Posted on June 13, 1994 in Washington Watch

Caught in the confusion of current events, the Arab American community is facing challenges both to its self-identity and to the direction of its political organizations.

This month’s issue of a Washington area Arab American magazine even reports that one Arab American leader is thinking of resigning his position both because he is disillusioned with the Israeli-Palestinian accord and because he is finding it difficult to define a political agenda that makes sense within the new political context.

The need to rethink the role of Arab American organizations and their political agenda is not a task to be taken lightly or to be feared. The end of the Cold War, the Gulf War and the ongoing Middle East peace process have all played a part in creating a new political reality both in the United States and in the Middle East. Such a transition cannot help but be traumatic for any group of leaders or peoples used to operating for decades under assumptions that are suddenly no longer valid.

For those who have never adjusted to American life, this transition is particularly difficult. Many of these Arab Americans consider themselves “exiles” and because they do not define themselves fully as Americans, they do not participate in American politics or culture. Their approach to politics and to the Middle East reflects their inability to make the leap from there to here. They continue to frame issues in the language and ideologies of the past and cannot grasp that doors are open to our community that have never been opened before. For them, the overriding issues are not the struggles facing the American people but rather the regional, ideological and political struggles “back home.”

Some Arab American political organizations have allowed this mindset to set the tone and agenda of their political work and their own identity. By defining themselves as outsiders with a non-American agenda, they ensure that they and those they represent will remain on the margins of American political and cultural life.

To define oneself in this way reduces Arab Americans to the status of mere surrogates for various Arab regimes, causes or principles and those who embrace this attitude become half people, neither fully Arab – because they do not live in the Arab world – nor fully American because they have refused to participate as Americans in the American cultural and political scene.

This status of “exile” is perhaps fruitful for intellectuals, writers and artists. The isolation imposed by separation can be a powerful incentive to work and create, to struggle to assist the transformation of the old country and the old ways that still dominate there. Exiles from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and elsewhere have all made great contributions not only to American culture, but to their homelands. Even so, a divided self cannot thrive forever. To live as an outsider makes psychic and cultural demands too difficult for most people to sustain indefinitely. Sooner or later, one must find home – either by going back or by staying and assimilating. That is the experience of every immigrant group and Arab Americans will be no different.

For the vast majority of Arab Americans, the 70% born in the United States and the larger part of the recent immigrant community, the choice has been made. They are Americans who can see no benefit from accepting a surrogate status. These Arab Americans see themselves as a component group within American society and they seek to participate in and enjoy being a part of the complex cultural mosaic of the United States.

For this group the challenges posed by the new era are interesting and exciting. For example, the shifting of the political landscape brought about by the Israel-PLO mutual recognition has enabled Arab Americans to gain unprecedented access and acceptance as a legitimate political and ethnic constituency. They are benefiting as a community from greater political opportunities. Their challenge is how to shore up their position given the new atmosphere while at the same time maintaining their role as a bridge to the Arab world and its people.

Fundamentally, they reject not only self isolation but the efforts of political adversaries to isolate them by portraying them as foreigners who somehow do not belong in the United States. The vast majority of Arab Americans have not only steadfastly rejected such characterizations, but they have organized politically to defeat those who are trying to relegate them to second-class status. There have been instances where they turned the tables on Arab baiters by isolating them from their own party and political constituency.

Likewise, these Arab Americans are not reacting defensively because suddenly there are doors open that have never been open before. Rather, they are seeking to gain admittance for as many Arab Americans as possible. They have digested the nature of politics – doors must be pushed open, but once they are open it is up to a given group or political constituency to parlay access into opportunity, power, and policy.

And recognizing the new realities has enabled Arab Americans to empower themselves by becoming full players in the U.S. political process. The agenda has three parts.

1. To empower Arab Americans in the political mainstream.

This effort requires setting up a system through which qualified Arab Americans can be considered for appointments or jobs at all levels of local, state and federal government. It also means supporting Arab American candidates as well as those candidates who best represent their political concerns and agendas. This requires a sophisticated approach that does not turn on a given election or a single position of a candidate. Politics is not only about electing friends, but also about trying to turn enemies into allies.

The most obvious manifestations of political support are raising money and getting out the vote and this requires full participation in all aspects of the political process: joining political parties, working in political campaigns, and mobilizing the Arab American community into a voter bloc that can make a difference in electoral politics.

2. To create a role for Arab Americans in the policy debate over Middle East peace and U.S.-Arab relations.

Once access is gained and credibility earned, Arab Americans must try to responsibly contribute to the policy debates that affect them as Americans and as Arab Americans. Arab Americans have been doing this to a significant degree since the Clinton Administration took power, on issues ranging from the peace process and Palestinian rights to health care and immigration.

To most effectively play this role, Arab Americans must seek to define themselves in terms of the unique status they have in American society. They are, in fact, Americans who can act as a bridge between two worlds. They can translate Arab concerns into the U.S. policy debate and also communicate the U.S. political process and U.S. policy to the Arab world. At the same time, as an extraordinarily successful ethnic community, Arab Americans need to project the inherited values of their Arab culture and tradition to the broader U.S. policy debate on domestic social issues.

3. Finally, politically empowered Arab Americans should seek to understand the needs of their own community, particularly those with special needs. A boat that lifts up a few Arab Americans without empowering the rest of the community will sooner or later crash on the rocks of political reality. But assessing needs without laying out a strategy to meet those needs will in the long run be futile, too. There are limited resources available to all Americans these days, not just Arab Americans, and so a plan must be drawn up that shows how and where to best channel community resources.

A survey of Arab American community needs has been done in several cities around the country. It shows that Arab Americans, like all Americans, have a broad range of needs, some special and some common to others in our society: our immigrants need social services; access to health care; Arab American grocers in the inner cities need protection and security from crime; many of our children need bilingual education or assistance, etc.

The plan that must now be developed is a political one – how to access the agencies of government and the institutions in U.S. society in order to provide Arab Americans with the support to meet the needs identified.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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