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.
The Nissan Sentra he drives is plastered with stickers that read "Bush/Cheney," "Salmon for Governor" and "American by Birth, Gun Owner by Choice," neither of which Shahbandar can truthfully claim.
He eats at home for free, he doesn't pay rent, make car payments or pay for insurance. Yet Shahbandar can't balance his checkbook or go more than a month without overdrawing his account.
So why are local Muslims worried about a guy who isn't exactly detail-oriented, much less possessing of the ability to organize what he calls a "network of like-minded Arabs and Muslims who love President Bush's new foreign policy in the Middle East"?
They're worried because Oubai Shahbandar has friends in high places. And ethics, some say, that fall far below his own claims.
As a freshman in August 2000, Shahbandar got a job as a columnist with ASU's campus newspaper, The State Press. In his first and only column for the paper, "Israeli leadership deserves blame for Holocaust," he opined that Zionists who were working to establish an Israeli state in the early 1940s failed to help fellow Jews in Eastern Europe escape the Holocaust.
"It is ironic that European governments, banks and auto manufacturers are coerced into paying billions of dollars in reparations due to their predecessors' Nazi collaborations 60 years ago," he wrote, "while a government, built upon a legacy of the worst kind of collaboration, is able to claim the moral right as the guardian of the memory of the very same people that its founders refused to save."
Shahbandar's editor says she received dozens of e-mails from outraged students and faculty on campus barking "anti-Semitism." She was about to ask Shahbandar to tone it down in his next column, when a student sent a link to an anti-Semitic Web site to The State Press. On it, says Stephanie Conner, The State Press opinion editor at the time who has since graduated and now works for a local publishing firm, she found that Shahbandar had plagiarized several portions of his column, stealing from a "neo-Nazi" site.
"I have to admit that it was anti-Semitic. But I was younger then; I still had developing viewpoints and opinions," Shahbandar says. "But was it plagiarized? No. I'll deny that today." Various sections of his column can be found verbatim on several Internet sites, all of which were published before Shahbandar's column appeared in The State Press.
Despite his denials, Conner fired him. Both Shahbandar and Conner say he took it well. He didn't protest, and he never set foot in The State Press newsroom again.
He became the president of ASU's College Republicans a few months later, again generating controversy from the outset. To recruit new members, Shahbandar posted fliers around ASU that read: "ATTENTION WOMEN!!! PREVENT YOURSELF FROM BEING RAPED ON CAMPUS. Join the ASU College Republicans and Defend Gun Rights!"
He later linked a Web page from the College Republicans' site taking visitors to Shahbandar's "Socialist Professor of the Month." He wrote that one ASU instructor was "guilty of Socialist Dictatorship"; he labeled a biology professor, Dr. Jennifer Fewell, a "lifestyle Nazi"; and alleged that a history professor, Dr. Angela Wilson, had taught her class that the Republican party was racist. At least one professor, Dr. Jose Menendez, threatened legal action against Shahbandar.
But Shahbandar's tenure with the College Republicans was short-lived as well.
After he posted a photo of Arizona Senator John McCain alongside images of Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and Joseph Stalin, suggesting they were all one and the same, the state director of the College Republicans expelled him from the group.
"It's the 11th Commandment," says Christina Corieri, the current chairwoman of ASU's College Republicans. "You just don't say negative things about fellow Republicans."
Oasis Cafe in Tempe is packed with twentysomethings on a Thursday night, many looking for multiculturalism on pita bread, or simply a pretty girl belly dancing. Some are looking for familiarity.
Shahbandar says he's the latter, puffing on a hookah flavored with apple shisha.
"This is where I'm most comfortable," he says, after a light meal of manaeesh al-jebneh -- Lebanese bread with cheese, olive oil and oregano. Shahbandar has been called anti-Muslim and anti-Arab by Muslim and liberal students, and by the Council of American Islamic Relations, he says. He is a secular Sunni Muslim who hasn't prayed since Ramadan in early November, and doesn't visit a mosque. He believes that what he writes and says qualifies as dangerous behavior, that his criticism of militant Islam has caused him to be ostracized by fellow Muslims, and labeled a "traitor" and a "heretic" by leaders of the local Muslim community -- a burgeoning population of 50,000-plus in Maricopa County and more than 70,000 across the state that is growing as rapidly as the state population itself now that Arizona has once again become a stop for international refugees.
