Monthly Archives: June 2011

Bilin shows Palestinian nonviolent resistance to occupation works

At the end of last week in the West Bank village of Bilin, an important principle was decisively demonstrated: Palestinian nonviolence can achieve real results in resisting the Israeli occupation.

After almost a decade, Bilin protests against Israel’s gruesome West Bank separation barrier has finally produced a substantial rerouting of the wall, giving villagers access to a significant portion of their confiscated land. The greater part remains seized or inaccessible, and protesters vow that their struggle is far from over.

There are several important lessons to be learned from this significant achievement.

First, the protests have been successful precisely because they are, and only to the extent that they have been, nonviolent. Israel and its supporters have no answer to Palestinian nonviolent resistance to an abusive occupation, except the accusation that it is, in fact, violent. While sometimes the protests have degenerated into stone-throwing by youths, and have often been met by force by the Israeli occupation forces, in fact the demonstrations have been overwhelmingly nonviolent. This is what has given them their power.

To extend and replicate this effective nonviolent approach, serious discipline will have to be developed and maintained to ensure it continues even in the face of military repression. Nonviolence is one of the most powerful weapons of resistance against occupation.

Second, the protests are all the more powerful when their objections are firmly rooted in international, and even where possible Israeli, law. In 2004 the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that the route of Israel’s separation barrier, which is not along its own border but cuts deeply into occupied territory, was unlawful and a human rights violation. In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the portion of the barrier in Bilin had to be rerouted.

Both of these important legal findings were consequences of the nonviolent confrontation with what is plainly unlawful human rights abuse against ordinary Palestinian villagers under occupation. Nonviolent protests prick the conscience of the world, and of Israelis. They also disarm the logic of the occupation and the settlements as forward defenses in an existential struggle by Israel, revealing them to be in their essence, instead, a system of discipline and control by a foreign army over millions of subjugated people.

Third, nonviolent protests are not an end in themselves, but have to be part of a broader Palestinian national strategy. The fact that some significant Palestinian national leaders, especially Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have supported and participated in the protests demonstrates a convergence between grassroots, bottom-up organization addressing local issues and top-down leadership that deals with national ones.

Fayyad’s rousing speech at last Friday’s protest—in which he spoke of the slow but inevitable victory of nonviolence, how it is a crucial tool in ending the occupation, and that when Palestinians confront occupation with nonviolence “the whole world is with us”—demonstrates the potential for such a convergence. Combined with state-building, boycotts carefully targeted against the occupation but not Israel per se, and well-calculated diplomacy, Palestinian nonviolence should be an essential part of a successful national liberation strategy.

Contrast this powerful and genuine grassroots approach with the transparent and cynical effort by the Syrian government to encourage protests on June 5 at the armistice lines between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. This area is one of the most tightly controlled border regions in the world, and has been under virtual lockdown by the Syrian military for decades. With the Assad regime in deep trouble at home, suddenly protesters were welcome to come and go freely, and apparently encouraged to confront Israeli troops.

At least 20 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, an overreaction and excessive use of force that typifies Israel’s approach to what it regards as its frontiers, whether those approaching it are armed or not. The death toll was predictable, predicted and entirely avoidable. Indeed, all Lebanese factions agreed a repetition of the violence along the Lebanon-Israel border on May 15 was unacceptable, and that area, by contrast, remained entirely calm on June 5.

If the goal of the June 5 Golan Heights protests was to embarrass Israel or touch the conscience of Israelis and the whole world, it did not succeed for many reasons: above all the unavoidable perception that the Syrian government was hoping to distract attention from its own killing of nonviolent protesters in cities throughout Syria. In fact, unlike the West Bank protests, the Golan protests achieved nothing.

This was only underscored in the following days by the killing of 20 Palestinians at the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus by a radical Palestinian faction aligned with the Syrian regime.

When the dust settled in early June, dozens of Palestinians lay dead while Israel and Syria were stripped of the ability to point fingers at each other for shooting unarmed people. And between these two events, the Syrian regime lost the ability to play the “Palestinian card” in its struggle to hold onto power.

