Posted on July 03, 1995 in Washington Watch

I recently received a disturbing call from an Arab friend.

My friend had phoned to tell me why he could not longer continue to offer financial support to Arab American organizations. His main reason was that he had become dismayed with U.S. Middle East policy and very pessimistic about the possibility of ever bringing about positive changes in U.S. dealings with the Arab world.

His attitude is not an uncommon one. There is a deep malaise in the Arab world, and among Arab Americans as well. The cause is concern about both U.S. foreign policy and about the effectiveness of Arab American organizations.

It is clear that we are collectively, both Arabs and Arab Americans, in a crisis situation. The end of the Cold War and the traumatic effects of the Gulf war have left us with a shattered consensus, political confusion and, in some cases, despair. The trends and tendencies which have emerged in the Arab world all have their counterparts in the Arab American community.

One result has been a decline in financial support for Arab American organizations so that some of them are mere shadows of their former selves. And in the definition-less world left in the wake of the Cold War and the Gulf war, all Arab American organizations have had to withstand a crisis of self-definition. And with such serious difficulties, the organizations have had to make hard decisions.

I nonetheless maintain that despite the trauma and the malaise, our organizations have a relevant and even critical role to play – and despite the difficulties, they are performing.

First and foremost, our community needs organization, defense and services. If the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing teaches anything it is that Arab Americans organizations are not only relevant: they are necessary. Our organizations were able to bring Arab and Muslim leaders into the national debate and influence the direction of national media coverage in the process.

Similarly, our work on the “Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act of 1995” has been somewhat successful in shaping the national debate and alerted others to the threat to civil liberties inherent in the proposals before Congress. While the legislation is still under debate, already some significant changes have been made, with our support, that can limit the danger this legislation could pose to the Constitutional rights of all Americans.

And, as we are reminded daily, our organizations provide needed services. In Cleveland, we were recently able to direct press and civic attention to the violence suffered by Arab American merchants in that city. The city is responding to our community concerns and action is being taken to help alleviate some of the life-threatening conditions facing Arab American merchants in Cleveland’s inner city – but they are only responding because the community was effectively organized and demanded such actions. At the same time, in Dearborn and New York City, Arab American social services organizations provide essential language, health care, job training and counseling services to thousands of Arab American immigrants who otherwise would have no access to such services.

On an entirely different level, today Arab Americans who seek elected office come to Arab American organizations seeking support for their campaigns. Without organizations on both the national and local levels, Arab Americans would be unable to tap community support that other ethnic candidates regularly receive from their communities.

Similarly, while facing an arduous uphill challenge, Arab Americans have assumed a critical role in informing the U.S. policy debate on important Middle East issues.

The reality is that, during the past five years, Arab Americans have emerged as respected interlocutors with both the media and the government about key issues facing U.S.-Arab relations. For example, from the day Senator Dole first introduced his legislation to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Arab Americans have been in news shaping the debate on this issue. We were able to challenge the Senator in the press, and before the Senate and the Clinton Administration.

Further, Arab Americans have continued to play a role in informing and are invited to discuss U.S. policy toward Lebanon, the Middle East peace process, and security and trade matters affecting U.S. relations with several Arab states. Obviously, the malaise in Arab and Arab Americans regarding these issues is based on real problems – but one must recognize that part of the frustration is that things have improved on many fronts, but not yet enough.

And in response to negative official and press portrayals of Islam, Arab American and American Muslim organizations have made vital contributions to the national discussion.

I also have come to believe that Arab American organizations have a role to play in projecting values. As an ethnic community we are, in fact, an American success story. We have not only survived in America, we have succeeded while preserving our values and our traditions. Our families and our attachment to them remain strong. So does our community’s sense of enterprise, personal responsibility, our respect for education and our sense of honor.

These are the issues that form the center of today’s political-cultural debate in the U.S. In that debate Arab Americans can and should play an important role. But if that is to happen, our organizations must provide leadership and encouragement, and must help create the openings that enable individual Arab Americans the opportunity to be heard.

And finally, I believe that Arab American organizations remain important because of the role they play in providing a bridge, from the U.S. back to the Arab world. Given the critical and important role that the U.S. plays in the post-Cold War world, Arab Americans can play a useful role in informing Arabs of the inner workings of American society and politics. One can see that our organizations are, in fact, playing that role: through the Arab media, on speaking tours (some sponsored by Arab institutions and some by U.S. agencies), and in the regular flow of Arab official visitors who come through our office to meet with us and to discuss current U.S. policy and the structure of the foreign policy decision-making process in this country.

Arab American organizations are relevant and performing, and playing an important role. There are differences among the various groups, but for the most part they share similar goals – and there can always be more than one path to any goal. The differences often act to reinforce the shared agenda, especially during a crisis. For example, the joint efforts in responding to the Jerusalem legislation, the Oklahoma City bombing and the anti-terrorism legislation showed how in a crisis, agendas and actions merged and the different resources cultivated by the different organizations could be put to use toward a common goal.

While Arab American organizations have played an important role in providing services to and organizing the community, defending the Arab image, serving as a two-way bridge for information between the U.S. and Arab world – they still face extremely difficult obstacles in their efforts to change U.S. Middle East policy. But in response to my Arab friends and others in the Arab world and Arab American community, I ask: “What else will you do? What are the alternatives? If not Arab Americans, who will help bring about those changes?”

Although the squandering of enormous sums of Arab money on high-priced public relations campaigns is an old story, there is a newer and more disturbing trend to report. Several leading U.S. institutions have developed important centers for influencing Middle East policy. They are headed by American Jews but are funded by Arabs. In fact, a recent study shows that these institutions receive more funding from Arab sources than do Arab American organizations.

And only a few Arab embassies seek out and work with our organizations. If our relationships were closer, we would both benefit. Arab American organizations will become stronger if the embassies work with them, and the embassies will in turn benefit if the Arab American organizations become stronger and more respected.

It is true that American Jewish organizations are more influential than Arab American organizations, but it is neither helpful nor useful for Arabs to continue to operate as if the only access they can receive in Washington is if Jewish organizations obtain it for them.

In fact, I am engaged in an ongoing debate with several prominent Arabs about this very issue. They tell me that they need to work with this or that Jewish organization because that group can get them the appointment or forum they need. The truth is that, given the positions held and/or the wealth possessed by the Arab friends I’m debating with, almost anyone could get them what they want. What Arabs sometimes don’t seem to realize is that they are often the powerful party in a situation and they unwittingly cede too much power to others to do for them what they could do for themselves. In the process, by not asking Arab American organizations to work with them, and by asking Americans Jews for help, they reinforce the very inequality of power they so lament.

In short, to my Arab and Arab American friends who bemoan the fate of Arab American organizations and their inability to change U.S. policy, I say: We have a role to play, we are in fact playing that role, and we could be even stronger if we worked more closely together.

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