of Morocco (and later, on numerous similar occasions). Over the years and judicial hazards, I built a close relationship, then a personal friendship with Jesse, who later introduced me to Nasser Weddady. The pair also invited me to serve as a judge for an essay contest on civil rights in the Middle East, launched by AIC to bolster a new generation of liberal writers from the region. I enjoyed reviewing the essays and continued doing that for 6 years (for no remuneration).
In 2011, after a decade of harassment from Morocco’s government, I was pressured into leaving my job and country and going into self-imposed exile to the US. There started the reflection that ultimately led to the creation of Free Arabs, a reflection rooted in my career as an independent journalist and media publisher with one finger constantly on the pulse of my Arab society. As eloquently summarized in a recent article about Free Arabs, the site is “the latest iteration of a long project designed to amplify the voices of a new generation of Arab thinkers, activists, journalists, and artists who dare, against all odds, to flaunt their dissent in the face of weighty cultural norms, meager political and individual rights, and narrow social expectations.” A pretty crammed agenda as one can see, in which fitting Zionist service is quite the challenge—just saying.
« V is helped by W who works for X who takes money from Y who otherwise stands for Z ==> therefore V is guilty of Z ». A pretty typical tactic used by all the conspiracy theorists of the world...
Though the result of a nearly two decades-long personal and professional maturation, Free Arabs also owes a lot to the amicable and continued conversation I undertook with AIC’s staffers. Being a formerly old-school newspaperman, I have to credit Nasser for introducing me to the new world of online blogging and activism, and opening for me his network of next generation Arab online activists. This is how I approached and recruited many of Free Arabs’ brilliant contributors.
Around the same time, AIC was awarded a grant by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC, a Boston-based, leftwing organization dedicated to the defense of human rights) to explore how to amplify the writing of young voices like those who were participating in the essay contest. I was invited to take part in the brainstorming process and to meet with young Arab writers from across the region, including at the Oslo Freedom Forum last year. Because they provided me with these networking opportunities, crediting AIC and UUSC for “facilitating” Free Arabs’ inception was a fair and considerate thing to do – though, as the site makes clear, Free Arabs is “an independent initiative solely responsible for the site's content and editorial line.”
In other words: the “facilitation,” aka the one and only argument on which Electronic Intifada built all of its Free Arabs “Zionist” theory (and a gaggle of tweets)… was in fact the outcome of personal friendships, and a volunteer brainstorming process on how to boost young Arab liberals. None of which involved taking a single penny of Mr. Abunimah’s “lots of Islamophobic and pro-Israel money.” So much for Free Arabs’ “spawning.”
In fact, behind its glowing “investigative” façade (having received a couple of investigative journalism awards myself, I know a thing or two about this line of business), Mr. Blumenthal’s story—at least when it comes to Free Arabs—is nothing but a house of cards built around the concept of smear-by-association. « V is helped by W who works for X who takes money from Y who otherwise stands for Z ==> therefore V is guilty of Z ». Nothing original, actually. This is a pretty typical tactic used by all the conspiracy theorists of the world: the "money trail" explains everything, it just has to. Well, sometimes it does. But not always.
In the twisted world of conspiracy theorists, there are no such things as a labor of love and a genuine commitment for shared moral values. Yet, that is what Free Arabs mainly is. The site’s design and technicalities have cost around $25,000 until now, all paid by my personal savings and a donation of an Arab journalist friend who vowed to remain anonymous, i.e. away from the slander circus. What the site primarily relies on is the commitment and enthusiasm of a new generation of volunteer writers and commentators, eager to push a third Arab narrative—neither that of cynical, interest-driven proponents of tyrannical orders; nor that of blindsided ideologues, so tensely focused on fighting oppression that they don’t realize they became bullies themselves.
There is a way for Arab candor, creativity and optimistic humanism. Free Arabs will relentlessly explore that way. If it takes a good fight every now and then, so be it.
* Ahmed Benchemsi is Free Arabs’ editor-in-chief