|by Del Jones|
Source: USA TODAY
ROCKVILLE, Md. — Those who go to sleep at night with the threat of terrorism on their minds might be surprised to learn that Muslim CEOs are running companies that watch over our safety.
||Fuad El-Hibri's company makes a vaccine for anthrax.
|By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY|
• Fuad El-Hibri is CEO of BioPort, the only U.S. maker of anthrax vaccine.
• Houssam Salloum is CEO of Axiolog, a Detroit firm developing a high-tech system for tracking international cargo into vulnerable U.S. ports.
• Nafa Khalaf is CEO of Detroit Contracting, which after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 secured the five major treatment plants that supply water to 4.5 million residents of the Detroit area. Khalaf, 50, emigrated from Iraq in 1986, and his company is now working to protect water plants in Iraq.
• Ahmad Mesdaq, owner of businesses in San Diego including a coffee lounge and cigar factory, this summer will launch an auto registration system in his native Afghanistan that will help authorities stop widespread shipments of explosives and drugs by warlords. Getting Afghanistan back on its feet brings security to the USA, he says.
The past three years have shown the war on terror is complicated. Just as sides can't be drawn up by national boundaries, neither can the good guys and bad guys be identified based on their religion or national origin.
Throughout history corporate executives have played important roles in winning wars. President Franklin Roosevelt made Robert Wood Johnson, the late CEO of Johnson & Johnson, an Army general in World War II and put him in charge of bringing small business into the war effort. Executives will likely play a critical role in the war on terrorism as well. But they won't all have names like Johnson. Some may have names like El-Hibri or Mesdaq.
"American Muslims are making endless efforts to stop evil," Mesdaq says.
These executives are the antithesis of the celebrity CEO so common now in Corporate America. After all, these are times when Muslims running companies in homeland security could attract the attention of both Islamophobes and terrorists. It took months of searching trade associations, chambers of commerce and homeland security experts for USA TODAY to find a cadre of companies that contribute to the security of the U.S. and have a Muslim at the helm. When found, some said they were under contractual obligations not to talk to the media. Some, like Salloum, declined to be interviewed so as not to attract attention. Others were like El-Hibri, who agreed to an interview with reservation.
"Some successful business people in the Muslim community are worried that there are forces working against them," he says, sitting in his office tucked away in a building with no exterior signage in this Washington, D.C., suburb.
"I'm trusting, not paranoid," says El-Hibri, 46, who became a U.S. citizen in 1999. He was born in Germany and spent his childhood equally in Europe and the Middle East before coming to the USA to get an economics degree from Stanford and an MBA from Yale. "But there is a group who don't think the anthrax vaccine should be in the hands of someone with an Arab or Muslim background."
Scrutiny surrounds anthrax vaccine
Conspiracy-theory Internet sites have taken a special interest in El-Hibri's formative years in Lebanon and Sudan, and a more recent three-year assignment in Saudi Arabia with Citibank. The sites imply crimes ranging from ties to Osama Bin Laden to being the mastermind behind the mailing of anthrax spores that killed five people in 2001. El-Hibri calls the Web sites annoying and jokes that he's lucky to be in the vaccination business so that he can inoculate himself from the pain of accusers who can't be confronted.
Even some members of Congress have objected to BioPort's anthrax role. That criticism reflects ignorance, says retired admiral William Crowe, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Reagan administration and the first George Bush administration and now is on BioPort's board of directors. BioPort recruited Crowe, a friend of El-Hibri's father. Crowe received 8% of BioPort's stock to serve on its board, largely because of his expertise about the key customer, the Defense Department. But Crowe's presence also mitigates the attention on El-Hibri.
BioPort keeps a small supply of anthrax spores under five layers of security to verify the potency of the vaccine, a requirement of the Food and Drug Administration. That makes El-Hibri a suspect of conspiracy theorists, who say the unsolved anthrax mail crime of 2001 increased demand for BioPort's product while El-Hibri and his family were safely inoculated from the fatal bio-threat.
