cult recovery 101

Munson: Fairfield an unlikely spot for a hate crime

Munson: Fairfield an unlikely spot for a hate crime

Des Moines Register

Kyle MunsonMarch 12, 2011

Fairfield, Ia. – Of all the spots on the map in Iowa, this is the setting for an alleged hate crime in 2011?

Shocking headlines out of Fairfield last week centered on an incident in which Usama Alshaibi, an Arab-American filmmaker, alleges he was repeatedly kicked and beaten and called racial slurs by a group of men at a house party in his neighborhood in the wee hours of Sunday, March 6.

Not to imply that racism respects geography. Hatred and violence can crop up anywhere.

It’s just that Fairfield makes a strong case for its status as an enlightened, multicultural oasis on the Midwest prairie. A hate crime seems particularly out of tune with the serene vibe in this town of 9,464. We’re talking at least 34 nationalities represented among the work force at large, according to the mayor. And 240 international students are among the 583 that live on campus at Maharishi University of Management, where transcendental meditation (TM) and sustainable living degrees are big draws.
So this is the sort of place where the woman behind the counter at the coffee shop was born in Taiwan, the young professional lunching with his co-workers at the next table is from South America, and you overhear a grandfather talking about moving back west after 13 years in Fairfield.

And that’s on a slow day.

The town is rife with vegetarian and ethnic restaurants as well as “the first and only solar-powered radio station in the Midwest.”

Fairfield sort of acts like the much larger Iowa City but with meditation domes instead of Kinnick Stadium.

Even Alshaibi, 41, still lauds the town where he and his wife, Kristie, settled in July so she could enroll in Maharishi University.

“I don’t believe that my incident is representative of Fairfield,” Alshaibi said Friday. “I adore the town, and people have been very generous and open and kind to us, and they still are.”

But he wasn’t all that eager to talk considering the firestorm that erupted in the wake of initial reports. Alshaibi is in the midst of producing a documentary film, “American Arab,” and has refuted claims that he orchestrated some sort of publicity stunt.

“I’m having a hard time kind of functioning right now,” he said. “It’s a hindrance to the film.”

Alshaibi even regrets speaking to the media in the first place: “I wish I would’ve waited a little bit at least to let the investigation be over.”

Jefferson County Attorney Tim Dille is unsure when the police investigation will be complete to reveal more crucial details.

Alshaibi repeatedly has stated that after a night of dining and drinking, he entered the home in question after what he took to be an invitation by a woman standing out front. He alleges that the beatings began immediately after he said, “I’m Usama.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is representing the filmmaker and if necessary will employ attorneys from Chicago or Washington, D.C., said Miriam Amer, the council’s executive director in Iowa. The organization also is requesting hate crime charges if a bias motive is found.

“Nobody deserves what happened to (Alshaibi),” Amer said. “If he was a threat, they should’ve called the police.”

The county attorney said that the investigation includes Alshaibi’s visit with a friend to the nearby Vivo Restaurant and Bar prior to the alleged beating. Paul Strubell also was at the restaurant that night and said that Alshaibi was intoxicated when he began “verbally assaulting” two of his friends – “started to mouth off to them right as they walked in the door.” Police arrived at Vivo later that night after Alshaibi already was gone.

“I don’t recall anything like that,” Alshaibi said of his visit to Vivo, adding that he “wasn’t accosting anyone.”

The ultimate answers will have to come from a full account of what occurred that night at the house, regardless of what led up to it.

“I don’t normally go out, I don’t normally indulge in this way,” Alshaibi said. “But, again, I have to emphasize that I don’t feel I deserved what I got.”Alshaibi was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and grew up both in the Middle East (where his family fled the Iran-Iraq war) and Iowa City (where his father studied at the University of Iowa). He most recently lived and worked for 16 years in Chicago. Studs Terkel became a friend and was a supporter of Alshaibi’s highest-profile documentary to date, 2006’s “Nice Bombs,” which chronicled the filmmaker’s return trip to Iraq in the wake of the 2003 American invasion.

Alshaibi’s family is Muslim, but he describes his own religious beliefs today as “somewhere between agnostic and atheist.”

It was Fairfield’s influx of TM converts – often disparagingly nicknamed ” ‘rus” (gurus) or “floaters” – that once defined the cultural divide here, after Maharishi University took over the former Parsons College campus in 1974. But that has long since been hashed out.

Current Maharishi University graduate student and former student council president Baruti KMT-Sisouvong, 46, said that there has been a bridging of the cultural gap in Fairfield, from his generation on down. He meditates twice daily, but he’s also a member of the local Masonic Lodge.

Fairfield’s mayor for the past decade, Ed Malloy, from suburban Long Island, moved here 30 years ago based on TM and also runs Danaher Oil Co. He touted his city’s “management class of people that you are only going to find in urban areas.”

It’s true that the children of the first TM generation to settle in Fairfield already have grown up, moved away and boomeranged back to launch their own entrepreneurial ventures. The story of Meghan Dowd, 31, is familiar: She grew up in Fairfield after her family relocated from the Chicago suburbs. She left for school at Dartmouth and then work as a TV screenwriter in Los Angeles before returning to found Open Space Studio in 2009, where she teaches spin and yoga classes.

Culturally, Fairfield residents “have had to stretch themselves a little bit more,” Dowd said – and that’s a good thing.

Last weekend’s incident seems to have strained, rather than stretched, the Fairfield community.

Alshaibi added that his wife is pregnant and has dropped out of classes at the university as the couple decides what to do next.

“I wasn’t interested in being a victim,” he said. “I don’t have a victim mentality.”

Neither Alshaibi nor Fairfield sought a starring role in this real-life drama. But maybe the unlikely multicultural setting can work in favor of a more constructive outcome.