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Overcoming divisions to form an Arab American community

Jul 24,2017 - Last updated at Jul 24,2017

During the past century, Arab Americans faced significant obstacles on the way to securing their place in the political mainstream — from pervasive media-projected negative stereotypes to the political pressures used by some groups to deny them a seat at the table.

In addition to these external factors, Arab Americans also faced internal obstacles that they had to overcome as they worked to build and empower their 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 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 how, a few years ago, at our annual Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity Awards” dinner, we presented a public service award named after a Syrian American, Najeeb Halaby (the father of 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 realised that what we had done could not have happened in the Arab world.

At the height of the Lebanese civil war, an Arab ambassador visited my office. He began with a question: “How do you organise your staff?”

I responded by pointing out where the field organising unit had their desks and, in turn, where the communications, research, finance and administrative staff was seated.

He asked again: “No, I mean how do you organise them?”

When I repeated “by function”, he came back with “what I mean is: that young man sitting out front, he’s Shiite, 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 was not being disrespectful. I honestly did not know.

In all the years we have been working to build a community, we paid no attention to where folks were from or to what sect they belonged.

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 centre 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 have tried to do just that.

I learned two lessons in my 40 years of doing this work.

As chairman of the Democratic Party’s Ethnic Council, I have learned that every ethnic community shares the same internal pressures.

Arab Americans may hail from 22 countries, which makes 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 have also learned that the struggle is never ending.

In each new era, new obstacles arise that must be overcome.

The Lebanese 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 is 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 brought 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.

All the while, we keep our eye on history and on the future.

What we know is that much of what we are seeing today, we have seen before.

Earlier waves of immigrants from the Arab world were no less fragmented. In each case, it took hard work and a generation for a sense of community to take hold.

What we have learned is that if we continue to serve and continue to provide opportunities for empowerment and advancement, the community will be built.

As I look at the remarkable group of young Arab American interns who have come through our doors in recent years, I am reminded of the exchange I had with that ambassador years ago.

I do not know where their parents came from and I do not know their religion. What I do know is that they have come to us.

 

I also know that we are working with and for them so that they can find common ground with one another and secure their place in the American mainstream, as Arab Americans proud of their heritage and their shared identity.

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Comments

I am sure James Zogby is well-intentioned and his organisation is doing a lot of good. Yet I must caution him against using the words the particular ambassador he refers to in his article as indicating that this is a mindset widespread in practice and peculiar to Arab societies in the Middle East and that America can and does better. Like many others my parents who were Muslim sent me to Roman Catholic convent schools to get a good education and trusted the nuns as God-fearing people who are capable of providing their child with a sound education. If James tries harder he will find an abundance of examples of Muslims and others in the Middle East living now and in the past in a totally harmonious way. In other words we never needed lessons on how to achieve that. On the contrary I think in many ways we can set an example on that score.

Jim Zogby is a smart man. Though I have no Arab DNA, I contribute to his organization and have corresponded with him in the past. He also is not one-dimensional, looking only at the Middle East issues and Arab American issues. He partners with almost anybody to make life better for us all.

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