Sexual harassment scandal shakes Arab-American civil rights group
Al Arabiya News exclusive with the man at the center of the controversy
You know something is amiss in an organization when controversy seems to constantly dominate the public discourse about it. That has been the conversation in recent months in many circles in Washington about the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest civil rights organization for Arab-Americans, which is mired today in a sexual harassment scandal triggering resignations and layoffs inside the group.
Al Arabiya News has conducted thorough interviews with the main players involved, some of whom spoke out for the first time since the scandal broke last May. They explained their position, the controversial role of ADC’s board, and where do they see the organization headed after firing the head of communications, then the resignation of four women and most recently placing the President on probation.
The controversy came into the public eye on May 31 when Rashida Tlaib, an accomplished Arab-American woman elected as a State Representative in Michigan, accused ADC’s Michigan Director at the time Imad Hamad of sexually harassing her in 1999. Tlaib sent an open letter to ADC’s headquarters in Washington, coming out publicly as a “victim of Imad Hamad” and expressing dismay at how the organization’s leadership handled her complaint. In a phone interview with Al Arabiya News, Tlaib said that her decision to go public was “to protect other young women from Hamad’s pattern of twisted behavior.”
The “sexual harassment pattern” that Tlaib experienced, witnessed on other women and recounted for Al Arabiya, was “aggressive” in nature. It involved according to her, Hamad “groping female employees”, “forcing them to kiss him by grabbing them from the chin,” “stroking their hair” or “rubbing his body against their back.”
Rana Abbas is another Arab-American figure who came out publicly accusing Hamad of sexual harassment. Then, Faye Moslimani followed suit saying that Hamad assaulted her in 2007 in Dearborn, Michigan. Moslimani told the Detroit Free Press that “this man grabs my neck in a headlock and puts his mouth on my mouth,” Moslimani said. “I immediately shoved him into the wall ... and I said, ‘Who do you think you are?’ And I ran to the elevator” she added.
Hamad speaks out
Tlaib’s letter triggered an investigation, and Hamad was placed on a paid leave. Nearly four months after, the ADC board of directors concluded that there was “no sufficient evidence” against Hamad, and reassigned him to a new position as an advisor.
For the first time since the scandal broke, Hamad speaks out and tells Al-Arabiya News his response to the allegations in question. “I am being defamed by a political campaign of targeted and orchestrated accusations, aiming at weakening ADC” he says. Hamad who is also accomplished through 27 years of work in the Arab-American community, contends that “if through my long career I have caused hurt or pain for anyone, then I am sorry, it pains me as well.” While he repeatedly apologized “if something came out from me that was interpreted bad” he “utterly rejects the picture they are trying to frame me in, as an amoral and inhumane person.”
Asked if he has done any wrongdoing, he says “when someone accuses me of something, it is up to them to prove it, I fully cooperated with the investigations” launched by ADC.
When asked directly if he had groped or forced some women to kiss him, Hamad fires back “that is not only untrue, but it is also insane”. He adds that “sexual harassment is a very sensitive topic, and we as humans interact and talk differently, and different people might interpret things differently, but does that make that one person a beast? No, and here I see a sense of injustice.”
Two investigations and “insufficient evidence”
The investigations that both Tlaib and Hamad refer to were concluded by decisions in ADC’s board, clearing Hamad of any wrong doing and keeping him in the organization. The reason that many of the women involved decided to pursue an internal investigation and not a legal action is due to the Statue of Limitations on sexual harassment in the State of Michigan. That window allows a period between 2 to 5 years for legal action, which in Tlaib’s case has expired.
Hamad’s attorney Shereef Akeel told Al-Arabiya News that “based on all the facts gathered by the investigator, I was advised that the 13 members of the Board for ADC, four which are women, voted unanimously that there was simply insufficient evidence to support the harmful allegations that sexual harassment took place.” Except in this case the investigator, Teri Gorman, took a distance from the ADC board’s decision, telling the Detroit Free Press : “I was just fact-finding and not asked to make a determination” adding “Neither I nor my report made any determinations, conclusions or recommendations.”
Omar Baddar, former executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of ADC, also voiced skepticism about the nature of the investigations and the neutrality of ADC’s board. He tells Al Arabiya News that when similar allegations surfaced against Hamad in 2007, “staff members at the national office wanted a thorough investigation, but they noted that Safa Rifka, the board chair of ADC, blocked the investigation and insisted on a superficial inquiry instead.”
Resignations follow the Board’s decision
Six years later, Rifka’s name comes up again. This time, former ADC communications and advocacy director Raed Jarrar points to him "in playing a lead role in silencing and threatening the staff when inquiring about the recent investigation."
Rifka, according to multiple sources, has put the President of ADC Warren David on probation, as an act of retaliation, stripping him of the power to hire or fire staff. Rifka then fired Jarrar on Oct. 18. Jarrar was told that he was laid off for “restructuring” purposes. A well-known Arab-American activist, Jarrar believes he was fired because he, along with other ADC staff, "raised questions about organization's sexual harassment policies and the recent investigation.”
Jarrar tells Al-Arabiya News that he is appalled at “the culture of secrecy and disrespect of women that prevailed at the board of the organization”. Last week, Jarrar submitted an official complaint against ADC with the national labor relations board (NLRB), and he is finalizing another complaint to be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Jarrar told Al-Arabiya that he declined an official offer extended to him from the ADC board to buy his silence.
All four female staff members at the national office went on strike after Jarrar's removal, then they resigned two weeks later.
An online petition calling for a public apology from ADC, and the suspension of Hamad has gathered over 500 signatures since last week. Hamad, however and absent of an indictment from the Board or an investigator, sees no reason to resign. “You’re innocent until proven guilty” he tells Al-Arabiya.
ADC’s Vice-President in Washington Nabil Mohammed confirmed to Al Arabiya News the recent resignations, but refused to comment on organizational policy. ADC “takes any allegations of harassment seriously, and remains committed to providing a safe and supportive environment where all its staff and volunteers are treated with mutual respect,” Mohammed said.
However, for Tlaib and other women who have come out publicly against Hamad, the mere fact that he is still a paid official at ADC is “a slap in the face for us and the Arab-American community at large” says Tlaib. Neither Jarrar, Tlaib nor Baddar nor even Hamad want ADC to fall apart. But the scandal and the current trajectory of the organization is a concern to many inside the Arab-American community whose faith in ADC’s leadership and role is shaken.
You can follow Joyce on Twitter at: @Joyce_Karam
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