Posted on March 29, 1993 in Washington Watch
On Wednesday, March 31, a group of Arab American leaders is scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of state Warren Christopher at the White House. The group, drawn from across the United States, includes leaders of most major Arab American organizations, elected officials, and community and business leaders.
The meeting is significant not only because it is the first such meeting with this new Administration and comes at such a critical time in U.S.-Arab relations. It is also significant for its reflection of the continuing evolution and maturation of Arab Americans as a national political constituency.
The World Trade Center bombing has focused segments of the press, both in the United States and the Arab World, on the Arab American community, but the portrait that has emerged is a grossly distorted one.
It is important to understand Arab Americans and their politics, not only in order to see the community as it really is, but also in order to understand American society and politics as they really are. American society and politics are woven together to form a complex system that needs to be understood, not as a mystery that is to be feared.
American politics is a set of roughly rational processes that require involvement and mastery. It is not a conspiracy bent on evil.
It is correct to observe that the American political system has not produced justice or fairness for Arabs—but that is due primarily to the fact that Arabs and Arab Americans have not yet mastered the system.
Arab Americans are working to correct this imbalance (just as a series of Arab diplomats are working to do the same). More than ever before Arab Americans are engaged in the political process of America at every level.
There are 2.5 million Arab Americans. Roughly two-thirds are children of immigrants, most of Syrian or Lebanese descent. The more recent immigrants are comprised a large percentage of Syrians and Lebanese, but also counted among the recent immigrants are large concentrations of Egyptian-, Palestinian-, Iraqi-, Jordanian- and Yemeni-Americans. The majority of Arab Americans of all generations have assimilated into the economic and social mainstream of Americans life.
It is fascinating to look at the demographics of the Arab American community. According to the official U.S. Census figures, Arab Americans have the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the country. They also have the highest per capita rate of professionals of any ethnic group in the country.
Politics is the only area of American life not yet mastered by Arab Americans, and there is a good reason for this. The first generation of Arab immigrants came primarily from peasant villages and had no political experience. They were organized, if at all, by family or village ties. While these local institutions facilitated assimilation into the economic and social mainstreams, the left Arab Americans fragmented and unable to work together on a national scale.
The first national Arab American organizations, a prerequisite for any national political involvement, did not emerge until the early 1970s. It was only at this point that the community had matured sufficiently to bring such an organization into being. By this time the children of the first wave had grown and discovered their place in America and now sought their roots.
Their quest was in part fulfilled by their encounter with the newer wave of immigrants who had come as students and immigrant professionals in the 1950s and 1960s. This second wave of immigrants was more urban and political. Because they were better educated than the first wave, their assimilation into the U.S. was more rapid.
It was the meeting of these two groups—the children of the first wave and the professionals of the second wave—that created the spark which in turn produced Arab American identity and national organizations.
So it was only twenty years ago that Arab Americans embarked on the path of political involvement. It has, in fact, only been within the past decade that these national organizations have matured to the point of making genuine progress—progress that is evident everywhere.
On a national level, the progress is, of course, difficult to see at times. Because we Arab Americans must compete on the same level with an older, larger, and far more efficient Jewish community which often sees us as its enemy, at times our path is a rocky one.
American Jews have mastered American politics. Since the percentage of the Jewish community which actually votes is double that of any other group, the impact of their 5.5 million member community is magnified. They also contribute monetarily to candidates, individually and in groups, to a substantially greater degree or with greater consistency that any other community. In the most recent national election, pro-Israel political action committees gave $4 million to congressional candidates. Individual contributions far exceeded this amount.
It is the organized power of this vote and money and the active involvement of American Jews in every aspect of political life that accounts for their ability to influence and shape the policy debate on all issues of deep concern to them—especially Israel.
There is no mystery to this and no malevolence inherent in the system—no matter how destructive the actions or the policies produced by the system may be. The pro-Israel Jewish community wins in this system because their political organization is tighter and more effective than that of any other player in the system.
Arab Americans, in this regard, have not yet arrived as an equal force. But there is real evidence that in just ten years they have made real progress. Without rehashing all of the accomplishments of the past decade, recent developments point to the growing political sophistication and involvement of the Arab American community.
In addition to the scheduled meeting with Secretary Christopher, Arab Americans have met with a great number of officials in the new Clinton Administration as well as a host of members of Congress.