While cynical exploitation by desperate Arab dictatorships is the last thing the Palestinian cause needs, nonviolent protests such as those at Bilin have proven their efficacy. They offer not only the best way of resisting the occupation but also, as the part of a broader strategy, a real path to national liberation.

A brief follow-up on the anti-Arab hate-site Ikhras

One of the first responses to my last Ibishblog posting, which was about the anti-Arab hate-speech website Ikhras, was a tweet by a gentleman who, to put it kindly, is best known for his uncomfortable relationship with words. He seemed intimidated by its (modest) length, and urged me to keep my postings under 8,000 words (it was not over 3,000, in fact). So, for the attention deficit disorder set, I'll repeat my concerns in bullet point fashion:
  • This is an anonymous site, which means it has no credibility or seriousness.
  • Nonetheless, the fact that they have launched vicious an highly personal attacks on an exceptionally broad range of Arab-American groups and targets shows they are opposed to any effort, from any perspective, to purposefully engage with the rest of our society.
  • This range of targets precisely mimics those of most anti-Arab and Islamophobic groups, raising serious questions about the motives of these anonymous bloggers.
  • Everyone has to ask who these people are and what they are hiding.
  • There is the further issue of who, if anyone, pays for this site in any way, even indirectly.
  • No matter how marginal Ikhras no doubt is and will remain, these questions should now be asked, especially given the absurdly wide range of Arab and Muslim American targets of their hate speech.
Those are the main points. As a side note, I directly asked my former co-author, Ali Abunimah, who is one of the few people Ikhras openly likes, if he was involved with the site in any way. I have to ask this publically since years ago he cut off all direct communications with me. He tweeted that he has no knowledge of or involvement with Ikhras, though he does not say whether or not any of his writing has ever appeared there. Ikhras issued a similar comment. Without any other verifiable facts, I am happy to take him at his word, and I assume that his comment also implies, though it does not state, that he has never written for Ikhras either. As I pointed out in my posting, the reason I asked outright is that every single person I know who has considered the issue suspected he might well have been involved with it in some way, and that includes both people who like and do not like him. As far as I am concerned, unless further information comes to light, this puts a minor side-issue to rest, and I made that clear on twitter as soon as he made his comment.
Of course that leaves us with all major questions totally unanswered. We still have no idea who these people are, who supports them (if anyone), or what their real agenda or motives might be. It's exceptionally revealing that some people took raising the very question of someone's possible involvement with Ikhras to be an "attack." That tells you all you need to know about the site: it's deeply threatening even to ask the question if someone is involved with it or not. No wonder the authors and editors are anonymous if this is the reaction to someone being asked whether or not they are involved with it. Ali's reaction and others clearly shows that it would be a huge embarrassment at the very least to be known to be associated with it, so much so that even the question is apparently some kind of affront. As a former ADC staffer, I am sometimes misidentified as someone who used to work for AAI or CAIR or other Arab or Muslim American groups, but I do not take offense. It is a good barometer of how low this discourse is happy to sink that one of its main defenders on twitter — naturally yet another anonymous writer, quite possibly (if not probably) involved in some way with Ikhras — made disgusting "jokes" about the Arab-American comedian Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, being "lame."
In addition to pointing out how much this overwrought reaction demonstrates about the nature and role of Ikhras, I would also note that if anyone is annoyed that I ask people if they are involved with it or not, clearly the proper place to lodge complaints about that is not with me, but with Ikhras. Is it not completely obvious that by working so hard to remain anonymous while viciously attacking almost all noted Arab and Muslim American groups and individuals, it is Ikhras itself that not only invites but ensures this kind of speculation? I do not know anyone at all who is aware of Ikhras — whether sympathetic, hostile or neutral (not a lot in the third camp, I grant) — who has not wondered aloud and at some length about the unavoidable question: who are these people and why are they acting like this? If they signed their names to their own ghastly writings like normal human beings, no one would be forced to speculate. But since they will not, that is inevitable. It is yet another consequence of their own cowardly decision to hide behind an elaborate veil of secrecy. If people do not like those inevitable consequences, they should hold them to account for it, not anyone else.
The bottom-line is that the scoundrels at Ikhras have done a lot in the past 24 hours to add to the bill of particulars building against them in all sane elements of the Arab and Muslim American communities. They have pledged to continue their malignant activities and I have no doubt that they will. But let me repeat my conclusion from yesterday, only with more reason and force than ever: if and when their identities are revealed or discovered, and they are as they claim Arab Americans, the community should neither forgive nor forget their conduct but hold them, their friends and allies, and patrons (if any), responsible for it.