"That's a terrible stretch," says Crowe, who says El-Hibri is straightforward and honest and is one who has "never entertained even the slightest idea of fooling the government" and "bends over backward to make sure the Defense Department is aware."
Muslim executives were careful and measured when responding to most questions but became noticeably uneasy when asked how devout they were to Islam. A typical response: "I attend mosque when I have time," Khalafsaid. "My philosophy is to be good, to live with others and to be equal with others."
"I don't drink alcohol or gamble," said Mesdaq, 32. "I go to mosque," but he emphasized: "I'm not a political Muslim. I'm a normal American. I like to drive nice cars, go out and have fun and dance. I'm very blessed."
El-Hibri says he attends mosque once a year. His mother is German and Catholic. He adopted the faith of his Lebanese father. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are essentially the same, El-Hibri says, with a "belief in one God, what's right and what's wrong. Do the best things in the eyes of God, that's most important."
That there are Muslims fighting terrorism comes as no surprise to Daniel Lubetzky, the Jewish CEO of Peaceworks, a New York company that fosters joint ventures in regions of conflict. For example, Peaceworks markets Meditalia food products made in cooperation among Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and Turks; and Bali Spices made by Muslims, Buddhists and Christians working as partners in Indonesia.
Lubetzky finds that business leaders are usually moderates who see extremism as the enemy to solving poverty. The majority of Muslims have the most to lose from terrorism, because the moderates always pay for the backlash against the extremists, Lubetzky says. "Terrorists hurt their own people the most."
Making Afghanistan safer helps the USA
Mesdaq is the son of a brigadier general in the Afghani air force who immigrated to the USA as a 9-year-old after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. After the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. war in Afghanistan, he returned a year ago to his native country to visit family. He found a country with more than 500,000 vehicles and no efficient system of registration and licensing. SUVs with tinted windows and diplomatic plates from Iran, Pakistan and the former Soviet republics are everywhere,loaded with explosives or drugs and driven by warlords, he says.
Mesdaq had an idea for a registration system using license plates with holograms. The U.S. State Department approved his plan last month, and he says it will be launched this summer. A one-time registration fee of $100 a car will generate $50 million for the country.
Mesdaq says it's important that Afghanistan not become dependent on aid from the U.S. "They need to lift themselves if they love their country," he said.
Salloum is a former captain for the Italian merchant marine who left Lebanon at 17. He has lived in the USA since 1998 and is developing a tracking system that uses satellites to monitor U.S.-bound cargo.
Under the present system, if authorities become suspicious about U.S.-bound cargo, the U.S. Coast Guard boards the arriving ship six miles out at sea, checks the paperwork and, if necessary, examines individual crates. The Axiolog system aims to let enforcement agents worldwide use intelligence more efficiently to flag questionable shipments.
For example, a shipment of books might be inspected if Axiolog finds no record of that company ever receiving paper to publish books. Axiolog would allow such anomalies to be examined by computer while the cargo is en route, cutting down on expensive delays to legitimate shipments.
Such a system could prove invaluable. Even the threat of a dirty bomb could close the port of Los Angeles for a week. It would then take nearly two months to clear the backlog of incoming ships, economic terrorism that could cost billions of dollars.
El-Hibri says it's a myth that a belief in Islam interferes with being good in business. A study last year by Marcus Noland at the Institute for International Economics supports El-Hibri's position. Noland found no evidence that Islam was a drag on economic development in countries with large Muslim populations — outside of oil-rich regions where extremist views often interfere with education.
"The Islamic religion promotes hard work and the idea that there's nothing wrong with being a financial success as long as you do it in an ethical and moral way," says El-Hibri, an avid polo player whose father's company built telecommunication networks in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Poland, Venezuela and El Salvador.
Khalaf, who took just 18 months to get a civil engineering degree from Wayne State University when he came to the USA in 1986, then earned an MBA from George Washington University, agrees that Muslim executives have their priorities straight.
"When you become an American citizen your priority is to protect Americans," he says.