Julian Elie Khater and George Pierre Tanios were arrested for assaulting Capitol Police officer Sicknick but were not charged with his death. USA TODAY
Three people from New Jersey arrested in connection with the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6 — including two men charged Sunday with assaulting fallen Officer Brian Sicknick — are Arab Americans of Lebanese heritage.
Their arrests shine a light on an overlooked segment of the Arab American population that has supported former President Donald Trump, whose followers stormed the Capitol in a deadly attempt to overturn his defeat in the November election.
Arab Americans may hold conservative views on issues such as taxes, abortion and family structure, or may be driven by foreign policy issues tied to their native country. And like some Americans, they may have gotten swept up in the Trump fervor and misinformation that led some supporters to falsely claim the election was stolen.
That was apparently enough to win over the three New Jerseyans despite years of Trump’s rhetoric denounced by critics as anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.
“Every community has people who will drift this way or that way,” said Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, based in Washington, D.C., which promotes civic and political empowerment. “It’s not something unique to any particular community. Arab Americans are part of the American fabric and are susceptible to all the currents that push them in one direction, like any other group.”
The three Arab Americans who now face federal charges in the Jan. 6 melee had joined thousands of Trump supporters who rallied at the Capitol. The attack left five people dead, including Sicknick, who grew up in South River, New Jersey.
Violence at the Capitol
On Sunday, authorities arrested Julian Elie Khater, 32, of State College, Pennsylvania, and George Pierre Tanios, 39, of Morgantown, West Virginia. Both grew up in Middlesex County, according to public records and social media posts.
They were each charged with nine counts of assaulting Sicknick, including three counts of assaulting an officer of the U.S. with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to injure an officer and physical violence on restricted grounds.
According to the criminal complaint, Khater took a can of chemical spray, believed to be bear spray, from Tanios’ backpack and targeted it at a group of police officers that included Sicknick, spraying it in their faces and eyes. Three officers suffered injuries, including temporary blindness, and needed medical attention, according to the FBI affidavit.
Sicknick died after the attack, but the cause of death is still not known.
On LinkedIn, Khater said he was a 2011 graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University, based in Florham Park and Teaneck, and had been a co-owner and general manager of Frutta Bowls in State College until May 2020. The business closed amid the coronavirus pandemic, reported the Daily Collegian, a Penn State student publication.
His page lists his location as Somerset, New Jersey, and says he is “looking for new and exciting opportunities.”
Khater’s social media activity expresses common complaints among Trump supporters about political correctness, media bias, alleged election fraud and frustration over face masks and lockdowns related to COVID-19. His Facebook profile picture includes a Lebanese flag.
Steven Altman, the attorney listed on court documents for Khater, did not respond to a request for comment.
Tanios owned and operated the Sandwich University eatery in Morgantown for several years. On its website, he said his parents opened their first restaurant when they moved to America in 1980 and that he was inspired by an uncle who had a famous “Grease Truck” at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
One of the people who contacted the FBI said he was a former business partner and that Tanios had “embezzled $435,000 from their former business,” the FBI affidavit says.
The federal indictment did not include any charges related to such a crime, but a business partner filed a lawsuit in April 2012 alleging Tanios had paid himself “significant sums” in excess of his salary, the Dominion Post of West Virginia reported. Tanios also filed for bankruptcy in May, court records show.
The two men were raised in the Lebanese Maronite community in Central Jersey. Maronites make up the largest Christian community in Lebanon and are affiliated with the Catholic Church.
The Rev. Simon El Hajj of St. Sharbel Maronite Catholic Church in Somerset said the men’s families are church members. But the pastor said he has been at the parish only three years and does not know Tanios or Khater, who have been living outside New Jersey.
Calls to relatives of the two men were not returned.
Rasha Abual-Ragheb of Fairfield was arrested Jan. 16 after she was identified in photos she posted of herself at the protest and inside the Capitol, according to another FBI complaint. She was accused of entering a restricted building, disorderly conduct and violent entry of Capitol grounds.
Abual-Ragheb was on the FBI’s radar even before Jan. 6 in connection with online chats with the American Patriot 3%, an anti-government militia group, according to federal authorities. Born in Lebanon, she told the FBI she fled to Jordan as a child because of the civil war there and had lived in the United States for over two decades.
Her religious background is unclear, but she has been outspoken about politics. She wrote online that a “revolution will start not by standing by but by standing up” and that a civil war was coming and people needed to “show support and rise up and fight” for the Constitution, according to an FBI agent’s statement.
‘An irrational act’
The Arab American Institute estimates there are about 3.7 million people of Arab descent in the U.S. A quarter identify as Lebanese and 12% as Egyptian, while Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Somalian and other groups make up smaller percentages.
The majority of Arab Americans — 63% — are Christian, 24% are Muslim and 13% identify as non-religious, according to the institute. Some Lebanese Maronites self-identify as Phoenician and not Arab.
In an October poll by the institute, 35% of Arab Americans said they intended to vote for Trump in November, and 59% supported Biden. Prominent Arab-American Trump supporters include U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of California and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who are both of Lebanese descent.
Some Americans might be surprised to find fervent support for Trump among the Arab community, given comments by the former president widely criticized as xenophobic. Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries in January 2017, just a week after taking office.
Some Arab Christians may harbor Islamophobic sentiments traced back to tensions in their communities or native countries, said Aref Assaf, president of the Paterson-based Arab American Forum.
“His public anti-Muslim sentiment gives them an excuse to behave and act the same way,” said Assaf, who is a registered Republican but not a Trump supporter.
Trump has also had support among some Muslim Arabs who hold socially and economically conservative views. Others may support Trump because they favor his foreign policy in their native country, Zogby said.
Many Coptic Christians, for instance, approve of Trump’s support for Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Other Arab American voters like Trump’s hardline approach to Iran, because they oppose Iranian support for militants in Lebanon and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Overall, 40% of Arab Americans identify as Democrats, 32% as Republicans and 23% as independent, according to the Arab American Institute survey of 805 people. When determining their vote for president, they ranked race relations, jobs and the economy, and health care as top issues.
Often, their ethnic identity is beside the point; they identify with political trends as Americans and, like any other population, make political decisions based on a range of issues.
What spurs some to acts of criminality or violence isn’t attributable to any ethnic or religious background as much as it is personal and psychological, Zogby said. The three New Jerseyans are among more than 300 Americans charged in connection with the Capitol siege.
“There are lots of reasons” for political beliefs, “but none of those, even collectively, add up to somebody attacking a police officer and spraying him with bear spray,” Zogby said. “None of it adds up to storming the Capitol building. That’s an irrational act that goes beyond what you believe in or what political inclinations and leanings you hold.”
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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