Who is behind the anti-Arab hate site “Ikhras” and what are they hiding?

Ikhras and its Arab-bashing agenda

The website “Ikhras" (“shut up,” or perhaps more accurately, “muzzle yourself,” in Arabic) claims to be Arab-American, but in fact is one of the most enthusiastically and unremittingly anti-Arab-American websites on the internet. The editors and authors almost always hide behind obviously faked names designed to obscure their real identities. From this hiding place they launch vicious and highly personalized attacks on virtually all prominent Arab and Muslim American organizations including AAI, CAIR, ADC, ATFP, ISNA and other national groups, and active individuals such as Azizah al-Hibri, Raghida Dergham, Jim Zogby, Ziad Asali, Suhail Khan, yours truly, Radwan Ziadeh, Dahlia Mogahed, Omar Baddar, Yahya Basha, Sami Al-Araji, Queen Noor, Eboo Patel, David Ramadan, Mona Eltahawy, Nihad Awad, Asra Nomani, Feisal Abdul Rauf, Ray Hanania, pageant winner Rimah Fakih, and comedian Dean Obeidallah (who, they claim, is nothing less than "the Father of All House Arabs," whatever that may mean). Most recently, they have been harassing another Arab-American comedian, Maysoon Zayid, on Twitter. In effect, therefore, it is nothing other than an anti-Arab hate speech site, the targets and basic content of which can only be a source of constant delight to the anti-Arab racists and Islamophobes who wish to exclude Arab and Muslim Americans from the US social, cultural and political scene and keep them marginalized and disempowered.

The individuals and organizations attacked by Ikhras obviously cover a huge range of political, social, ideological, religious and intellectual orientations. Indeed, they have only one thing in common: in their own way, each of them is trying to engage with the rest of our society, assert their rights as citizens and advance the interests of the Arab and Muslim American communities by becoming more involved in the American political system or cultural scene. These are all individuals or groups that take their status as Americans of Arab or Muslim heritage seriously at least to some extent, rather than pointlessly and self-defeatingly defining themselves as Arabs who happen to be living in the United States. Ikhras does occasionally praise a very small number of Arab Americans, but none at all who are engaged in any national organized efforts or purposeful engagement with American society, only those like Ali Abunimah and Assad AbuKhalil who pollute the blogosphere and social media with similar messages of deliberate self-marginalization and disempowerment and who also attack those who try to achieve anything constructive. It is not only an anti-Arab-American website, it's a proudly and categorically anti-American website. And it calls on all Arab Americans to adopt a vocally anti-American stance, as if we were not citizens of this country or somehow have no stake in its success.

Since its establishment, it has become clear that the conscious and deliberate purpose of Ikhras is to attack, ridicule, denigrate and insult any and every Arab or Muslim American who tries, from whatever perspective or approach, to engage the rest of American society rather than spitting at it, and to advance one version or another of their communities' interests. If Ikhras stands for anything coherent at all, it is the categorical rejection of the very notion of any kind of purposeful engagement with American society, from whatever vantage point and orientation. With astounding shamelessness, while hiding behind pseudonyms they have repeatedly called all or most of their targets "cowards." They also had the gall to dismiss four Egyptian protesters — one of whom, Jawad Nabulsi, was shot and lost an eye during the Cairo street protests — as "not revolutionaries," simply on the grounds that they attended an AAI function.

