A Resilient Arab American Community

With all of the dramatic and sometimes discouraging developments currently taking place across the Arab World, the challenges faced by the small but vibrant Arab American community are often given short shrift. This week we took time to acknowledge the threats to the community’s security and well-being and the efforts being made to address these challenges.

On April 18th, the Arab American Institute hosted its annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Dinner, giving special recognition to our community’s resilience, our personal resources and the strong and courageous allies who stand with us in defense of our rights.

In the past year, the seriousness of these dangers has come to light. In some cases they have emanated from "hate groups" who have been emboldened in their efforts to defame the community. Once marginal websites that have long propagandized against Arabs and Muslims, have now become mainstream, finding their hate echoed on Fox TV or in the rantings of some presidential candidates. They paint all Muslims as a danger and make no distinction between Arabs and Muslims. Targeting an entire community, they promote intolerance and fear.

While the community has relied on law enforcement agencies to defend it against the violence, threats of violence, and acts of outright discrimination that have been the result of the atmosphere created by the "hate groups,” all is not well on that front either. Revelations by Wired that training manuals used by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are filled with gross misrepresentations of Arab culture and Islam, and other recent revelations (in a series of AP articles, that just won a Pulitzer prize) that the New York City Police Department has implemented a massive domestic spying operation targeting Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, and Muslims, in general, have caused great distress in the community.

Instead of accepting this state of affairs, Arab Americans have drawn on their resources and their allies, and have fought back. And the Gibran awards dinner provided the occasion to recognize those who had been important in this effort, making it clear that Arab American are not powerless and do not stand alone. One of the groups honored with the Gibran "Spirit of Humanity" award was the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights organization born in the Deep South during the struggle for African American rights. Today, the SPLC has broadened its purview becoming a leading voice speaking out against Islamophobic hate groups and discrimination in all its forms, thus providing the community with much needed support and strength.

Also honored was a remarkable initiative launched by an Arab American (Dean Obeidallah) and an Iranian American (Negin Farsad). Their effort, "The Muslims Are Coming" comedy tour traveled last year throughout the South going even to communities that had mobilized to block efforts to build mosques. The tour relied on comedy to educate and shatter stereotypes. Using laughter, they both instructed and defused hate.

There are those who say that while Arab civilization had a great past, it has no present or future. They also question whether Arab immigrants to America have made any contribution to the U.S. In response to this slight to Arab culture, the Gibran awards recognized the work of the Arab Thought Foundation–”an example of an Arab institution that promotes learning, cultural pride, and self-reflection. The Arab Thought Foundation is a center for the dissemination of learning and a beacon of enlightenment.

Annually the Gibran gala recognizes an Arab American who has made an outstanding contribution in the area of public service. This year’s recipient of the Najeeb Halaby public service award was presented to former U.S. Ambassador Ted Kattouf for his three decades in the Foreign Service and his decade-long leadership of AMIDEAST, one of America’s largest NGO’s serving the people of the Arab World. The award was presented by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, himself a former recipient. As unremarkable as all this might have appeared to some, the fact that a Lebanese American presents an award named after a Syrian American to a Palestinian American itself makes a statement about the success of the Arab American community to rise above division and assert its identity and heritage.

The night concluded with a special tribute to Anthony Shadid, a journalist like no other, whose untimely death in February took from us a writer who had devoted his life to serving as a bridge, connecting his fellow Americans to the often misunderstood realities and peoples of the Arab World.

The night closed with a reminder that even in what may appear to be the darkest of times, with challenges all around, Arab Americans are a resilient and proud community with allies who support us. We are a community with the strength and creativity to affirm our humanity and defend our rights against those who would defame, dishonor, disown, or try to divide us.

Despite the challenges we have faced and continue to face, we remain, at the end of the day, a community that is proud of our heritage, and prouder still of our accomplishments in America, our home.