A national Muslim organization headquartered in Palos Hills believes education is the key that will one day help end a violent occupation in the Holy Land, according to the group's leaders.
American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) was established as a nonprofit organization in July 2006 with the overall goal of raising awareness of the Israeli occupation in Palestine, according to Kristin Szremski, AMP's national director of media and communications.
"Our mission is to educate the American public about issues pertaining to Palestine and its rich heritage and culture," Szremski said. "Palestine has the right to self-determination. They have the right to live as a free people."
The organization has 11 chapters in eight states, including a chapter in Chicago and its national headquarters in Palos Hills. The group is based in Palos Hills because of the area's large Arab Muslim community, Szremski said. Founded by Hatem Bazian, a professor at the University of California, Berkley, AMP works "in the Islamic prospective," Szremski explained.
"There is a vacuum in the United States as far as getting the word out about Palestine," she said. "In Islam, injustice is a very bad thing. We believe God hates injustice."
AMP is committed to educating both Muslims and non-Arabs in America about the injustices being committed against the Palestinian people, especially in Gaza, Szremski said. The organization consists almost entirely of volunteers who participate in workshops, seminars and training sessions intended to spread the facts about the ever-present conflict, and publishes facts, not propaganda, to create awareness, she explained.
"We're trying to teach people how to effectively spread the message," she said.
"Our main focus is education, but there are a million ways of doing that," said Awad Hamdan, national program director and chairman of AMP Chicago.
Hamdan coordinates all AMP's chapters and helps plan events, sets dates for speakers and takes care of all the organization's logistics, he said. The group's most popular event has been its annual conference, which is attended by thousands of people, he said. The conference features 50 speakers from the United States and internationally, he added.
The organization's training sessions, intended for volunteers and media members, teach Palestinian history including religion, culture and current events, Hamdan said.
"Our goal is just talk to people and give them the opportunity to judge for themselves who is oppressed and who the oppressor is," Hamdan said, referring to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Many Americans and Muslims living in America haven't been educated on the conflict because the United States supports Israel and the Israeli government censors the reports of most international news bureaus, Szremski said.
"The United States is a strong ally of Israel and gives them $5 billion a year in unrestricted aid, loan guarantees and other grants," Szremski said.
Szremski said the United States supports Israel economically, but that the money is being used to commit war crimes in Palestine. Most news reports out of the Middle East take the "Israeli line" because the Israeli government censors them, she added.
AMP is "heartened" by United States President Barack Obama's calls for peace in the Middle East, Szremski said, but added it is too soon to draw any opinion or analysis on his impact.
"We are taking a wait-and-see attitude," she said. "We are happy he is taking the stance he is with Israel, but it's important that he also address the occupation of Palestine."
AMP is building a media center at its Palos Hills office for compiling and archiving information. The center is intended to have information readily available and to be used as a resource for people, Szremski said.
" The name of the game is education," she said. "We don't want to be reactive, we want to be proactive."
Members of the organization understand change does not happen overnight, but believe education is the key to freeing Palestine of its oppressors, Hamdan said.
" The true cause of Palestine is the issue we are facing," Hamdan said. "The fact that there are people with no way of defending themselves or speaking out and the whole world seems to be supporting the Israeli leadership. We are not saying it's the other side, it's simply the truth."
" We are hopeful," Szremski added. "There is a lot of dialogue going on in this country about the future. We really think there is this window of opportunity and Americans are ready to learn."