Posted on September 17, 2007 in Washington Watch

While doing politics is never easy, for Arab Americans it has at times been an especially difficult business. Despite this, over the last thirty years, Arab Americans have succeeded in finding sufficient common ground to organize their constituency, to mobilize on issues of common concern, and to secure recognition and access in the political mainstream.

It has not been easy. Different backgrounds, and competing ideologies and priorities have all too often acted as centrifugal forces tugging at the community. But over the past three decades, most leaders have recognized the importance of working together and, on the national and local levels, have built institutions and organizations that have served to reinforce a unified Arab American community and agenda.

If the trajectory of Arab American organizing has been upward, so too, has the community’s ability to see these efforts rewarded by recognition and access. Here, too, the story has been marked by difficulties; but, here as well, problems have been overcome.

Just twenty years ago, Arab American political efforts were routinely rebuffed. Some candidates returned endorsements and contributions, and some even attacked opponents for accepting the support of Arab Americans. But hard work and perseverance by community leaders, support from political figures like Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan, and media outrage over blatant efforts at exclusion, helped Arab Americans turn the corner.

Today Arab Americans are better organized and more recognized than ever before. The community still faces challenges, but has the wherewithal and support to overcome them.

And so at the end of October, when Arab Americans gather in their quadrennial National Leadership Conference they so do with a sense of confidence and purpose. These Conferences precede national presidential elections and are designed to prepare the community for the coming contest. Early indicators are that this year’s event will reflect the growth of the community. Outreach efforts have succeeded in bringing together the many diverse components of the community, spurred to a great degree by the significant challenges faced not only by Arab Americans but the nation as a whole.

The war in Iraq, the plight of Palestinians, the continuing political turmoil in Lebanon, the deteriorating image of the U.S. in the Arab world, the threat to domestic civil liberties, and the divisive debate over immigration are all, of course, of particular concern to Arab Americans. But these issues are central to the national agenda as well. Arab Americans will seek this year to position themselves to help inform the national discussion on these matters and others.

And at this year’s Conference, Arab Americans will not only organize and empower themselves to engage in the political process, they will also seek to engage the candidates and campaigns of those seeking the presidency.

Until the Conference preceding the 2000 elections, only two presidential candidates had made appearances at these Arab American events: Bob Dole and Jesse Jackson, who both came in 1988. Al Gore and John McCain participated in the pre-2000 Conference. But in the pre-2004 event, all of the Democratic candidates and the Chair of the Bush campaign accepted the invitation to appear.

While the Conference will bring together the most representative gathering of Arab Americans ever, major candidates have yet to confirm; however, not for “the old reasons.” The problem is that Arab Americans have been caught in the crossfire between Michigan and what are called “the four early states.” Let me explain.

The National Leadership Conference will, as always, take place in Michigan. But because Michigan has moved its primary date to mid-January, it has infuriated the four earliest states on the election calendar (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada). Those four states have asked the presidential candidates to sign a pledge committing not to campaign in Michigan. While a number of presidential candidates had previously indicated their interest in attending the Arab American event, they are now pulling back.

It’s not a deliberate exclusion of the community, but it would potentially have the same effect. The Arab American Institute has issued an appeal to the four states to waive their pledge, if only for the Arab American conference so as not to shut the community out of the national discussion. The early response is encouraging. The national media is beginning to pick up this story of the unintended consequence of the four-state rule.

Time will tell, and soon, whether the candidates will receive a waiver allowing them to appear at the Conference. It would, I believe, be important for Arab Americans, and the national policy discussion, that they do.