The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Kal on Arab-American life

In response to my post about the ADC's banning of a pro-Syria uprising song at a recent event, Kal of The Moor Next Door wrote a long comment that I thought was worthy if highlighting. It's reproduced below. 

I share Issandr's view of the major "Arab American" organizations. I think the point on the community (and it's organizations, frankly) being divided on sectarian and national lines is very important. What I'm going to write here is based on my own experience growing up in the Arab community with an immigrant and US born set of Arab parents (and a mixed Christian/Muslim family). And I won't say I'm giving the best informed comment but this is my personal observation/sentiment.

The failure of large Arab American associations to be politically effectual in defending the civil rights of Arab Americans or to be of any relevance as the US political discourse has grown more anti-Arab and sectarian over the last decade, I think, speaks to this. As a secular progressive myself (and an Arab American) it is distressing that the most prominent groups led by or including Arabs are sectarian religious organizations which define how Arabs and Muslims are treated and defined in political discourse. At protests in the US in support of the Syrian or Egyptian uprisings you had almost nobody from these big groups, really and aside form the sectarian groups they have no presence among young people (which is a huge problem, IMO, because it strengthens sectarian narratives in US culture, increases ignorance about the Arab community as a whole within the community itself (it isolates Christian and Muslim Arabs from one another), and ultimately, I think, will strengthen the rightwing in general over the long term (remember: the big Muslim groups (and voters) backed Bush in 2000), but I say that as someone not sympathetic to religion in general). You do not have enough socialization between Christian and Muslim Arab Americans at the youth or even professional level. You have summer camps that are basically designed to preserve the Arab identity among Syro-Lebanese Christians and summer programs for Muslim youth that do not over lap. Sure, send your kids to a summer camp where they learn the teachings of Antiochian Orthodox or Maronite Christianity, meet (i.e., date and then marry) other Arabs or to some after school/summer program where they learn about Islam and do good works. But at the pre-college level you don't have enough structured community initiatives or programs that foster a common American Arab identity that does not rely on religion or sect. I believe this contributes to the weakness of Arab American activism in general and the lack of understanding and empathy for the struggles of different Arab groups within the community. You simply don't have Arab groups that attempt to do that and you have extreme sensitivity to potentially divisive issues and ideas about identity; discussion of each others issues is seen as un-PC (thus you have groups that never criticize Arab regimes, or are too afraid to take clear stands against fanatic American politicians; it gets left to religious people, which reenforces sectarianism between non-Arab and Arab Christians vs. Muslims; the objective should be combat sectarianism in America as a whole).

You also have a generational problem: the sectarian groups are heavily led by recent immigrants with religious or political gripes with Arab regimes and with these things as their main focus. The ineffectual Arab American groups are often more often multigenerational and there is distance between members/leaders and the regimes; they are more dispassionate and are more politically bland (think Sununus, Mitch Daniel, Darrel Issa, etc etc etc; they see support from the Syrian embassy or some prince as something nice for the social page or whatever; basically they've adopted middle class values and have traditionally looked at "civil rights" in terms of becoming the White Man, though that is changing). There is not a solid idea at a popular level of what the Arab American agenda is; you have a better idea for Muslim Americans in general (Arab Americans are mostly Christians, with a significant and growing Muslim minority) but not for Arabs ; of course almost all agree on Palestine in foreign affairs but it ends there pretty much. On the domestic front there is almost nothing coherent, though most have something about "civil rights" but there is no real narrative (you have a tension between recent and more distant immigrants/Arab Americans that isn't totally reconciled in terms fo domestic political life or politics). And in public Arabs and Muslims are still treated by the establishment and political class as the same grouping and the Arab American groups go along with this, likely for tactical reasons but this doesn't actually work to combat ignorance within the community or the nation (US) even if in anti-prejudice the distinction is made repeatedly because most people don't see those and the public at large just doesn't get it. A relative (Syrian Christian, born in the US) told me about how their church was fear mongering about the Islamist uprising in Syria, telling them to pray for calm and the good of Christians and the government recently; and you can see how this would play among recent immigrants vs American born folks (this is very clear when observing Syrian Americans IMO).

Unfortunately, none of these groups can be taken seriously as representing an "Arab American' view on foreign policy, Arab revolutions, civil rights, or politics generally because the community is so divided and the groups themselves are not accountable to any popular sentiment within the Arab American community (or communities) itself. This has been well known for sometime; and unfortunately the secular Arab groups in the US have lost the initiative to religious groups which really means that the bulk of the Arab American community has no voice as such (you cannot say CAIR or MPAC speak for Arab Americans even if some of their leaders are Arabs, anymore than ADC et al). The most credible Arab American voices are independent ones, academics and business people more than politicians or the major associations (I mean: can we take Darrel Issa or Mitch Daniels seriously as voices of the Arab American community? Or Rima Fakih or Spencer Abraham? Or Nihad Awad?). You have journalists (print, not TV) that do more to humanize Arabs and their concerns than Arab American activists or politicians. The existing "mainstream" Arab American groups are simply not independent, accountable or credible.