Posted on July 25, 2005 in Washington Watch
There are important differences between the Arab and broader Muslim immigrant experience in Europe and that of the Arab American and American Muslim communities in the United States.
First and foremost, there is the fact that America itself is different, both in concept and in reality. I have heard third generation Kurds in Germany or Algerians in France complain that they remain on the margins of their societies. With difficulty they may obtain citizenship, but not the identity of being German or French. On the other hand, becoming “American” is a process that has brought countless immigrant groupings into the US mainstream. Being “American” is not the possession of a single ethnic group, nor does any ethnic group define “America.” Within a generation, diverse ethnic and religious communities from every corner of the globe have been transformed into what we know as Americans. Problems remain, to be sure, and intolerant bigots periodically rear their heads, but as US history demonstrates, the pressures of incorporation and absorption are decisive.
“Becoming American,” in the end, means more than obtaining a passport and a set of legal rights. It also means adopting a new identity and absorbing a shared sense of history. At the same time as each new group has entered the American mainstream, the concept of America, itself, has been expanded and transformed.
I recall a rather remarkable meeting of US ethnic leaders with former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in the White House Cabinet Room. We had been convened by the President as part of his effort to win support for his “One America” initiative, to heal the US’s racial divide.
Rather spontaneously, individuals seated around the table began telling their own immigrant stories or the histories of the difficulties their communities faced as they sought acceptance in the American mainstream. At the end of this sometimes emotional session, Clinton observed that all of the stories combined were the collective American story. They were, in fact, the shared history of the “One America” he was seeking to promote.
Because of this unique American experience, recent Arab and Muslim immigrants come into a society that is more prepared to accept them and see them as enriching the already complex American mosaic. Immigration is not new to America; it defines the nation’s experience. Therefore, ethnic and religious organizations abound. A foundation based on diversity and acceptance already exists with fertile ground prepared to accept new communities and to include them in the ever-broadening definition of America.
After 9/11, for example, when Arab Americans and American Muslims felt threatened by a backlash, support was immediately forthcoming from a broad coalition of Asian American, Hispanic American and African American organizations as well as a host of other ethnic and religious groups that came to our defense. It is worth noting that these groups constitute over one-third of the American people!
On this same note, it is worth pointing out the importance of the foundation built by an earlier generation of Arab Americans. Because the Arab American community has already formed comparatively strong organizations that have paved the way for acceptance, more recent immigrants, despite difficulties, find a supportive network in place. While the earlier immigrants formed groups that were secular (including both Arab Christians and Muslims from all regions of the Arab World), they have provided both support and models for more recent religion-based organizations.
Another important difference between the European and US experience is the extraordinary social and economic mobility that is possible in the US. I have heard some argue that the reason Europe’s Muslims live marginalized and alienated, in ghettos, while Muslims and Arabs in the US are now integrated, is because the immigrants to the US were white-collar professionals, while those to Europe were uneducated laborers. This is simply not true. The US and Europe have each had their share of the Arab “brain drain.” At the same time, in recent decades, the US has taken in tens of thousands of North African Arabs who started as waiters; Yemenis who come as farm workers and dockworkers, Lebanese autoworkers and Syrian steelworkers, Egyptian and Palestinian cabdrivers and poor Iraqi Shi’a refugees as well as thousands more from South Asia.
They do not remain in the lower socio-economic strata, because they have found that opportunities for enterprise abound. Within a few decades, for example, thousands of Yemenis worked their way out of California’s fields into small business ownership in a number of states. While each new generation may experience initial hardship, the progress made by Arab Americans and American Muslims is a record to be proud of.
None of this should suggest that Arab Americans and American Muslims do not face discrimination, share deep frustrations with American foreign policy and have real concern with threats to their civil liberties. But because they are American they voice their anger and concern as citizens, not as aliens.
Events of the past two weeks are worth noting here. The day after July 7, for example, all of the Arab American, South Asian and Muslim groups were brought together in a conversation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This was part of an ongoing dialogue and partnership with DHS and an extension of the working relationship that has been built with the new leadership at the Department of Justice.
Not only have all of the groups repeatedly condemned terrorism, but also the government officials with whom we work have continuously reaffirmed their support for the rights of these communities. The DHS conversation was followed by a community briefing with the Democratic leadership of the US Senate and a meeting with the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
None of this is to suggest that extremists do not exist here. But it is they, and not the communities themselves who are on the margins. The Arab American and American Muslim groups are ever vigilant to deal with and ostracize these elements. While this mindset existed prior to 9/11, the shock of that horror only sharpened the resolve of the community to shun extremism.
That the communities have done this while not being silenced as political constituencies sharply critical of disastrous US foreign and domestic policies is a tribute both to their viability and self-confidence, and to the openness of the US process. That’s the difference.
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