"Heresy is punishable by death -- it's automatic death. That's why you see very few Arab and Muslim students speaking out against the MSA," Shahbandar says. "That's what they say about me -- 'He's against God,' 'He's a heretic.' How are you going to carry on a conversation with someone when they believe you're going against God's will and going to hell?"
Shahbandar begins to talk about the threats he's received in the past couple of years, as one of his "dissident friends," Marwan Assaf, a Lebanese student at ASU, asks the waiter at Oasis about his nationality.
"Where are you from?" Assaf asks the dark-skinned, expressionless kid. "I am Palestinian," the waiter says. The table draws silent, and as the waiter retreats to the kitchen, Assaf leans into Shahbandar's ear, whispers, and Shahbandar chuckles. But Assaf is serious.
"I'm very afraid that Oubai is going to one day be under attack. Because these people are brainwashed," Assaf says. "They are told, 'If you kill him, you will go to heaven.' Anywhere, when you see a suicide bombing or a plane go into a building, they are brainwashed into thinking they will go to heaven."
Shahbandar says he isn't preoccupied with fear -- "I don't have time for fear. I grew up in fear," he says -- but then rattles off a list of threats. He's gotten so many, he's thinking about buying a gun. Contrary to the message on his car, he doesn't own one -- yet. "I might get a concealed weapons permit," he adds.
He admits he hasn't received any death threats, per se, but says he's gotten his share of hostile e-mails and phone calls. He's been accused of being a Zionist, "which is, by the way, almost like a death sentence in the Middle East," he says. "Nothing just outright saying, 'We're going to kill you.' But you know what? Look, there are crazies everywhere. Phoenix is a big town."
A few days after he brought one of his mentors, neo-con pundit David Horowitz, to campus just after September 11, Shahbandar says someone filled up his gas tank with sugar, which he found out driving on the freeway as his engine wheezed its last breath. He never filed a police report, though. But in September 2002, he did tell ASU police he received a threatening phone call at his home from someone on campus. (ASU police say Shahbandar never brought in the phone records he promised he would as evidence.) He found a couple of photos of himself and his former girlfriend on a wall at Phoenicia Cafe just off campus in Tempe with both their faces scratched out. And just a week after he and Assaf met up at Oasis with New Times, he says he was nearly shouted off the dance floor and challenged to take a walk outside once his Muslim and Palestinian rivals recognized his face.
"We know who you are! Don't ever come back here again!" Shahbandar says the students warned him.
He never filed a police report about the incident, and no one at Oasis remembered it.
"Being a public persona has its benefits," he says. "In terms of Arab activism, I am probably the most vocal pro-reform American Muslim and American Arab in this state. So it's not hard for me to be the lightning rod of the anti-reform, anti-American and anti-democracy forces of radical Islam.
"I'm putting a target on my head for these radical Islamist fundamentalists. It's no joke. There's definitely a terrorist cell in Phoenix. Might they take me out in this critical juncture? Maybe."
What little Oubai Shahbandar remembers of growing up in Damascus, Syria, is dark. His family lived in an affluent neighborhood by Damascus' standards, thanks to Oubai's father Nabil's work as a civil engineer. But the Shahbandars lived in boxy, urban housing Oubai compares to "Soviet apartments." He was taught by nuns at a private Catholic school, where young Oubai learned French and Arabic. After the Shahbandars moved to the U.S., when Oubai was 8, he was speaking three languages fluently, including English.
He remembers the murals of Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, that decorated Damascus. Al-Assad was on walls and fliers, and in the books Shahbandar was reading in school.
He says even then he questioned the authority of his educators. He remembers being slapped on the wrist, punched, and forced to sit in the corner by nuns after he raised his hand and asked, "If Israel is such a mortal threat, why doesn't Syria invade?"
"They thought of me as being disruptive," Shahbandar says of his parochial teachers. "Imagination, creativity . . . those are the first things that go with these Baath dictatorships. It's worse than death because you have a whole region of zombies."
