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James Zogby, a Catholic of Lebanese descent, works to dispel myths about Arabs

James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, is often tapped to explain what Arabs are thinking, why they are thinking it, how the United States can impact it and what it all means.

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In the early days after 9/11, employees of the Arab American Institute huddled in their modest K Street offices, afraid to leave the building. Police downstairs guarded the entrance, serving as protection from those who might deliver on the death threats sent to the nonprofit's founder and president, James Zogby. Raghead, they had said. I'll slit your throat.

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This is not the story that Zogby likes to tell. He prefers the one that happened next, the one where, in the middle of the threats and the police and the fact that the world had suddenly gone pear-shaped, he heard a timid knock.

"I looked through the door, and I saw the woman from the office next door," he says. He didn't know her name. They had never spoken. "She was holding a platter of brownies. And she said, 'I know you are frightened. I wanted to bring you this.' " He shakes his head at the memory, which honors his belief that violent actions prompt kind reactions and that progress progresses.

He saw the brownies and, he recalls, "I wept."

Zogby, who is of Lebanese descent, is Catholic but is often assumed to be Muslim because of what he does, and responds to e-mailed bile by offering to pray for the senders. He is the brother of the more famous John, the pollster behind Zogby International, with whom he has collaborated on a new book. He is, at a time of "Islamic cultural centers" or "Ground Zero mosques" -- depending on how you feel about the proposed New York construction -- a man relentlessly tapped to explain what Arabs are thinking, why they are thinking it and how the United States can make better decisions.

"He knows all the Arab leaders, whether it's [Yasser] Arafat or the king of Jordan or the president of Egypt or the prime minister of Lebanon," says Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who is also of Lebanese descent and who met Zogby when LaHood was running for Congress in Illinois. "In Washington, if you want to know about Arab issues, you call Jim Zogby."

And LaHood suggests calling up one of these world leaders. He knows that such dignitaries don't typically gab on the phone, "but when they hear you're talking about Jim . . ."

A few days later, Queen Noor of Jordan rings up. Asked what she thinks Zogby's most important contribution has been to relationship-building between Americans and Arabs, she says, "The work that he's undertaken today is more important than it ever was -- and it will be even more important tomorrow."

* * *

The grand irony of the Middle East: The United States has "sent more money, sent more troops, fought more wars, and lost more lives" than can be calculated, Zogby says. "The investment there is so enormous and yet we just don't understand the culture."

(QUIZ: Test your knowledge of Arab attitudes)

At 64, Zogby is a grandfatherly man, gently balding with deep laugh lines and thin-rimmed glasses. His cluttered office -- in mid-renovation -- is decorated with pictures of his wife, Eileen, and their five grown children.


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