Arab-Americans, political organizing and litmus tests

A reader asks me, “why do you think the Arab American community has not enjoyed greater success at building and working within multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-issue coalitions, be they political, social, or cultural? And do you believe, as I would argue, that some of our community’s spokespersons and intellectuals have actually undermined effective coalition building by imposing political litmus tests on our potential allies and partners?”

The first and greatest problem is that the Arab-American community is, for the most part, itself not engaged and organized. It’s very hard to build coalitions with other communities when you don’t even want to work together most of the time on most issues. Arab-Americans are a small community, but disproportionately successful, enjoying higher average incomes, levels of education and success in almost all fields of life than most other Americans. We have thrived in this country. However, for very complicated reasons Arab-Americans resist coming together to work effectively in the political system in our own country. Lots of Arab-Americans have had individual success in the political world, but the conundrum is that those who have been successful in the mainstream of American political life have not wanted to be part, at least in a very central way, of an organized ethnic political constituency, while those who have wanted to organize along community lines have tended to be ineffective and often drawn to the fringes of American political life. The exceptions on both sides of the divide are much fewer than the general rule which tends to hold that Arab-Americans who are successful in American political life keep a distance from the community, whereas Arab-Americans who focus on the community tend to be, as one observer used to say, “addicted to failure.”

This is not terribly surprising, given that, on the one hand, Arab-American political figures, especially politicians and candidates, who wish to be successful need to rely on support largely not connected to the Arab-American community (because it is small and dispersed), while Arab-American community organizations are trying to represent a community that, for very complicated reasons, often doesn’t want to be represented (or will, in effect, reject any effort practically to represent it). The reasons for this resistance are far too complicated to explicate in a blog postings such as this, but they definitely include the fact that Arab Americans came to the United States from different parts of the Middle East at different times and for different reasons, and that political divisions in the Arab world continue to inform far too much Arab American political thinking, activity and rivalry. It’s also certainly true that many Arabs left the Middle East precisely to get away from the kind of political tensions and repression that have characterized the politics of the Arab world for at least 100 years if not much longer, in which political life has been a terrain of failure, betrayal, defeat, corruption, brutality and chronic nepotism. It?s fair to say that there is a distinctly paranoid streak to a good deal of Arab and Arab-American political thinking, but it would also in fairness have to be noted that they came by it honestly.

Because of this, people who put themselves forward as political actors are generally viewed with deep suspicion by both Arabs and Arab-Americans, with the assumption that there is always “someone behind” them or some extraneous agenda at work, which there often is. Coupled with this cynicism is a completely false but very widespread sense, which is even promoted by some academic “political scientists,” among the Arab-Americans that the American political system is somehow closed to us, that the obstacles are too great or the challenges too overwhelming for Arab-Americans to have any success in influencing politics and policy as a community. This nonsense is very deeply rooted even in the practical behavior and attitudes of people who believe that they have overcome the suspicion that we simply can’t be effective in our own country.

On top of all of this, there is the serious and additional complication that the Arab-American identity is rejected, or at least downplayed, by many of its potential constituents. In other words, many people we think we are talking about when we refer to the Arab-Americans do not accept this honor, so to speak, and consider themselves either entirely or primarily defined by another identity, which might be religious, sub-ethnic, national, or even in terms of area or village of origin. Others prefer to think of themselves as “unhyphenated Americans.” Many Arab-Americans come from minority communities that are to some extent or another alienated from Arab nationalist discourse that was in vogue at the time of the political and rhetorical formation of the Arab-American identity beginning in the late 1960s. It seems quite clear that large sections of the community, or perhaps one should say the potential community, never felt included or enfranchised by this identity and the rhetoric surrounding it. Every Middle Eastern conflict and dispute has exacerbated divisions among Arab-Americans. These and additional barriers have prevented Arab-Americans from building strong community organizations that could form effective, powerful coalitions with other ethnic and interest group communities.