On a family visit to Damascus almost six years ago with his mother and two younger brothers, 17-year-old Shahbandar saw the murals and fliers of al-Assad along a street in his old neighborhood: "Say Yes to Hafez." "Hafez for Syria."
Shahbandar defaced the fliers, painting mustaches and devil horns on the face of al-Assad in broad daylight, just feet away from a Syrian military installation. Caught, and he would have been thrown in jail, possibly tortured.
"Being kids, we probably wouldn't have been killed, but you never know. This was a man responsible for killing thousands of Syrians. But it was a rush. It was something we weren't supposed to do," Shahbandar says. "It was a stupid thing to do. But would I do it again? Absolutely."
Shahbandar doesn't have many friends. "There aren't that many people I can trust," he says.
One person in Shahbandar's inner circle is his former girlfriend, Shanna Bowman. They met when Bowman ran for president of ASU's student government back in 2001. Attracted to her conservative values, which Bowman often spoke of while campaigning around campus, Shahbandar began to start up conversations with his adversary. After a few months, and after Bowman lost the election, they realized they were among an ideological minority at ASU -- outspoken conservatives fed up with campus liberalism.
"I thought it was great that I finally met someone I could talk to about this stuff," says Bowman, now a law student at Columbia University in New York City.
Shahbandar began to see Bowman more often, talking politics and making her laugh with cheesy jokes. "He wasn't delivering roses to my house, but he can be very charming. But I had to tell him not to use any more one-liners," Bowman says. "Oubai may be shy with girls, but he masks it with his cockiness."
Together, they became a neo-conservative power couple on campus. Eventually, Bowman won a student government election as the vice president of student activities -- organizing lectures on campus -- and Shahbandar became her "chief of staff." But before they even knew each other, Bowman got her first look at what she calls the "other Oubai."
In April 2001, David Horowitz -- a 1960s liberal of the "New Left" movement who radically switched his ideological allegiances in the 1980s -- took out a full-page ad in college newspapers around the country, including The State Press, titled "10 Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Are a Bad Idea."
Students and educators across the country boycotted the campus newspapers that ran the ad, calling it "racist" and "hate speech." A few newspapers, including The State Press, ran an apology for running the ad.
Shahbandar used it as an opportunity to invite Horowitz to Tempe.
He organized the event by calling Horowitz personally at his conservative think tank in Los Angeles, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, while The State Press was still receiving dozens of angry letters to the editor and protesters outside its offices over the reparations ad.
Once he got Horowitz to ASU, Shahbandar put himself in front of the podium as well, proselytizing before an overflowing lecture hall with armed ASU and Tempe police officers on guard.
"He loves talking, giving speeches," Bowman says. "He loves to open for these speakers. He sees himself as part of the speaking program."
Many in the crowd shouted "racist" and "bigot" before Horowitz ever spoke a word. In return, they got a tongue-lashing from Shahbandar, who shouted "Liberal fascists!" and told them to "Shut up!"
"In a normal setting, he would never act like that or talk like that," says Bowman, who got her first glimpse of Shahbandar's podium persona that afternoon.
While Bowman still cringes at Shahbandar's behavior that day, Horowitz liked what he saw.
"I saw how he was willing to stand up to people under immense pressure," says Horowitz, who once signed a copy of his book The Art of Political War for Shahbandar, "To Oubai: A practitioner of the art." To date, Shahbandar has written more than a half-dozen columns for Horowitz's Front Page Magazine (www.frontpagemag.com).
"He's a very articulate young man. It's important to have fearless spokesmen like Oubai."
On conservative Web sites like WorldNetDaily.com -- which claimed in January to be the most popular site for political news on the Internet -- his own blog (formerly rightwingarab.blogspot.com, now FreeArabForum.blogspot.com), and the Webzines of his neo-conservative mentors, Shahbandar has waged an ideological cyber war against the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Muslim Students Association, and countless advocacy groups he calls "apologists for extremism."
Most recently, Shahbandar was published in print in D.C.'s conservative daily newspaper, the Washington Times, calling in an op-ed piece for the end of the al-Assad regime in his native Syria, a predictable opinion considering Shahbandar's recollections of growing up in Damascus.
