Osama Siblani, the 58-year-old editor and publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News, is scheduled to be inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame at Michigan State University Sunday night with four others.
Normally such an event would pass with little fanfare, but this year's ceremony has made news because the Anti-Defamation League has asked MSU to reconsider Siblani’s induction, charging his paper is a “forum for hate.”
Siblani’s paper, which published his first issue in 1985, is a bilingual weekly whose name in Arabic is Sada Al-Watan, The Nation’s Echo. It publishes a wide variety of news and analysis about the Arab world in both the Mideast and the United States, in addition to local news from Dearborn.
Siblani appears frequently in the national and international media, discussing Arab American issues. He is also an influential figure in the Arab-American community and describes himself as an “activist journalist.” While he is a conservative Republican and secular Muslim who opposes abortion, he long has been critical of American foreign policy in the Mideast.
The youngest of 11 children, Siblani came to Detroit from Lebanon in 1976 with $185 in his pocket. He earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Detroit, and worked for several companies, including General Motors Corp., before starting the paper.
“America is the land of opportunity,” he said. “I am the perfect example.”
He spoke this week with Deadline Detroit's Bill McGraw. The interview is edited for clarity and space.
How do you react to the charge by the Anti-Defamation League that your paper uncritically supports Hezbollah and Hamas?
They are twisting my words to assassinate my character. According to the law, I would be in jail if I supported Hezbollah or Hamas. How come I’ve not been arrested after all these accusations? Because they have no grounds. What we are talking about here is a political disagreement. We are polarized in the Middle East between people who believe Israel is right and people who happen to believe that the Palestinians are right. I happen to be on the Palestinians’ side. But that doesn’t mean I go and support Hamas and send them money for night-vision goggles or something like that. I try to project the other point of view – these people are fighting for their rights. Do they have the right to bomb Tel Aviv? That’s not what I am supporting. I am supporting their struggle to gain independence. If they violate international law, I’m against them, of course. I am against wars. I am for dialogue. The ADL is trying to stifle debate at the college level. I open my door, my phone, my newspaper to the ADL, any time. They have written for me, and I have published it.
What’s your take on Hezbollah?
They are not aliens in Lebanon. They are half of the Lebanese people. I’m from there. These are Lebanese people who are fighting Israel’s occupation of the south of Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley for 22 years. Yes, I support their right to fight occupation. Do I support their ideology? I am not a religious person, and Hezbollah is a religious entity. I probably disagree with them 90 percent of the time.
The ADL also said you publish things by anti-Semites and by people who believe in Jewish conspiracies.
I may have. I don’t know. But they have to point it out to me. We have thousands of articles on our website. Could they find one that’s written by a crazy person?
I have one article that was online in 2010. It’s filled with conspiracies. For one, the author says the departure of Rahm Emmanuel from the Obama White House perhaps indicates Jewish and Israeli interests are going to do bad things to the United States, like demolish the American economy…
If you go to the Free Press and Detroit News and look at their archives, you’re going to find something that’s out of whack, things written by some whacko. I hope that I am not making a mistake by publishing conspiracies or anti-Semitism. I am a Semite, and I am not anti-Semitic. I have friends in the Jewish community who come to my house. I’m not going to defend myself for the ADL. I don’t owe them an explanation. If they want to have a discussion they are welcome to come in. I don’t agree with everything in the paper. But I take responsibility for it.
Why did you leave Lebanon as a young man?
There was a war in Lebanon, a civil war. I just graduated from high school, and I was supposed to go to college, but there was no place to go. I had to emigrate somewhere. My brother was going to Wayne State University, and I came to study electrical engineering.
How was it that an electrical engineer came to start a newspaper?
I was lucky. I made some money in Detroit. And I built a house for my mother in Lebanon. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 destroyed the home. It burned everything. When I came back to the United States, I heard the debate on television and in the paper about the Israeli invasion, and the debate was only over whether Israel should have gone 55 kilometers or all the way to the capital. Lebanon is an independent country, and they’re being invaded! I felt there was no representation of the Arab perspective. My house was burned, so I took it personally. The image of the Arab at that time was very distorted.
Was your concern only the politics of the Mideast?
No. I figured at that time the Arab community needed to stand up. They need to voice their opinion on the Mideast and on other issues, too. One of the major, major reasons is we wanted Arab Americans to have a place around the table when we are discussing national, international and local issues.
How has that worked out?
I think today, 28 years later, this has been accomplished, to a certain extent. We are at the table. It has exceeded my expectations. The Arab American News is a hub for not only national media, but also international media. There is not a country on the face of this earth that has not sent representatives to talk to us. We have not only brought the Arab Americans to the debate, we are the center of the debate. We wanted to use the Arab American News to coordinate the third, second and first generation, put them on the same page, and have a platform of discussion on the issues that concern us as Arabs and also Arab Americans.
What was Arab presence Dearborn like in 1985?
At that time we didn’t have any businesses whatsoever. When I came into Dearborn there was only one small restaurant. I will not even name it. It doesn’t exist anymore. A dog would not even eat the food. W. Warren was haunted; it was like Livernois right now. The newspaper created a revolution. It helped the Arab American community to prosper. I don’t want to take all the credit, there is a lot of credit to be spread around, but ask anyone…
What’s your opinion on how the U.S. media covers the Mideast now?
It has changed, but I continue to be disappointed in general. When you as a country are the leader of the free world, actually the leader of the world, your media has to be up to that. Unfortunately, Europe is way ahead of us when it comes to international coverage. When you want to know what’s going on in world affairs, you read the Guardian or the Independent, you don’t read the Washington Post.
Are you interested in impartiality in your coverage?
We claim that we are searching for the truth. And we claim that we present a point of view that is not represented, or is misrepresented, in the mainstream media. And we claim that we are biased when we present our views, because this is the Arab American News. I don’t claim that I hold the bar in the middle.
So you are different than American papers that claim they are impartial?
Of course. If I wanted to be impartial, I would have called it the Dearborn Press or the Dearborn News. No, it’s the Arab American News. We have very striking, different views than the mainstream media. Otherwise, why would we exist?
Give me an example of where your views differ from the mainstream media.
We believe the Palestinians have the right to self-determination for their own state.
But the U.S. government believes that, too.
Yes, but they don’t do anything about it. And we believe the struggle to achieve that is legitimate. You cannot ask people not to fight for their freedom while other people are fighting to oppress them. Either you put pressure on those people who are fighting to oppress them, to stop, or you give them the means to fight back. Characterizing people as terrorists just because it is a nice word that we can use to slam a people and try to intimidate the rest, it is something we reject. If that is the characterization of what they call people who are fighting occupation, then George Washington was a terrorist.
You do things like lead rallies, which mainstream journalists don’t do. How would you describe your role as a journalist?
I am an activist. I am activist journalist. First of all, I am not a journalist.
I was not trained as a journalist. I learned on the job for the last 28 years how to be a good journalist. Am I still learning? You bet. Am I still making mistakes? Also, you bet. But at the same time, I’m not fooling anybody around here. I am an Arab American publisher and editor-in-chief of a newspaper that covers a community that has lots of issues and I wear many hats. One of them is an activist. I led demonstrations against occupation. I led demonstrations against civil rights abuses in the Middle East. I defend my community. And I try to bring my community into the mainstream.
Are you still a Republican?
I’m on hold. I’m very, very disappointed with the Republican Party. The Republican Party has been hijacked by extremists, like Islam has been hijacked by extremists. I am Muslim, and until my last breath I will disagree with the extremist, fundamentalist Muslims, and I until my last breath I will disagree with the Republican leaders and where the party has been led.