Sept. 27 issue – There should be a New York Press award hanging on the wall of Hussein Ibish’s office, but the 41-year-old Lebanese-American and Washington correspondent for the Arab world’s most prominent English-language paper, the Daily Star, hasn’t had time to put it up. He picks up the plaque off his cluttered desk and reads it aloud: “best tv spokesman for the arab cause. It’s really flattering,” he says, “but it’s a bit like being named the tallest skyscraper in San Clemente.”
As the former communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Ibish has pioneered a new type of Middle Eastern advocacy and become a hero among civil libertarians and Arab-Americans alike. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell referred to Muhammad the Prophet as a “demon-possessed pedophile” on CNN’s “Crossfire” after the 9/11 attacks, Ibish decided all logical argument was out the window. “I called him an idiot, plain and simple,” says Ibish. He received a standing ovation from the studio audience.
On Alan Keyes’s show, New York Post columnist Daniel Pipes asserted that it was far too dangerous for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Ibish carefully deconstructed the argument until Pipes’s only defense was to yell, “Shut up! Shut up!” And then there was the recent phone call from a political columnist the day after Ibish had appeared on MSNBC with him. By the end of the call the columnist had dropped his dogged assertions that the Saudi government was a terrorist organization and instead asked, “Hussein, why don’t you like me?” “When the other party comes unglued, flails around or loses their cool, you know you’ve won,” says Ibish, who’s now writing a book about the Arab-American experience. “When people get really mad, you know you’ve done a good job. And if you’ve done an excellent job, you’ll receive death threats.”
But the love Ibish receives from those he’s defending, he says, makes it all worth it. “I was in a New York cab and the driver said, ‘You can’t pay. I know who you are. I know what you’re doing for me and my children.’ On the way back the same exact thing happened. It helps to be appreciated. But in the end I volunteered to mud-wrestle in the sewer with half-wits and villains. Somebody has to do it-why not me?”