But in October, he wrote a guest column for the Arizona Republic, headlined "U.S. Muslims as patriots," in which he said that CAIR and the Muslim Students Association are out to destroy the United States. And, in January, on WorldNetDaily.com, he wrote that CAIR supports dictatorships and apologizes for "crimes against humanity."
None of which is viewed as anything more than hyperbole at CAIR and the MSA. They've heard it all before from pundits like Horowitz, Daniel Pipes and other conservatives.
But this is being said by a fellow Muslim -- with fans.
Shahbandar has built a loyal following of conservative bloggers who are mostly white, Republican Christians who'll vote to reelect George W. Bush in November. They tout Shahbandar's writings as scripture on militant Islam, citing Shahbandar's own claim to the faith to legitimize his opinions.
"Name one war in the name of fundamentalist christianity this decade. Just one and prove it," a blogger by the name of "vaserious" posted on a born-again Christian Web site, somegoodstuff.com. "Now, beleive [sic] a muslim if not me," he writes, directing other bloggers to Shahbandar's Republic column.
They post segments of his columns on their own blogs, most of which are pro-Israel and pro-Bush. Students from around the country -- some Arabs -- call him "courageous" and a "hero." And many express fears that Shahbandar's life is in danger. "He's the real deal. I wish he weren't intimidated on his own campus," a girl named Anna posted on her blog, "Belligerent Bunny." "I wish I didn't fear for his life when he writes this stuff."
Early on at ASU, Shahbandar learned that he didn't need the outlets his peers utilized to get their opinions out into the open. Then again, he had to be creative -- he was running out of options.
In April 2002, Shahbandar wrote a column for ASU's Collegiate Conservative, a now-defunct monthly newspaper created by a group of conservative students. In "Arizona State's Top Ten Reactionary Clubs," Shahbandar advised students to ask for a refund from ASU for helping to fund certain politically active groups like the gay and lesbian Lambda League, the Young Democrats, and the Black African Coalition.
"First of all, they're not African," he wrote about the Black African Coalition. "I was born closer to Africa than most of them will ever get to in their lives."
About the Lambda League: "Each year ASU's campus gay/lesbian/confused/hiding/not hiding/bi/tri-sexual reactionary radical organizations put on the so-called day of silence to commemorate their supposed oppression by 'The Man' . . . News-flash: No one in America is oppressed."
None of which is surprising, given Shahbandar's ideology. But for all his conservative stands, Shahbandar was one of the few student senators who defended ASU's amateur porn star/student government vice president, Brian Buck. Shahbandar blamed ASU president Michael Crow -- who had just begun his tenure two months before news of the porn hit the Valley -- for being "the real culprit in the case, as pornography classes and homosexual pulp fiction literature are still being taught as part of the academic cirriculi [sic] on campus."
The comments caused a rift between Shahbandar and the editor of the Conservative, Dan Moody -- who did not respond to e-mails New Times sent to his ASU address -- and Shahbandar never wrote for the publication again.
Shahbandar has been accused of many misdeeds at ASU. The worst almost got him expelled. As is so often the case in politics, this one involved the heart -- and freebies.
As a member of the Associated Students of ASU (ASASU), the university's student government, his then-girlfriend, Shanna Bowman, organized lecture schedules and invited guest speakers to campus. As a member of the Young America's Foundation, a conservative youth organization both she and Shahbandar belonged to (and which funded Horowitz's lectures at ASU), she earned points for bringing certain speakers to campus YAF supported. Those YAF members with enough points would be rewarded with a trip to Ronald Reagan's ranch in Southern California for a week of conservative-based seminars. But one ASU student senator, Marcia James, said that as a member of ASASU and of the Young America's Foundation, Bowman would be accepting a gift that would constitute a conflict of interest, and brought a bill before the student government to impeach her. The impeachment failed when fellow ASASU senators voted Bowman shouldn't be removed from office for something she might do in the future.
But Shahbandar still went ballistic. He went to James' office and called her a "fucking commie pig," according to ASU police reports. Two days later, James received a threatening e-mail from Shahbandar's address.