What are the anonymous writers at Ikhras hiding?

To the writers at Ikhras, I ask a simple and direct question: who are you and what are you hiding? What are you so afraid of? What calamity would occur if you actually signed your names to your own articles? You have gone to truly extravagant lengths to hide your identities not only online, but also by word of mouth, and to conceal your authorship. Why? Everybody else involved in these debates has no problem signing their own statements, yet you launch vicious, highly personalized and often repulsive broadsides, cowering behind the veil of anonymity. That you are cowards, and despicable cowards at that, has been clearly established by the way you have conducted yourselves. But what exactly is it that you are afraid of?

What great secret, or set of secrets, is there that would be so unmanageable if your identities were revealed? What level of hypocrisy, dishonesty, corruption or other indefensible facts would be exposed if you behaved like minimally dignified, decent people and signed your own names to these miserable screeds? By refusing to admit your authorship, you have secured a dishonorable advantage over everybody else in what is, or at least should (and otherwise would) be, a legitimate debate about how the Arabs and Muslims in the United States should (or, rather, from your point of view shouldn't) pursue their interests.

Everybody else takes a public position and has to live with the consequences. You, on the other hand, won't even take responsibility for your own words! It is impossible to have a debate with a stone wall of secrecy. This is certainly a mere side effect of your stance of calculated cowardice, for no doubt there are ugly, sticky secrets that must be whitewashed with this thin veneer of false names, or else you would not use them. But those you attack are, in effect, denied the right to reply since you deny them the right to know whom they are addressing. The right to confront one's accusers in public is not only a crucial legal right, it's also a basic tenet of civilized discourse, a concept with which you are clearly either totally unfamiliar or inimically hostile.

Doesn't this pattern of obsessive secrecy, anonymous and false accusations, and smearing every opponent — all under the cover of a false claim of Arab nationalist pride — remind everyone of the outrageous conduct of autocratic Arab regimes? Isn't this exactly how, for example, the government of Syria, to name only one of the more obvious examples, is presently conducting itself? And of course it is one of the many delicious ironies of the Ikhras website that its writers assert not only their right of free speech, but anonymous free speech that is frequently slanderous, and pose as crusading leftists and liberationists, while openly declaring it is their mission to demand, like faceless despots, other people's silence. There is no pretense here of opening, expanding or enriching a debate; merely a censorious, and indeed totalitarian mentality that only one point of view is legitimate and everybody else, no matter what perspective they are coming from, needs to be silenced by any means necessary.

Who is paying for Ikhras' orgy of Arab-bashing?

Behind the simple secrets, which may be personal, familial, professional or any number of other possibilities, lurks an even more interesting question: who is paying for all of this? There is a great deal of activity on that website, and a considerable amount of work put into creating, hosting and maintaining it. Content, no matter how shoddy, must be created and webpages and databases must be designed and maintained, and this takes considerable time and at least some money. It is extremely unlikely, although remotely possible, that the writers themselves pay for all of this out of pocket, meaning there is no sugar daddy behind Ikhras. It's possible, but highly unlikely. Someone is paying for this in one way or another. Who?

Even the highly implausible "all-volunteer" scenario raises a fascinating question: if by some remote contingency that's what each and every person – including web designers and maintainers – involved in Ikhras actually are, all must then have other work. Do they fear the consequences of the revelation of their identities to their day jobs? Some way or another, the money for this project, which is not cost free, is being found. Where does it come from? If they had any dignity at all, they would admit it. Ideally they would simply do what my colleagues at the American Task Force on Palestine have done, and post signed, independently audited, financial statements for every year of its existence on its own website. But since they hide their own names, telling the truth about who is paying for them to go on this orgy of Arab-bashing may be asking too much, even though their audience has a right and a need to be told.