However, I do think the questioner makes a strong point: Arab-Americans have restricted both their own ability to organize within the community and their ability to form effective coalitions more broadly by imposing a powerful litmus test on everything and everyone — Palestine. Since I spent the majority of my professional career, and my time presently, working on this issue, I really cannot be accused at all of downplaying or failing to see the significance of the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian issue and national movement have not always enjoyed a healthy relationship with the other Arabs, with both parties suffering as a consequence of some of the distortions that have been produced. I think the Arab-American tendency to use Palestine and positions on issues involving Israel, the right of return, and fidelity to an Arab nationalist narrative that focuses on the Palestinian nakba as a litmus test for everything has also had very serious negative consequences. This kind of litmus test is part of the alienation of some significant elements of what ought to be core constituencies of the Arab-American identity but which resist identification or engagement. It has also impeded Arab Americans from developing strong working relations with other constituencies. At the same time, it is certainly the case that one of the major obstacles Arab Americans have faced in engaging in mainstream American political life is opposition from pro-Israel constituencies that impose litmus tests of their own which virtually no Arab-American can possibly meet, and historically anyone supportive of the Palestinian national cause has been branded an extremist, a terrorist supporter or some such exclusionary label.

It strikes me that we are generally speaking moving beyond that era, since a majority of Jewish Americans and a majority of Arab Americans seem to strongly agree (though many have yet to recognize this) as does the rest of the country and the policy community in Washington that there is a strong American, Israeli and Palestinian interest in a negotiated peace based on two states. There are those, myself included, in both the Jewish and Arab American communities who essentially propose a new litmus test distinguishing those on all sides who are interested in a reasonable, achievable peace agreement and those who wish to fight on until the bitter end (whatever that might be). The only purpose of such a litmus test regarding peace is to recognize that Jewish and Arab Americans who want a peace agreement have more in common with each other than with their brethren who prefer conflict and occupation. It is specific to the issue of Palestine, and is consistent with not only majority opinions, but also US government policy and strong efforts on the part of the Obama administration. However it doesn?t and shouldn?t be applied to any of the other crucial issues on which Arab Americans have to be engaged including anti-discrimination work, civil rights, civil liberties, counterterrorism, combating defamation and promoting the national interest in general.

I don’t think the problem has always been simply having too few and too small national organizations, or conversation-stopping litmus tests, but also the bitter legacy of a disinterest in issues involving other communities. When questions of racial profiling and systematic discrimination against the Arab-American community were raised following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Arab American organizations (I was Communications Director of ADC at the time) found ourselves rushing to join a well-established civil rights coalition, largely led by African American and Latino groups, that had been prioritizing the issue of profiling for years. Arab-Americans and their organizations had been, in general and in point of fact, absent from this constituency until 9/11. We then immediately had to try to place our concerns alongside those of communities that had been building a case against domestic police profiling in inner cities and on highways — that was in many ways quite distinct from the counterterrorism profiling Arab-Americans were concerned with — essentially to our benefit and at their risk. I was involved in many early meetings following September 11, 2001 during which Arab-Americans tried to make the case to this well-established anti-profiling constituency that our issues out to be included in proposed legislation and other major policy interventions on the question. The civil rights community struggled with this issue, since including “counterterrorism” and “national security” issues along with domestic law enforcement abuses seriously threatened the prospects of success on an issue on which these organizations have been focusing for over a decade. Entirely to their credit, and I think essentially as a matter of principle, this African-American and Latino led civil rights coalition did agree to include Arab-American profiling concerns in both legislative language and policy interventions generally.

I don’t think Arab-Americans can be faulted or singled out for focusing on their own issues, but the fact that we didn’t realize that we had a vested interest in getting seriously involved with the civil rights community before our own civil rights and liberties were called into question can only be regarded as a serious and historical error and oversight. The challenge is finding the balance between the kind of total assimilation into an unhyphenated American identity that many successful Arab-American political candidates and others have relied upon for successful engagement with broader American society, and the obsessive, single-minded focus on a very narrow ethnic national narrative that alienates not only most other Americans but a great many Arab Americans as well.

In other words, the challenge is to give both sides of the hyphen their due. This require those who believe they can avoid the consequences of their ethnic identity because they downplay, ignore or deny it will have to realize ? as the conservative, Lebanese-American, Christian, wealthy, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa discovered when he was a victim of airport profiling in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks ? that there is nothing outside the whale. However we define ourselves, in practice our fellow Americans will view us primarily as Arab-Americans, and our fortunes are inherently linked to each other. However it will also require those who are enjoying the rights, but not recognizing the responsibilities, of American citizenship, who live as Arabs in America but not in reality as Arab Americans, and who remain angry at their own country and alienated from its political system and civic life to realize that there is no point in being angry at ?the Americans? because we are, in fact the Americans.