"You are lucky that your bill got nowhere because if it had, you would have paid dearly," the e-mail began. "Communist pigs like you deserve what you get and more. If you do not love this country enough to realize that Shanna Bowman is one of the most stalwart defendants of what America stands for, then you are a terrorist and should be deported. Your Stalinist approach will not work at ASASU. Shanna will continue to bring speakers from YAF that promote the true ideals of America, not your left-wing fascist ideals that will destroy America.
"If you ever so much as think of bringing another bill against Shanna," the message warned, "I will see to it that you pay dearly. If you're ever walking alone, you'd better watch your back because if you bring another bill against Shanna, there's a good chance that someone will be looking for you. I will not let anti-American Communist pigs like you tarnish this great country."
And it's signed, "Oubai."
James, who graduated last May (she told New Times through a third party that she didn't want to be interviewed about Shahbandar), filed a report with ASU police. Shahbandar was then removed from campus by ASU police officers, and was suspended from campus while administrators determined if he was a threat.
But just when it appears Shahbandar is caught, he breaks free. This time, he told police that someone had broken into his e-mail account, changed his password, and used verbiage he commonly uses to frame him. And, using the time stamp on the e-mail as evidence, he got about a half-dozen friends to sign affidavits that he was nowhere near a computer at the time the e-mail was sent.
"We know that time stamps can be manipulated, and we know that you can't always trust affidavits as being credible," says ASU Police Commander John Sutton, the department's public information officer. "But there just wasn't enough evidence to say for sure that Oubai did it."
Shahbandar was suspended from school for a week, and reprimanded by ASU Student Affairs for confronting James. He was banned from running for office again, and prohibited from even being on the third floor of ASU's Memorial Union, where ASASU's offices are located.
"Come on, somebody of my high profile is going to send a maniac, life-threatening e-mail to some person who opposed me in the student Senate? Do you know how many people oppose me, in general?" Shahbandar asks, when questioned about the incident recently, blaming ASU's "left-wing, socialist administration" for conspiring to keep his views censored.
While he admits that Oubai Shahbandar has been a thorn in his side, Nazeef Ebrahim, the president of ASU's Muslim Students Association, says Shahbandar is a joke, someone he rarely takes seriously.
"Oubai has damaged his reputation so much. Everywhere he's gone -- whether it's ASASU or the College Republicans -- he's done something to isolate himself," says Ebrahim, a 25-year-old Pakistani-American majoring in electrical engineering who lives with his family in Chandler. "Yeah, he's our biggest problem. He's opened a big Pandora's box for us, something we never saw coming."
Shahbandar once called the ASU chapter of the MSA and its 100 registered members "Taliban in training" in a column on frontpagemag.com, and he's made serious accusations against the group, citing previous arrests of MSA members at ASU and the University of Idaho.
While many might disregard Shahbandar's claims, there are significant links between the Muslim Students Association and Islamist extremists.
In February 2003, Sami Al-Hussayen, the president of the MSA at the University of Idaho's campus in Moscow, Idaho, was arrested by FBI agents and charged with visa fraud. In January, he was indicted by a grand jury for providing material support for terrorism resulting from a charge that he moderated an Arabic-language e-mail group that posted instructions on how to train at a terrorist camp. Just days before September 11, 2001, Al-Hussayen's uncle allegedly stayed in a hotel in Virginia with three of the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
In May 2003, Muhammad Al-Gurashi, a Saudi student who was once the president of the MSA at ASU and allegedly had close ties with Hani Hanjour -- the pilot of Flight 77 who had trained at a flight school in Scottsdale -- was arrested and charged with two counts of illegal possession of a firearm after he rented a car with three other Arab men and allegedly drove to President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch to assess a possible terrorist attack. Al-Gurashi has since been deported.
Shahbandar says that ASU's chapter of the Muslim Students Association supports Wahhabism, often referred to as an austere interpretation of the Koran that Osama bin Laden supposedly adopted while growing up in Saudi Arabia. Others who believe that Wahhabism drove September 11 -- including Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz -- say that it preaches the killing of Christians and Jews.
Ebrahim denies his organization harbors terrorists, and he downplays the Wahhabi influence on some of MSA's members, saying "there are many interpretations of what Wahhabism prescribes."
