The Shabbiha are a notorious Syrian militia who protect the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad. They've been accused of murdering families linked to pro-democracy protestors in Homs and other major Syrian cities over the past months since protests to overthrow the Assad dictatorship began last year.
As the United States engages the Syrian dictatorship and sets the stage for a violent transition, as they did through NATO In Libya, Americans need to be concerned about the Shabbiha's ties to extremist Arab groups in this country.
Shabbiha means "ghosts" in Arabic, but the presence of pro-Syrian activism in the United States is no secret, and they don't take place in shadows.
The cause of defending Assad has been taken up by several major American Arab newspapers and American Arab and Muslim organizations in cities across the country where American Arab populations are sizable. Those cities include Dearborn, Mich., where pro-Assad rallies backed by pro-Hezbollah sympathizers are common. Other cities include New York; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles.
Yet nothing is being done.
Part of the problem is that the United States still continues to view the American Arab community through a single lens of suspicion. As smart as American "intelligence" is about terrorism threats overseas, agents are uneducated about the threat right here in our own backyard. So rather than distinguish between the good and the bad, they lump all American Arabs together into the same pot of suspicion. But that policy only makes it easier for the activists to promote their agenda and build support for the Syrian dictator and other Arab world despots.
Unlike the politics that have brought American Arabs together in near unanimity for change in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain, the protests in Syria have divided the American Arab community, much as they have divided the Arab World.
The division is based on religious and sectarian ideology, which drives much of the politics in the Arab World. Most Arabs are of the Sunni Muslim faith. A large segment are followers of the Shiite faith, which is the preeminent religion in Iran, Syria's neighbor. The Syrian despot Assad is Alawite, which is a minority group and spinoff of the Shiite religion, sometimes called Alawi Shias.
Naturally, Shiites have come to the defense of the Syrian regime in a way that Arabs did not defend dictatorships in Egypt, Libya or other Arab countries experiencing varying degrees of pro-Democracy protests. Syria itself is predominantly Sunni with a large Shiite population tied to Iran and the Alawites, the small minority sect that has the country in a fatal stranglehold.
That's one reason why the Arab League, usually an incompetent fraternity of failed Arab world policy, has rallied against Syria. Until Syria's people's revolt, the Arab League was tongue-tied when it came to revolutions in Egypt and Libya, but they're leading the charge against Syria.
That's the religious foundation of the split that has a political character, too.
Syria is one of the "confrontation states" that has challenged Israel in four major wars and dozens of minor violent skirmishes. Those confrontation states included Egypt and Jordan, too. But Egypt and Jordan each sold out the Palestinian cause, signing empty peace agreements with Israel in exchange for billions in support from Israel's sponsor, the United States.
Syria has remained militantly anti-Israel and championed the extremists in the Palestinian cause, arresting activists who have advocated compromise with Israel.
Syria is home of the real leadership of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, although the protests have made it difficult for Hamas to maintain its presence there. And Syria is the fuel for the rise of Hezbollah, the Shiite mini-state in Lebanon. Hamas is Sunni, but Syria's uncompromising stand against Israel has won the hearts of Hamas activists.
Christians have been ambivalent about Syria because despite the brutality of the Assad regime, the Alawites have been far more tolerant of Christian activism in Syria than any other Arab country.
Most Christian Arabs are marginalized, especially in the era of the rise of Islamic politics. Arab Muslims always characterize them as "brothers" who have spilt blood for the Palestinian cause, but when it comes to activism, the rise of Islamic "nationalism" linking the Arab and non-Arab Muslim worlds have made Christians who don't toe the line of the extremist agenda precarious targets. In fact, anti-Israel activists and many anti-Semitic groups are behind the rise of hatred against Christian Palestinian activists, such as I, who support the use of non-violence as a foundation for compromise with Israel.
This division between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in the American Arab community has flourished under the radar screen because of America's chosen policy to ignore moderates and lump them all in as "extremists." The extremists in the pro-Israel movement have helped to undermine moderate Arab voices, too, concluding that it's better to have no Arab voices rather than moderate Arab voices that still criticize Israel. Those pro-Israel groups, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have helped define American policy towards American Arabs.
So far, this growing pro-Syria movement in the United States has remained under this radar screen of uneducated understanding. Many of these U.S.-based pro-Syrian activists receive funding and political support from Assad's regime.
As a result, pro-Assad activists have been able to openly hold their rallies, write columns cheering Assad in Arabic in local American Arab publications, and post pro-Assad videos on YouTube, all mostly in the Arabic language to avoid easy scrutiny.
This disturbing but growing pro-Syrian movement has stepped up its pressure on American Arabs who have challenged Assad and are monitoring anti-Syrian groups in the United States for the Shabbiha, which hunts down and identifies their relatives in Syria.
In fact, you haven't seen many anti-Assad protests in the American Arab community in part because of that fear. It's no different than the activism that was funded through the end of the 20th century by Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Many of those activists were arrested, while no such move has been made against the pro-Syrian leaders here.
The pro-Syria movement in the United States is a major threat not just to the American Arab moderate voices but also to America itself.
Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist. To find out more about Ray Hanania and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.