Mobilizing for change

M. Yaser Tabbara’s outspokenness against the government in Syria, where he spent his formative years, made him persona non grata. Tabbara works with the same level of conviction as he advocates for the Chicago region’s Muslims and Arab Americans. Photo by J.Geil.

M. Yaser Tabbara’s outspokenness against the government in Syria, where he spent his formative years, made him persona non grata. Tabbara works with the same level of conviction as he advocates for the Chicago region’s Muslims and Arab Americans. Photo by J.Geil.

Images of a bloody government crackdown and audio of Syrian-accented cries for help filled M. Yaser Tabbara’s law office in suburban Chicago.

This was the turning point for Tabbara, a Chicago native who spent his formative years in Damascus, Syria. Despite the expected consequences of speaking out against the Syrian government, he chose to write an op-ed piece in Al-Jazeera English backing the protesters. Days later, he saw his name flash across Syrian television, labeled as a wanted man.

“If I go to Syria, I’m probably going to be immediately jailed or killed,” Tabbara said.

Looking past the government’s threat, he continues to lobby other countries to support the uprising and organizes protests in Chicago while holding down a job as an immigration attorney.

While Tabbara advocates for social change abroad, he’s also working to bring about a change in politics for the Muslim and Arab-American communities around Chicago.

As president of Project Mobilize, Tabbara is part of a group of activists trying to give a voice to Muslims and Arab-Americans in the southwest suburbs by campaigning for candidates to be elected to local office.

For last April’s elections, Project Mobilize recruited candidates, then trained them and came up with campaign strategies. The group also provided publicity for the candidates by creating promotional websites, holding community events and going door-to-door asking for voter support.

The candidates do not have to be Muslim, but the group looks for people who have a wealth of experience in the office they seek and who care about the same issues as the community they seek to represent. Tabbara stresses that these issues are not solely specific to the Muslim community but are universal problems like education and healthcare.

By educating the community about the political process and urging them to get out and vote, two of the group’s seven candidates won local seats in the election.

“We were very happy. We were especially happy because actually all of them got very close,” Tabbara said.

As the group gears up for its second election season, The Chicago Reporter sat down with Tabbara to talk about his work.

Why is it necessary to have a group like Project Mobilize?

The Arab and Muslim community in the United States has always felt this discrepancy between their contribution to society in general and their representation. So there are a lot of research studies and things like that that have concluded that the American-Muslim community are among the most educated, the most wealthy, the most well-to-do in their environments. Yet it’s a community that is constantly undermined, constantly misrepresented, constantly underrepresented in both pop culture and the political sphere. So there has always been this need for representation at a political level at least.

Do you feel that there’s a prejudice against Muslim candidates?

On a local level, that challenge tends to be almost nonexistent, and the reason is … part of this entire process that we’re putting together requires basically recruiting candidates that are known in their own communities. The most important thing that we can do as Muslim Americans to correct or to educate the American public about who we are and shatter these stereotypes against us is to engage with our neighbors, engage with our local community, outreach, let people know who we are.

The same thing goes to Americans at large. Before you cast judgment on what the values of the American Muslim community in the United States are, try to reach out to your neighbor, try to talk to the Muslim next door or to your co-worker or colleague. And then get to know them more and more and then pass your judgment.

Did Chicago’s troubled political landscape have an effect on your campaigning?

It creates a kind of reaction. There is a thirst for honest, principled political representation. We feel that we have a lot to offer to the American political process in terms of our values. Our anti-corruption values, our anti-oppression values. American Muslims can provide quite a bit of resources and vision to our local political structure and inner workings because of our values and because of what we aspire to be and contribute. Really, on a personal level, when I talked to these seven candidates, if you ask them, ‘Why are you running?’ they’ll tell you, ‘I’m just sick and tired of being represented by crooks, and I just want to clean up the system, and I want to be a voice for integrity and for honest representation.’

What generation does your group target?

The idea of all politics are local is more of an indigenous sort of approach. The younger generation of Muslim Americans tend to fundamentally believe in that because they see their identities as Americans and as Muslims to be completely compatible and not contradictory. Naturally, that’s the sort of generation that we’re utilizing, that we’re organizing, that we’re mobilizing, that we’re asking to run for office.

Is it possible to see yourself as an American while maintaining ties to your native culture?

I absolutely think that they can be reconciled. I think that it’s very possible to be completely bicultural, completely bilingual.

The contradiction is that, on one hand, I come from a country that is deemed to be part of the ‘axis of evil,’ and, on another, when I’m in Syria, there’s this perception that I come from the bastion of imperialism and world expansion—being a friend of Israel and all that. So there is this very interesting dichotomous perception that I’m subjected to whether I’m in Syria or the United States.

Despite that, I feel that I have these two identities that coexist in perfect harmony, and I’m personally very comfortable. I’m as comfortable functioning as an American as a Syrian in Syria. And I think ultimately it’s about the common human values between the two cultures that bring these two worlds together. Specifically, empathy. I’m very big on that particular value. I think that that’s what the world needs more of.

The higher the level of empathy that people have in the world, the lower the level of problems and disconnect and disasters that you have.

Do you find any crossover between your work with the Syrian revolution and Project Mobilize?

Yeah, actually. In fact, because the elections that we’re organizing around are local elections and April 5 was the election date, a lot of these revolutions happened before this election date. So we came up with this mantra: Our Revolution is Electoral. It’s actually plastered outside our office in Summit in big bold letters.

As we went and spoke to our community members about the importance for their engagement in local politics, our message was that, ‘Look, your fellow humans in the Middle East, whether it’s in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya or Syria or Yemen, are basically putting their lives on the line to get what you already have—which is the right to vote. They are actually sacrificing their lives for something you already have, and you’re not exercising it.’ And I feel that that was a very strong message. And I think that these revolutions really energized our communities to go out and vote more, as they were an inspiration to revolutions all across the world.

How do you hope to move the project forward?

When we started this effort we did not have any grandiose ambitions to take over the world, and we still don’t. It’s a truly organic grass-roots effort that is concerned with organizing our communities and educating them about the political process, the local political process, the importance of participation. Again, it was a response to our community, which often complained that, ‘We’re not represented. Our voice is not heard.’ We tell them, ‘Well, here’s your chance. Here’s your organization. Let your voice be heard.’ And so we’ll see how that goes, as the interest generates.

I truly believe that it’s not going to be something that will become a national organization overnight. I truly feel that this is a long-term process, and it will take years and years. At one point, hopefully, we’ll get to a point where we have a serious political platform that embodies our values of social justice.

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