Our governor’s cold shoulder

SHAKEEL SYED is the executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, with war raging in the Middle East, I saw that my governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was meeting with rabbis and others who support Israel. As executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, a federation of more than 75 mosques and Muslim organizations serving half a million Muslims, I thought that such a high public official should also meet with members of my community. I wrote to him on Aug. 7.

I wanted to talk to the governor about three important points. I wanted him to know that my community felt that the deaths of innocent Israeli civilians from the rockets of Hezbollah were painfully tragic, and just as tragic as the deaths of innocent Lebanese people and the destruction of their country’s infrastructure by the Israeli bombing. I wanted to ask him to listen to another, equally important side of the story. And I wanted to urge him to remember that the governor should represent and listen to all the people of California.

After waiting for more than a week, and following up with at least 10 phone calls to the governor’s office, I had gotten no response. I felt it was my duty and my right as a citizen to avail myself of a public forum to reach the governor. When a reporter from the L.A. Times called, I spoke with him and, on Aug. 16, The Times correctly reported my perspective: The fact that the governor had ignored my request to meet was disrespectful and insulting.

I believe what I did comes under the heading of Democracy 101. Politicians govern and win elections by responding to the populace. And when they do not, the populace has two remedies: the power of the vote and the power of public opinion.


Finally, when the governor agreed to meet with two Muslims, it was as individuals, not on behalf of any organization. He refused to meet with me. His communications director, Adam Mendelsohn, was forthright in a public statement: “We did not meet with Mr. Syed [because] it was inappropriate for the governor to meet with someone who uses the media to demand meetings and threaten political retaliation.”

I think the governor’s communications director needs work on his communication skills. What he calls demanding a meeting, I call paying attention to constituents; what he calls political retaliation, I call voting.

I think that deliberately avoiding a meeting with me solely because I made use of my 1st Amendment rights is simply un-American.

This isn’t a personal matter between me and the governor. It’s about making sure that the half a million people I represent are heard in Sacramento. Marginalizing Californians who are Muslims subtly reinforces anti-Muslim stereotypes, which all too often cast us as outsiders. This is not principled, it’s not good politics and it’s not good for the state.

In these volatile times, with attacks on Muslims and our mosques, we cannot afford to be ignored by our governor; we can’t stand by when his actions deepen religious and cultural divisions.

Californians are, by and large, decent and well-intentioned. They want to solve problems; they want to break down barriers.

Shouldn’t their governor be helping them bring down the walls that separate us rather than building them higher?