Overcoming divisions to form a community
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