One of the first political lessons I learned after coming to Washington was taught to me by an African American activist who had, in his early years, worked as a strategist with Martin Luther King, Jr.
I had just won a minor political victory and was telling him about it. His response was, “Don’t take any victory for granted, because the very forces you had to fight to win are still out there trying to undo what you’ve won. You must always protect your victories.”
I was reminded of my friend and mentor’s wise words last week, when a thoughtful reporter asked me to identify what, I thought, had been Arab Americans’ most important accomplishments over the past three decades, and what, I felt, were the greatest challenges still facing the community.
My answers were that we had succeeded, despite great obstacles, in building a community and the institutions to support it, and now face the challenge of protecting that community and its institutions.
From the beginning of our work, some three decades ago, our goal had been to establish an empowered Arab American community, respected and recognized in the mainstream of American political life. On our way we faced challenges, both internal and external to our community.
First and foremost were the difficulties encountered dealing with our complex constituency, divided, as it was, by religion, country of origin and generational experience in the US. The attachments and identities of each group were different. For those born in the US, identity was shaped by their American experience. Their attachment to the Arab world was, at best, a generalized one, of a heritage and culture. The more recent immigrants, on the other hand, had their identities formed in their countries of origin, and, in some cases, by political affiliations or ideologies they had embraced.
Thirty years ago, when our efforts began, America was in the throes of a cultural upheaval, one by-product of which was the upsurge of ethnic identity movements (African American cultural nationalism, and the “hyphenated-American” organizations). No sooner had Americans of Arab descent begun organizing, than civil war in Lebanon and the Arab League’s expulsion of Egypt created complications that had to be overcome.
Resolving not to let our identity and organization be determined by overseas events, we focused on finding common ground and building organizations that served community needs.
As we grew and gained early recognition we encountered still other problems. Pro-Israel groups saw us a threat and placed new difficulties in our path. They sought to use their dominant positions to define and defame us. Saying that there was no Arab American community, their literature described us as “a petrodollar funded fiction” created to “support PLO terror” and serve as “an anti-Israel lobby.” As a result, we faced exclusion from some coalitions, candidates refused to accept our contributions or support and some of our leaders were subject to McCarthy-like personal attacks.
By focusing on our goals, we persisted and grew in strength. We registered and organized our vote, built institutions that provided services to our community, supported Arab Americans in politics and defended our heritage and organizations against attacks–”all the while articulating a responsible American political agenda that won support from a broad cross-section of Americans of Arab descent. And we did not allow imported identities or divisions to distort our work.
I knew we were on the path to success as early as 1983 when, at an event of over 800 Arab Americans in Chicago, it was observed that the attendees were a cross section of our community, representing different religions, countries of origin, and generations–”all there as one community.
Today, as we witnessed in the last elections, Arab Americans are recognized and courted by both parties. Our social service institutions employ hundreds of young Arab Americans and serve the needs of tens of thousands within our community. Coalitions which once excluded us, now accept us in leadership roles. And we have even opened the first Arab American Museum–”a remarkable institution that celebrates Arab contributions to civilization and the Arab American experience.
We are now empowered and empowering a new generation of young Arab Americans. And while we do not always win the policy debates on critical questions of US domestic and foreign policy, we are now part of the process.
And still pressures remain–”from both within and outside of our community. Imported and divisive identities and loyalties still threaten to rupture our unity. In addition to some politicized Christian groups who deny their Arab American identity, we now face a similar challenge from some Muslim groups who deny the unity of our ethnic constituency. Then there are those who still focus exclusively on their countries of origin. While our Arab American groups respect the importance of religion and the attachment that many rightly feel toward their homelands, we maintain the importance of maintaining unity regardless of religion or origin.
There are some in the Bush Administration who have sought to play into these divisive currents–””cherry picking” groups and cultivating their support. At different times they have played the “religion card” alternately courting Muslim groups and separatist Christian groupings as well. They have also elevated in importance some of the exile country-specific political groups at the expense of the established Arab American community organizations.
The dangers here are obvious. The community we have built is being challenged by those who seek to divide us. But I remain confident that signs point to the growing strength of the community. For example, our polls show that the use of “Arab American” as the preferred form of self-identification (over country of origin and religion) is increasing. And on campuses, student groups that a generation ago were headed by Arab students are now led by US born Arab Americans, a new generation that has demonstrated real pride in their heritage. Finally, polls also show that Arab Americans, whether Republican or Democrat, immigration or second generation, Muslim or Christian, display a remarkable convergence of views on several critical foreign and domestic policy issues, fighting defamation and discrimination, defending civil liberties, supporting Palestinian rights and the unity and sovereignty of Lebanon, to name a few.
The lesson here is that we have built a community we can be proud of, but it an accomplishment we must defend and protect, because it is still being challenged.