Mayor balks at endorsing Arab group for panel

Mayor balks at endorsing Arab group for panel
Raritan Twp. leader cites ‘differences’

Sunday, February 20, 2005

BY CATHY BUGMAN, The Star Ledger

Star-Ledger Staff

Efforts to establish a New Jersey Arab Heritage Commission are falling short of winning the support of one Hunterdon County mayor.

That’s because Raritan Township Mayor Peter Kinsella said he disagrees with the philosophy espoused by one of the organizations backing the formation of the commission.

Kinsella objects to the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ involvement in the movement and suggests the state “do a better job” of selecting an advocacy group with which to align itself.

“They are a lobbying group intent on promoting differences between cultural groups, in a negative manner, to serve their own agenda,” Kinsella said in a prepared statement released in response to a state request for a resolution supporting the creation of the commission. “They have exhibited an anti-U.S. attitude in the war on terror.”

While Raritan’s township committee has not taken action on the resolution, more than 20 other municipalities throughout the state have passed resolutions of support for the establishment of the commission, according to Frank Vespa-Papaleo, director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights.

The idea for the commission came out of a collaborative effort of CAIR and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a grassroots civil rights organization. (See ADCNJ letter)

New Jersey is home to more than 750,000 Arabs and Muslims — there are about 10 million nationwide — yet their religions, culture and customs remain a mystery to most Americans, said Aref Assaf, president of the New Jersey chapter of ADC.

When the commission is established, which officials believe will come about sometime later this year, representatives intend to work with the state Department of Education and the state’s school districts to highlight the rich history, Assaf said.

The state already has several other similar types of commissions, including the Holocaust Commission, the Asian-American Commission and the Italian-American Commission, which have performed to expectations, Assaf said.

Specifically, Kinsella takes issue with comments he claimed have been attributed to the organization characterizing the convictions of the people involved in the first World Trade Center bombings a “travesty of justice,” and the conviction of Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, now serving a life sentence in the United States for directing a conspiracy to bomb New York landmarks, a “hate crime.”

Kinsella said the state — “in its never-ending quest to be perceived as politically correct” — should “do a better job” selecting proponents of causes to which it aspires.

But a commissioner with the New Jersey Commission on Civil Rights, which is joining with CAIR and the ADC, said the mayor needs to get his facts straight.

“The organization he is criticizing is Islamic,” said Commissioner Sherine El-Abd of Edison. “We’re trying to put together a commission for Arab-Americans, the majority of whom are not Muslims.”

She said the reason for his opposition indicates a “lack of education. When someone is uninformed, it’s easy to be judgmental. There’s no better cure than education, which is exactly what the commission wants to do, is educate people.”

The executive director of CAIR, a Washington D.C.-based Islamic, civil rights and advocacy group with 31 offices across the country, calls the mayor’s characterizations of the organization false and labels him a “victim of misinformation.”

“A simple phone call to either our New Jersey office or our Washington, D.C., headquarters could have saved you the embarrassment of repeating false information and using your good office to alienate the local Muslim and Arab-American communities,” Nihad Awad said in a letter faxed to the mayor’s office last week. He also offered to send a representative of CAIR to meet with Kinsella and other members of the township committee to address the issue and “refute these or any other false allegations against our organization.”

When a discussion about the issue arose at a township committee meeting last month, a representative of the Community Diversity Council of Hunterdon County spoke out.

“We’re not satisfied with his comments and portrayal of the organization,” Jorge Zeballos, president of the council, a nonprofit organization run by volunteers seeking to promote acceptance for all people, said in a phone interview last week, calling them “very offensive.” He said he intends to “continue to press the matter.”

“The time is now for the veils of ignorance to be lifted off our community’s diverse mosaic,” Assaf said. “We will not despair until we achieve our goals.”

Cathy Bugman works in the Somerset County bureau. She can be reached at cbugman@starledger.com or (908) 429-9929.