Next month three Washington-based Arab American leaders will host a fundraising event for a group of 8 members of Congress, and this only the first of many similar events planned for this year. While such activity is still new to Arab Americans, it is evident that the community is quickly learning the need to be involved in meeting with, voting for and contributing to elected officials.
Because one of the keys to American politics is that “all politics are local”, it is important to look at the grass-roots of America to see real signs of growth.
One of the newest of the national Arab American organizations is the Arab American Leadership Council (ALC). Founded 4 years ago, the ALC is a network of almost 400 Arab American elected officials and party leaders—all deeply involved in American political life. This spring, when many communities across the country will be holding municipal elections, 20 ALC members will be campaigning for elective office.
Eight of these elected officials are mayors of cities all over the country, from Alabama and Louisiana in the South to Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island in New England; and from Pennsylvania on the East Coast to West Virginia and Illinois in the Midwest. There are also city council candidates in 10 communities.
A short profile of two of the individual Arab Americans running for elective office this fall will help to illustrate the type of progress being made by Arab Americans everywhere.
Suzanne Sareini, City Council of Dearborn, Michigan
Of the 200,000 Arab Americans who live in the greater Detroit area, almost 20,000 live in the small community of Dearborn, of whom nearly 60% are recent immigrants. They are suffering from factory-closings in the automobile manufacturing industry.
The U.S. media likes to focus on Dearborn to portray Arab Americans—showing a community in which Arab Americans suffer from discrimination and unemployment. In fact as recently as 1985, when Dearborn held its local elections, discrimination against Arab Americans was a central theme in the campaign.
But that was when only 1,500 of Dearborn’s Arab Americans were registered to vote. Today, after intensive organizing efforts by both local and national Arab American organizations, that number has risen to 7,000. As a result of this change, in 1989 Dearborn elected its first Arab American to the City Council: Suzanne Sareini. In addition, the Congressman who represents Dearborn, and several other members of Congress who represent surrounding areas, now pay much greater attention to the Arab American community’s issues and needs.
In 1993, when Sareini runs for reelection, the political situation in Dearborn continues to show increasing Arab American political power. While some problems of that city’s Arab Americans persist, they are involved in every level of political life and are more than able to make their views heard—and elected officials respect that.
James Maloof, Mayor of Peoria Illinois
James Maloof is an Arab American classic. A successful businessman of Lebanese descent, he had never been involved in political life until 1985. That year he decided to run for mayor of his city because of his concern over its economic decline. With an unemployment rate of 18% and a declining industrial base, Peoria was listed as one of the 25 worst cities in the United States.
Maloof won on a program of economic reform. By 1989, after four years of applying his business skills to running his city, the unemployment rate had dropped to 5% and Peoria was listed as one of the nation’s “All American Cities.” Maloof has long been involved in Arab community affairs and is a strong supporter of several national organizations.
Because of his successes and the political acumen he has developed, when Maloof speaks, his Congressman listens. The small but influential Arab American community of Peoria has most recently elected two other Arab Americans to city-wide office—yet another sign of their new political significance.
Suzanne Sareini and James Maloof are but a few of the hundreds of Arab Americans who now hold public office. They and the thousands of Arab Americans who support them with their votes and contributions are examples of the new political mastery of the Arab American community.
In other communities, even those where there are no elections this year, Arab Americans have been working to use their political involvement to benefit the community. In several cities, Arab Americans have secured proclamations from their city councils calling for the protection of Arab American and Muslim American rights in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing.
In other areas Arab Americans have won the support of their elected officials, including several members of Congress, for Palestinian rights and for a more even-handed U.S. policy in the Middle East peace process.
Arab Americans are not quite to the point of bringing about radical or immediate changes in U.S. policy—but Arab Americans have embarked and traveled some way along the only path that will ultimately produce such changes. The two bright people I mentioned above are Arab Americans typical of our emerging community, and it is their work that needs to be understood and supported.
There is a tremendous need in the Arab world for a change of U.S. policy. There is justified frustration, and in some quarters even a growing desperation, over the failure of the United States to be balanced in its dealings on key issues of concern to the region.
Arab Americans share that frustration. Those in our community who are engaged in the political process are working to produce this needed change. Unfortunately, it will require time—yet time is something that we know the region may not have. But working within the process and mastering it is the only way we know to do the job that needs to be done. Because of continuing confusion over who Arab Americans really are and how American politics really works, these are points worth repeating.
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