Over­com­ing di­vi­sions to form a com­mu­nity

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Dr James J Zogby

Dur­ing the past cen­tury, Arab Amer­i­cans have faced sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cles on the way to se­cur­ing our place in the po­lit­i­cal main­stream - from per­va­sive me­dia-pro­jected neg­a­tive stereo­types to the po­lit­i­cal pres­sures used by some groups to deny us a seat at the ta­ble. In ad­di­tion to these ex­ter­nal fac­tors, Arab Amer­i­cans have also faced in­ter­nal ob­sta­cles that we had to over­come as we worked to build and em­power our com­mu­nity. In many in­stances, these prob­lems were carry-overs - the im­pact of com­pet­ing iden­ti­ties and loy­al­ties that Arab im­mi­grants brought with them as they made their way to the New World. There were vil­lage and fam­ily ri­val­ries, or dis­putes be­tween po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies or com­pet­ing in­ter­ests based on coun­try of ori­gin. There were also is­sues of sec­tar­ian iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

In or­der to form a com­mu­nity, all of these had to be sur­mounted, rec­on­ciled, or sim­ply put in their right­ful place for Arab Amer­i­cans to grow and pros­per. To a re­mark­able ex­tent, we have been suc­cess­ful - more suc­cess­ful than the Arab world has been in heal­ing its mul­ti­ple di­vides. I love telling the story of how a few years back, at our an­nual Khalil Gi­bran “Spirit of Hu­man­ity Awards” din­ner, we pre­sented a pub­lic ser­vice award, named af­ter a Syr­ian Amer­i­can, Na­jeeb Hal­aby (the fa­ther of Jor­dan’s Queen Noor), to a Pales­tinian Amer­i­can who had served as US Am­bas­sador to UAE and Syria. The pre­sen­ter was a Le­banese Amer­i­can for­mer Con­gress­man who served as Secretary of Trans­porta­tion. When I later re­flected on that night I re­al­ized that what we had done could not have hap­pened in the Arab World.

At the height of the Le­banon civil war, an Arab am­bas­sador vis­ited my of­fice. He be­gan with a ques­tion: “How do you or­ga­nize your staff?” I re­sponded by point­ing out where the field or­ga­niz­ing unit had their desks, and in turn where the communications, re­search, fi­nance, and ad­min­is­tra­tive staffs were seated. He asked again: “No, I mean how do you or­ga­nize them?” When I re­peated “by func­tion”, he came back with “what I mean is: That young man sit­ting out front, he’s Shia, isn’t he? How many other Mus­lims and Chris­tians, etc?”. I said, “If you mean Rami? I have no idea what his re­li­gion might be, I never asked him”.

I wasn’t be­ing dis­re­spect­ful. I hon­estly didn’t know. In all the years we’ve been working to build a com­mu­nity, we’ve not paid at­ten­tion to where folks were from or the sect to which they be­long. We were build­ing a com­mu­nity that was based on a shared her­itage, and we were hold­ing it to­gether by pro­vid­ing ser­vices, net­work­ing, and em­pow­er­ing peo­ple. Over the years, I have seen ev­i­dence of this “sense of com­mu­nity” man­i­fest­ing it­self in many dif­fer­ent set­tings: Whether it was Le­banese Amer­i­can busi­ness­men con­tribut­ing the re­sources to help us open a so­cial ser­vice cen­ter for Ye­meni farm­work­ers, or a pre­dom­i­nantly Pales­tinian com­mu­nity pro­vid­ing the sup­port needed to bring Le­banese vic­tims of war to the US for med­i­cal treat­ment. A gen­er­a­tion ago Jesse Jack­son of­fered sage ad­vice to the com­mu­nity when he told us: “do not im­port the di­vi­sions of the Mid­dle East, in­stead you must ex­port the lessons of co­op­er­a­tion and co­ex­is­tence you have learned in Amer­ica.” And we’ve tried to do just that.

I’ve learned two lessons in my 40 years of do­ing this work. As Chair of the Demo­cratic Party’s Eth­nic Coun­cil, I’ve learned that every eth­nic com­mu­nity shares the same in­ter­nal pres­sures. Arab Amer­i­cans may hail from 22 coun­tries, mak­ing our sit­u­a­tion a bit more com­plex, but even com­mu­ni­ties that ap­pear to be less com­pli­cated have their in­ter­nal di­vi­sions (based on gen­er­a­tion, re­li­gion, re­gion, ide­ol­ogy, etc) to over­come. Whether Ital­ian, Ukrainian, or Ar­me­nian - all have had to work to build and sus­tain a sense of com­mu­nity. I’ve also learned that the strug­gle is never-end­ing. In each new era, new ob­sta­cles arise that must be over­come. The Le­banon civil war threat­ened to rup­ture us based on sect and Le­banese ver­sus Pales­tinian loy­al­ties. Sim­i­larly, with Iraq’s in­va­sion of Kuwait, the com­mu­nity was once again tested - with more re­cent im­mi­grants some­times lin­ing with the sides taken by their coun­tries of ori­gin. Now it’s the Arab Spring, the up­heavals that fol­lowed, and the emer­gence of po­lit­i­cal Is­lam and the rise of is­lam­o­pho­bia that are test­ing our sense of com­mu­nity and our abil­ity to main­tain a shared iden­tity.

To some ex­tent, these in­ter­nal pres­sures have been mag­ni­fied by the rather large num­bers of Arab im­mi­grants (over 600,000) who have come to the US since the turn of the cen­tury. Many came flee­ing war or fear of per­se­cu­tion: Syr­i­ans, Iraqis, So­ma­lis, Egyp­tians, and Ye­me­nis. They bring with them the wounds of war and, like every wave that pre­ceded them, they may their feet planted in Amer­ica, but their heads and hearts are still “back home”.

In some quar­ters, these fac­tors are un­der­stand­ably driv­ing the agenda. There is a frac­tur­ing on the grounds of re­li­gious iden­tity. In other in­stances, the fis­sures are based on loy­al­ties de­rived from coun­try of ori­gin whether for or against this or that regime.

While we must be sen­si­tive to these pres­sures and con­cerns, we con­tinue to fo­cus on the long-term com­mu­nity build­ing en­ter­prise. We fight the “Mus­lim ban” and Is­lam­o­pho­bia; de­fend Chaldeans threat­ened with de­por­ta­tion; work with Copts to pro­tect their right to claim asy­lum; bring to­gether di­verse groups of Syr­ian Amer­i­cans to en­gage in con­struc­tive di­a­logue; while, at the same time, sup­port­ing an amaz­ingly di­verse field of Arab Amer­i­can can­di­dates for pub­lic of­fice.

NOTE: Dr James J Zogby is the Pres­i­dent of the Arab Amer­i­can In­sti­tute

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