"'Wahhabi' is this real trendy word that certain people who can't even define it like to throw out these days," says Deedra Abboud, the director of the Phoenix office of the Council on American Islamic Relations, an advocacy group that works to improve the image of Islam -- a difficult task post-September 11.
In a hotel suite converted into a functional workspace in central Phoenix, Abboud -- a white, 32-year-old woman from Arkansas raised southern Baptist, but converted to Islam in 1998 -- has a modest file on Shahbandar, which holds a few of his articles from the Republic, WorldNetDaily.com, and Horowitz's Front Page Magazine site. She's got a much fatter file on Pipes. Before you can even ask her about the claims Pipes has made about CAIR, she offers up a packet titled "Attacks Against CAIR," an eight-page response to some of Pipes' most inflammatory remarks about the organization. She also lays down an even heftier packet, binder-clipped, which includes written testimony from Nihad Awad, the executive director of CAIR's national body, given to Arizona Senator Jon Kyl -- the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism -- before the subcommittee hearing on September 10, 2003.
But the topic of discussion, for now, is Shahbandar -- the last person in Phoenix to whom she thought she would have to defend CAIR.
"Reading different things that Oubai has written, I know he feels that the religion of Islam is fine. It's some of the people that are wrong," says Abboud in a southern drawl, wearing a pastel blue headscarf, a black sportcoat, and a gold medallion around her neck engraved with her name in Arabic. "I think we just have two very different ways of trying to accomplish the same thing."
Abboud, the wife of an Iraqi immigrant, is surprisingly diplomatic, even for someone who puts together talking points and press releases defending Islam's image. But she says that the rest of the local Muslim community has been averse to most of what Shahbandar has to say.
"Oubai is very in love with being an American, and there's nothing wrong with that," she says. "But, as a community, I think that's what bothers so many Muslims is that, as a secular Muslim, he's telling so many of them just what their religion is all about."
Deedra Abboud refrains from really laying into Shahbandar, despite his frequent attacks against CAIR. Instead, she blames Shahbandar's mentor, Daniel Pipes.
Pipes has been revered by conservatives as an "authoritative commentator on the Middle East" (in the Wall Street Journal). He is a Harvard graduate who has taught at his alma mater and the U.S. Naval War College, written 11 books, and writes a column for the New York Post. He's also the director of his own nonprofit organization -- the Middle East Forum based in Philadelphia -- and was appointed by President Bush to the U.S. Institute of Peace last August in a controversial move while Congress and the Senate committee considering his nomination were in recess. While his critics say he bashes Muslims in general -- mostly because he advocates racial profiling of Arabs and he was once quoted as saying that 15 percent of all Muslims were "potential killers" -- he was prophesizing a terrorist attack by Islamist extremists 10 years before September 11. Which is why Jon Kyl -- in his position as the chair of the subcommittee on terrorism -- takes many of his cues on the Middle East from Pipes.
But CAIR says Pipes is a bigot and an "Islamaphobe." And Abboud was shocked when Shahbandar brought Pipes to ASU -- funded by Shahbandar's fellowship with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies -- to talk about terrorism on the second anniversary of September 11.
Nearly a dozen ASU and Tempe police were called out for the event, frisking students -- more than half of the 300 that showed up were Muslims and Arabs -- at the door. But the lecture almost never happened.
On the morning of the event, College Republicans chairwoman Christina Corieri got a call from one of the local papers asking about the lecture. When Corieri told the reporter she didn't know anything about it, the reporter told her that Corieri's signature was on the lecture hall request Shahbandar submitted earlier in the week, on behalf of a group called "Youth for Democracy."
After Corieri informed ASU administrators that someone had forged her signature, the university considered shutting down the event altogether. But after Shahbandar offered the explanation, "It was just a misunderstanding," the lecture went on as planned.
"A misunderstanding?" Corieri says. "How is a forgery a misunderstanding?"
Shahbandar admits that "Youth for Democracy" was a phantom group, but as a condition of reserving lecture halls at ASU, he had to put down something. As for forgery: "No, I never forged anything," he says. ASU's Judicial Affairs investigated, but, again, didn't have the evidence to prove Shahbandar was guilty.
