Posted on February 20, 2000 in Washington Watch

An Arab American leadership meeting with President Clinton capped a week of intense political and policy-related activity. It was a week in which the growing political sophistication of Arab Americans was on display. And it was a week in which the organized community was able to address some of its most critical issue concerns. It was, in the end, a week in which Arab Americans were to prove that if the community continues to take the road of building itself as a political constituency, it can make a difference.

The meeting with the President came at the end of the week. It was the fourth such meeting with Clinton and brought a diverse grouping of Arab Americans together with the President for a one and one-half hour discussion in the White House Cabinet Room.

The 12 Arab Americans who attended came from seven states and represented diverse backgrounds and experiences. There were community activists, attorneys, business people, academics, and social service providers.

Topping the agenda of the issues raised with the President was the community’s concern with the failure of the United States to forcefully respond to the Israeli bombing of civilian targets in Lebanon. Our group also emphasized the need for the Administration to play a more vigorous role in pushing all the tracks of the Middle East peace process and in pressing the Israelis to implement commitments they have made in previous peace agreements. We also told the President of our concern for the continued suffering of the Iraqi people resulting both from the regime in Baghdad and the ten-year-long economic sanctions against the country.

On the domestic front, we raised our concerns with the heinous use of secret evidence in some deportation proceedings, the problems of profiling and discrimination experienced by some Arab Americans and the anti-immigrant provisions of the 1996 immigration legislation that denies needed social services to some legal U.S immigrants.

Our group also pressed the President on the issue of his commitment to hire more Arab Americans to Administration positions.

While the President engaged in detailed discussion on all of these issues and displayed support for many of our concerns, what was most impressive was the agenda for follow-up that emerged from the meeting. In that sense the meeting did not end–but began a process to resolve some of the issues raised in the weeks to come. We left the meeting with specific tasks assigned, proposals to write, proposed new guidelines to develop and follow-up discussions with Administration officials to bring closure to some of our Arab American concerns.

This is what policy work is all about: working to gain access, proposing realistic solutions to problems and making a determined effort to see that they are implemented.

The meeting came at the end of a week of serious political work on a number of critical issues. There was, for example, a round table discussion with officials from the Department of Transportation on the matter of airport profiling. While the problem is certainly less pronounced than it was a few years ago, it still requires further action. The Department of Transportation appears to be committed to working with Arab Americans to solve some of the remaining issues.

There were also two major press conferences this week. One was sponsored by the “National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom” and was convened to support congressional legislation to end the use of secret evidence. This event brought together leaders from the Arab American and American Muslim and civil rights communities with members of Congress who are supporting the legislative effort to repeal the act.

Another press conference this week brought Arab American and American Muslim leaders together with members of Congress to call for an end to economic sanctions against the people of Iraq. Currently 70 members of Congress have signed a letter to President Clinton calling for a delinking of the economic from the military sanctions against Iraq–it is an effort to provide relief for the people without rewarding the regime.

Finally the week was characterized by intense electoral political activity by Arab Americans in six states. In California, for example, Arab American delegates to that state’s Democratic convention passed resolutions in the state party’s platform calling for an end to secret evidence and airport profiling. In Iowa’s Democratic and Republican county caucuses, Arab American delegates passed resolutions on five major issues (Jerusalem, the peace process, sanctions on Iraq, secret evidence and profiling).

In four other states (Texas, Ohio, Virginia and Michigan) we convened town meetings attended by about 1,000 Arab Americans. These sessions were designed to bring the community together with the campaigns of the presidential candidates and the leaders of the political parties.

In the Michigan town meeting, for example, the Gore for President Campaign was represented by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, the McCain for President Campaign was represented by U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and the Bush campaign was represented by the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives Chuck Periccone.

This was an extraordinarily high level of representation and the Arab American audience was large and impressive. But on display at this particular town meeting were examples of two types of political options for the Arab American community: one progressive and forward thinking, the other reactionary and self-destructive.

Michigan is home to the United States’ largest Lebanese community from the occupied south of Lebanon and the largest population of Iraqi Americans. Both groups are deeply affected by the plight of their people in the Middle East and both are working hard to make a difference in the United States by establishing themselves as a political constituency and winning the hearts of American politicians.

The town meeting, therefore, provided a valuable opportunity for Arab Americans to influence two important political leaders: a powerful Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Administration Cabinet official in charge of the department that can end both the remaining travel restrictions on Lebanon and airport profiling.

At one point in the meeting, Senator Hagel made reference to Hizballah as a terrorist organization. The audience took offense and correctly sought to educate the Senator on the real situation in the south of Lebanon. Said one eloquent woman, “Our family lives in the occupied south and Israel is killing our civilians on our land. It is true that Hizballah is killing Israeli soldiers–but they are soldiers who are occupying our land and they are being killed on our land.” She went on to say that this should not be condemned–that what should be condemned was the Israeli occupation and the Israeli attacks against Lebanese civilians.

Unfortunately before the point could sink in to the Senator’s thinking, a few in the audience began to stand and shout at the Senator. The discussion was over. The opportunity for dialogue and education ended and the lasting image of the moment was not the woman’s appeal for understanding but the ugly shouts of a few disrupters.

This type of politics is what, for too long, has held Arab Americans back. Real politics is not about uncontrolled passion and showing off with displays of anger. These adrenaline-producing excesses may make some feel good for a moment–but they don’t educate or change reality. They also risk alienating others from our cause.

Real politics, as adopted by the majority of Arab Americans, is working slowly but steadily for change. It means becoming involved in the political process, building political power, earning respect and recognition, winning friends, setting realistic goals and working to make them happen.

This is the path being pursued by most Arab Americans and it was in evidence during the events of the past week. Despite the actions of a few, the majority is making a difference and will continue to make a difference in the 2000 elections and the years to come.

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