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Oubai Shahbandar loves America. The only thing he loves more than his adopted homeland, people often say, is the sound of his own voice.
On a winter day, Shahbandar sits at a blinding, metallic table outside the Memorial Union at Arizona State University in Tempe, reminiscing over his college career. But this is not a conversation about houseboat parties in Havasu and fraternity hazing. As a senior set to graduate in May and head east to grad school at Georgetown University's National Security Studies program, Shahbandar -- whose parents fled their native Syria for the United States when he was just 8 years old -- thanks God for the American dream he has made his reality.
"I mean, come on," Shahbandar says with a slightly officious intonation, while adjusting his oblong glasses on the bridge of his nose. "Where else could I have accomplished everything I have but in this country?"
He goes on. And on.
"George W. Bush is a great man," he slips in once in a while. He proselytizes for nearly a half-hour, repeating the same words, as if he's campaigning. Shahbandar preaches the American Way, as a make-believe Stars and Stripes waves behind him and Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." whispers somewhere in the afternoon breeze.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Oubai [pronounced OH-bay] Shahbandar has made his American dream a nightmare for some ASU students, faculty and administrators by attacking the university milieu of student advocacy groups through his own Web log, and a slew of conservative Webzines. A self-described neo-conservative who calls anti-war protesters "terrorists," Shahbandar rails against the "leftist Ivory Tower of American academia" he says dominates ASU's political landscape.
He scoffs at student organizations like the gay and lesbian Lambda League and the Black African Coalition, dismissing them by declaring, "No one in America is oppressed."
He calls certain ASU professors with a liberal bent "socialists," and has posted their names and photos on a Web page called "The Socialist Professor of the Month." At a feminist rally on campus, he shouted, "All you need is a good man!"
While his face is unrecognizable to a majority of the 50,000 students on campus, his name and his legend have reached urban myth proportions. There are allegations Shahbandar forged, plagiarized and verbally harassed his way through college -- the latter making way for Shahbandar's near-expulsion from ASU almost two years ago.
But while most on campus find Shahbandar's antics comical, some fear how close the 22-year-old may get to the political stardom he seeks. The fearful include members of ASU's Muslim Students Association, who Shahbandar once called "Taliban in training." The Muslim group's president, Nazeef Ebrahim, blames Shahbandar for stifling the growth of his organization's membership, holding steady at just under 40 active members out of more than 400 international students at ASU from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
And others, including Deedra Abboud, the director of the Phoenix chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, claim that Shahbandar is being used by white conservatives in a fear campaign against Islam.
Which is most interesting because Oubai Shahbandar is Muslim. At least, he's as Muslim as someone who hasn't prayed since Ramadan can be.
"I know that Oubai loves America, and there's nothing wrong with that," Abboud says. "I just hope that he doesn't think he has to give up his other identity [as a Muslim] in order to prove to the world that he is an American."
At dusk on a blustery January evening in a north Scottsdale neighborhood, Oubai Shahbandar is reading by the electric blue light of his laptop computer at his parents' kitchen table. He lives at home with mom, dad, and his two younger brothers. He's going over his itinerary for a conference later in the week in Washington, D.C., with an anti-terrorism think tank -- the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Seminars on Islamist fundamentalists, meetings with congressmen, and a visit to CNN's Crossfire dot the schedule.
Shahbandar is hoping for political success, although, being a Syrian immigrant, a presidential run isn't -- yet -- constitutionally possible. But his aspiration to become the first foreign-born Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress is certainly in sight.
In the dimly lighted dining room of his home, Shahbandar rambles about "totalitarianism," "militant Islam" and the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein and the al-Assad regime of Shahbandar's native Syria.
He's got shelves stacked with books on conservative and liberal politics, foreign policy, and terrorism. And he surfs the Internet sometimes eight hours a day for neo-con news on the Middle East.
His mother, Shafa, walks through the front door.
"Why are you sitting in the dark?" she asks her son, and then switches on the light. Shahbandar dismisses her, and continues talking up the conference and the connections he'll make.
"Don't forget to pack a coat," Shafa tells him as she listens in.
"Why? It shouldn't be that cold," he says.
No matter how well-read Shahbandar is on militant Islam and political warfare, he's still a college student who can't be bothered with news of a Nor'easter in January.