The eyes of the United States will be on Arab Americans later this month when community leaders from twenty-five states gather in Michigan for the Arab American Institute’s (AAI) National Leadership Conference (NLC).
The event marks a milestone for Arab American political empowerment providing a clear measure of the respect and recognition shown to the community. Most significant is the fact that all of the major candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination will be addressing the NLC. This represents a first for Arab Americans.
To fully appreciate the importance of this breakthrough it is useful to put this year’s event in a historical context.
Twenty years ago when Jesse Jackson was running for President, he addressed an Arab American event, becoming the first candidate to do so. In 1988, then Senator Bob Dole and again in 1992 commentator Pat Buchanan, both candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, spoke at AAI NLCs. And then in the 2000 presidential primary contest, Democrat Al Gore and Republican Senator John McCain addressed that year’s NLC via satellite.
All of this represented steady, but frustratingly slow, progress toward the political recognition of Arab Americans. And it was not without setbacks. In fact, it appeared, at times, that inclusion and exclusion were in competition.
For example, while the Jackson campaign of 1984 and 1988 helped to register and energize Arab American voters and elect record numbers of Arab Americans as delegates to the Democratic Party’s National Convention, all was not well. In 1984, winning Democratic Presidential nominee Walter Mondale returned contributions to a group of prominent Arab American businessmen and in 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis rejected the endorsement he received from the Arab American Democratic Federation.
Problems existed on the Republican side as well. While Arab Americans were part of the 1984 and 1988 Reagan and Bush campaigns’ ethnic coalitions, in 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole (who in the past had participated in Arab American events) refused to meet with Arab American Republican leaders.
The 2000 elections represented a turn. For the first time Arab Americans were employed in senior posts in both the Republican and Democratic campaigns and different Arab American groups were actively courted by, and then endorsed, the campaigns of George Bush and Al Gore. And it should be remembered that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was a proud Arab American.
Now, in the lead up to the 2004 primary elections, more progress is in evidence. In the first place, all of the major Democratic campaigns have hired Arab Americans-many in key staff positions. Already the candidates have been reaching out to Arab Americans nationally and in several key states seeking counsel and support and the leading candidates will all appear at the NLC.
Three political factors have contributed to this Arab American progress.
1. During the past 20 years we have defined Arab Americans as a community and a political constituency. This has not always been the case. Until the 1980s, both Democrats and Republicans gave recognition to groups of Syrian-Lebanese or Lebanese Americans.
The last two decades have witnessed a transformation. Despite pressures, we have brought together the component parts of the community. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Today under the banner of "Arab American", second generation elected officials gather with recent immigrant activists. Muslims and Christians who trace their ancestry to all regions of the Arab World, all now come together as Arab Americans. As a result, when the Arab American NLC convenes next week, Arab American congressmen, mayors, state representatives, partly leaders and community activists from states across America will come together to plan for the 2004 elections.
Now there are still those who attempt to divide the community on the basis of religion or country of origin, but polling shows that most persons of Arab descent have continued to identify and unite on the basis of a common ethnic heritage.
2. Not only have Arab Americans defined and unified their community, they have succeeded in energizing it and mobilizing it into the United States’ political mainstream. Voter registration efforts have succeeded in creating a small, but still significant, Arab American voter presence in several key states. In addition, Arab Americans have, during the past 20 years, become engaged in the political parties and in political campaigns. As a result, not only are Arab Americans courted as a voter group, they are engaged as political professionals and staff.
As a result of this process, Arab Americans have built relationships with the candidates who are running, with some of their senior staff and with party leaders, all of which has helped to insure that the community will not again suffer the pain of exclusion.
3. An equally significant factor that contributes to bringing candidates to Arab Americans is the intense competition that exists in today’s political environment.
On the national level, the electorate is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. The same situation exists in a number of key states. Called "battleground states", they include: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida-all states with growing and organized Arab American communities.
As a result, small but organized "new" constituencies are sought after by campaigns since their support can represent the margin of victory in close contests. While this will be true in the November 2004 contests, it also appears that candidates are reaching out to "new groups" in the early stages of the Democratic primary-and this has helped to create a draw for the NLC.
The fact that one of the earliest major Democratic presidential primary season contests will be in Michigan (a state with a significant Arab American presence) is yet another factor contributing to the political breakthroughs experienced by Arab Americans this year.
And so when Arab American leaders gather in Michigan at this year’s NLC they will be in an extraordinary position. Building on the work that has been done over the past two decades, they have the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the future-a future in which Arab Americans will no longer suffer exclusion, but will be able to provide needed input into the political process that can shape the national debate on issues of critical importance.
This, of course, will not occur at one event or in one year. It is a building process and to succeed it must remain cognizant of the progress that has been made and the lessons of the past, namely: that Arab Americans succeed when they organize responsibly, remain respectful of the community’s internal diversity and commit to a strategic vision that focuses on the long term.