BALTIMORE — With his trim, gray-flecked beard, crisply ironed clothes and genteel demeanor, Mohamad Bashar Arafat hardly cuts a controversial figure.
Yet his public appearances draw visceral reactions — from hearty welcomes to sneering disdain — depending on how the audience views a Muslim cleric who for a decade has worked with the U.S. State Department as a quiet, informal envoy to the Islamic world.
Through public diplomacy programs, Arafat has traveled to at least 26 countries in a role he sees as his patriotic duty as an American and his religious duty as a Muslim imam. His roots in Damascus, where he was born and studied before emigrating in 1989, make for a third facet to that role now as diplomats, congregants and friends ask him, “What should the U.S. do about Syria?”
Detractors, on the other hand, would prefer he keep his answers to himself. They regard him as, at best, a token and, at worst, a sellout — an apologist for the invasions, occupations and drone strikes that define recent U.S. policy in the Muslim world. At nearly every public event, in the United States and abroad, there are whispers and sometimes even chants: “FBI imam!” “Spy!”
At some mosques he’s been told, point-blank, “You’re not welcome here.”
The State Department sent him to Tanzania in 2007 — at the height of bloodshed in Iraq — but canceled a first appearance when an angry mob blocked his car from driving up to the mosque where he’d been invited to lead prayers. The next day, with a Tanzanian police cordon outside, Arafat appeared at another event and again was greeted with boos when he arrived. This time, he took the stage and launched into his signature response to Muslims who charge that he’s being used by the U.S. government to detract from bad policy.
His counterargument comprises verses from the Quran, parables from the life of the Prophet Muhammad and pop culture references — all delivered in the friendly, even tones of a preacher who’s out to convince audiences the world over that the most effective way to work for improved U.S. relations with the Muslim world is through dialogue between policymakers and the public.
“It’s not really fair to focus on the bad — certain aspects of foreign policy or certain aspects of American society — and not show also the good things happening in America,” Arafat said. “And that’s our responsibility as Muslims in America, to tell these stories. We have 8 million Muslims living in America, and they have certain privileges you won’t see anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world.”