The lecture was lively. Abboud showed up, seeing Shahbandar for the first time in action, as did several dozen members of the MSA, professors and conservative students. Abboud passed around talking points, quoting Pipes from his own writings, attempting to discredit virtually everything he said, specifically about CAIR.
Several times, members of the audience called Pipes a racist and a bigot, which prompted Shahbandar to shout back at them: "Shut up and sit down, you commie fascists!" Twice, at Shahbandar's command, police removed students from the event as he laughed and eyed them out the door.
"When he had an altercation with a student, I had advised him to tone it down," says Pipes, who refused to say how much he was paid by the FDD for the lecture (although he has been paid $2,500 for such speaking engagements at other universities in the past). "Oubai is young and he is hotheaded. I told him that he would be more effective if he learned to control those kinds of outbursts."
To that, Shahbandar laughs. "Sure, my voice might have gotten the better of me," he says, smiling. "There were a small percentage of [students] that were very vocal. They were rude and they were insulting him. And I wasn't going to tolerate it."
Daniel Pipes has no better advocate in expounding on the evils of militant Islam than Oubai Shahbandar -- a young, well-read Arab Muslim who has no problem putting himself in the line of fire.
"Having Muslim voices that endorse my distinction is important," Pipes tells New Times. "But there are many Muslims of that position."
To Deedra Abboud and Nazeef Ebrahim, that point is debatable. Abboud believes Shahbandar is being used by a bunch of white conservatives to further a campaign against Islam.
"Not just as a token Arab Muslim, but as something that can be cultivated into something bigger," she says. "I think he is an investment on their part. It could be a big breakthrough."
Horowitz sponsored Shahbandar's fellowship with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (neither would disclose how much money was involved) with funds Horowitz raised from fellow conservatives. In fact, the money Horowitz put into FDD, Shahbandar says, was used to pay Pipes to come to ASU.
"Sure, he's very valuable to them. Oubai's filling a very big need right now," Ebrahim says of Shahbandar's relationship with Horowitz and Pipes. "But I don't think that Oubai's a victim there. He's just as opportunistic, if not more so, as they are."
Shahbandar dismisses claims that he's being used to promote some anti-Muslim campaign, proclaiming "I'm no stooge." Both Horowitz and Pipes say calling him their lackey is a feeble attempt to discredit their pupil.
"Oubai came to me -- I didn't go to him," Horowitz says.
"Why these notions of exploitation?" Pipes asks. "I can be helpful to Oubai and he can be helpful to me. We have the same goals. Where does the conspiracy or exploitation come in?"
Come May, once he walks through commencement ceremonies with two degrees in political science and philosophy, Oubai Shahbandar will face Georgetown and the grandest political battlefield of all -- Washington, D.C.
But if he hasn't learned already in his five tumultuous years at ASU, Shahbandar must figure out how to maintain a more credible reputation at Georgetown at the same time he's constantly putting it on the line, says his ex-girlfriend and confidante, Shanna Bowman.
"Oubai is not a details person," Bowman says. "I don't know why he doesn't understand that your legitimacy is tied to your credibility." Bowman says she's told Shahbandar to keep quiet at ASU for the remainder of his tenure there. "Get your degree and leave," she advised him.
But while Shahbandar has been relatively passive on campus since the Daniel Pipes lecture last September, he shrugs his shoulders when asked if he'll get into any more trouble before he's handed his bachelor's degrees.
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"You never can tell," he says with a smirk that suggests he's got at least one more stunt for the ASU community. He mentions that he's contacted Irshad Manji -- a lesbian Muslim from Canada whose book The Trouble With Islam is already in its fourth printing since its release in January -- and asked her to come and speak at ASU. If recent appearances are any indication -- Manji's lectures in other parts of the country have drawn standing-room-only crowds -- the size of the event could dwarf the Pipes lecture of seven months ago.
Shahbandar laughs when asked if he's worried there's a day of reckoning in the time he has left in Arizona. But, he admits, he's gone too far not to at least consider some form of retribution from ASU's administration, its student body, or even the so-called "terrorist cell" he says is lurking somewhere in the Valley.
"It's so funny," Shahbandar says. "I don't know what everyone is so afraid of. I'm just a 22-year-old college kid."
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