Posted on June 19, 2000 in Washington Watch

President Clinton made a surprise appearance before the Arab American Institute Foundation (AAIF) annual awards dinner last week, and spoke eloquently of his relationship with the Arab American community and of the vision he shares with us of a more tolerant and humane society.

The AAIF event awards American and international institutions and individuals who have made a significant contribution to promoting tolerance, respect for diversity, peace and human rights. The award is named after Kahlil Gibran, the Arab American poet and author of The Prophet.

The President’s appearance marked the second time he has addressed an Arab American audience and provided him with an opportunity to both reflect on his term in office and as he put it “to thank the Arab American community for the contributions you have made to the progress of America and the strength and diversity of our Administration over the past seven and one-half years.”

The major body of his remarks mixed appreciation with reflections on his record. He began by thanking Arab Americans for their “contributions to building that kind of America and for helping America to be a better citizen in building that kind of world.

“So many of you have contributed to our efforts to build a lasting, just peace in the Middle East, to build strong and trusting relationships with people who previously questioned the United States.”

The President then went on to note several important events in his Administration. “I was honored to be the first president to address the Palestinian National Council in Gaza. I traveled to Syria to meet with President Assad, and met with him several times elsewhere. And again, I want to extend my deepest condolences to his family and to the people of Syria. They had their memorial service today. Secretary Albright represented us. And we wish them well, and we hope that we can resume our relationship and the work for peace.

“I was honored to represent the United States at the funeral of my friend King Hassan of Morocco, and at the funeral of King Hussein of Jordan, and to walk in both cases behind the funeral train and the coffins of two men who had become my friends in the search for peace.”

Clinton continued by expressing appreciation to those Arab Americans who participated in several of the important initiatives undertaken during his term in office. In particular he gave his thanks to “all of you who have been involved with me have helped us to stand for tolerance, not only in Bosnia and Kosovo and the Middle East, but in Northern Ireland and in Africa and every other place where people are threatened. I thank those of you who are involved in giving me the chance to be the first president to celebrate the end of Ramadan at the White House, to discuss with Arab American leaders the challenges facing your communities. I thank those of you who participated with me and with President Mubarak of Egypt in the meeting we had with Arab Americans recently at the White House. It was fascinating to me to hear those of you who were there having the conversations you had with him.”

And he concluded this reprise by thanking Arab Americans “for the contributions so many of you have made to the astonishing prosperity of the United States. I look out here and I see many of you whom I know who started with nothing and rose to the leadership of great corporations, built your own businesses, gave people of different backgrounds and different faiths a chance to make a living because of your own industry and enterprise.”

Clinton’s remarks fit perfectly with the theme of the event. This year’s Kahlil Gibran honorees represented an impressive array of institutions–all of whom have made a significant contribution to building a better America and world community.

The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights was recognized for its work with human rights activists to enhance their capacity and effectiveness and to help marshal the resources necessary for their work.

The Center was represented at the event by its found Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, the daughter of the late Senator.

St. Jude Children’s Hospital, founded by Danny Thomas, and supported by Arab Americans, was awarded for its contributions to the fight against catastrophic childhood diseases.

St. Jude’s was represented by its Executive Director, Richard Shadyac, whom many refer to as the “father of Arab American politics.”

The Aga Kahn Foundation was the international institution recognized for its leadership in promoting health, education, and rural development in low-income countries.

And Focus: Hope, a local Michigan project, recommended by Ford Motor Company President and CEO Jacques Nasser, an Arab American, was awarded for its practical solutions to the problems of hunger, economic disparity, inadequate education, and racial divisiveness.

The importance of the entire night was clear to all who participated: the U.S. Senators and Members of Congress, the corporate leaders and the leaders of the Arab American community. Through the Kahlil Gibran awards, Arab Americans are defining themselves as part of the great American mainstream. We define ourselves as standard bearers of the great Arab traditions of hospitality, tolerance and respect for diversity. And we award those who help to elevate these virtues in society.

The fact that the President recognizes this and shared the evening with us was also important. At the end of his remarks he noted that his one wish for America was not for “prosperity” or that we “vanquish our enemies.” Rather it was that, “We could build one America in our hearts, because I believe when people learn to cherish their own traditions, to enjoy the differences they have with other people, but to be absolutely convicted about the fact that the most important fact of life on this Earth is our common humanity, all the rest more or less falls into place.

“We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve all made our mistakes along the way, including me. But we’re making progress. And if you keep working, we’ll get there a lot sooner.

“Thank you, and God bless you all.”

The Gibran awards and the surprise appearance by the President mark yet another chapter in the political advance of Arab Americans. One of the awardees, St. Jude’s Executive Director Richard Shadyac noted in jest that when he began working in Washington in the 1950s and 60s, “we couldn’t get a meeting with the secretary of the secretary and now we get the President to come to speak to us.”

Arab Americans have built a community, transformed it into a political constituency in the mainstream of American life, defined this constituency and its values–and now celebrate its recognition and accomplishments.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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