I wish to pose a direct question on the matter of identity to my former co-author Ali Abunimah. From the start, I have seen what I believe are obvious hallmarks of your writing style, with which, of course, I am intimately familiar, as well as your mentality and values, smeared all over this website. I cannot know for a certainty whether you are involved with it or not, and if so in what capacity. But every single individual I know who has thought about the question at all believes you are involved with Ikhras in some way or other, and this includes both those who like you and those who do not. Ali, everyone is absolutely convinced that you play some kind of significant role in this website. The time has come for you to say openly, frankly and honestly what exactly your relationship with Ikhras is and has been. A straightforward answer is required, and if you maintain a silence on the matter or are coy, it will be the most clear-cut admission possible. To all others, I'd like to suggest that Mr. Abunimah should be asked this simple, straightforward question relentlessly on social media, in media appearances, and at public talks, until he gives a simple, straightforward, and satisfactory answer.

Questions for Ikhras readers, if they actually have any

I also have a few observations for the Ikhras readership, whoever it may be. Is it not obvious that an anonymous website that attacks virtually any and every prominent Arab-American without restraint and at a deeply personal level without revealing its true identity or motivation is, by definition, not only non-credible but also malignant? You may enjoy the car-crash spectacle of the reckless and indefensible public smearing of everyone trying to do something useful for the community, but honestly, how do you know this isn't in fact the voice of the Zionist Organization of America, or some offshoot of Pamela Geller's operation? (Old-timers will remember Mark Bruzonsky, the former Washington Representative of The World Jewish Congress, who used to run a website and email list called “Middle East Realities” that specialized in outbidding and denouncing all noted Arab and Muslim American organizations, activists and individuals, exactly as Ikhras does, and in much the same language.)

I'll grant that Ikhras is probably not actually an extreme right-wing Zionist operation, but how do you know? Its relentless Arab-bashing hate speech certainly attacks their main targets and plainly serves their purpose of keeping the Arab and Muslim Americans marginalized and disempowered. Doesn't it leave a bad taste in your mouth to be told all these categorically and unrelentingly nasty (and typically false) things about a vast array of individuals and organizations who are trying to make themselves useful from a huge variety of approaches and perspectives, but not to be told who is making these accusations? Don't you wonder who they actually are and what they have to hide? Don't you wonder what they're afraid of? Don't you reflect on the character of people who would conduct themselves like this? Their postings are the equivalent of anonymous voicemail messages left during election campaigns about the “communist ties,” “sexual deviancy,” or “financial improprieties” of a given candidate left by anonymous supporters of their opponents. It's a perfect example of the classic political “dirty trick.”

Because of this inherent lack of credibility and seriousness, I deeply doubt that Ikhras has much of an audience, or impact on Arab-American thought or debate. For this reason, until now I have completely ignored this ridiculous website, but at this stage I think it has become important for somebody to have the gumption to stand up and ask the simplest, most obvious questions and point out how atrocious the intentions of this project truly are, no matter how marginal it undoubtedly has been and will remain.

It needs to be pointed out that whoever is responsible for the bile at Ikhras is deliberately taking a self-consciously destructive approach, but suggesting absolutely nothing constructive or serious as an alternative. If these individuals really think their views and opinions have any actual value or constituency, why restrict them to an anonymous website? Why not create an open, public organization and try to pursue some of these "ideas" in a proactive, purposeful manner?  Of course that's hard to do when all you stand for is the (almost always unfair) criticism of all others, and when you won't even admit who you are. Give it a shot, and see what kind of constituency and credibility you end up with.

It must be obvious that anyone who isn't willing to sign their names to their own opinions, have the minimal courage of their convictions, take responsibility for their own words, and say what they think in their own goddamn names, should be the very first to ikhras. And when and if their identities are revealed or discovered, and should they indeed prove to be Arab Americans as they claim, the community should neither forgive nor forget this outrageous and cowardly website and its perpetrators. It's obvious that these people don't sign their names to their own writings because they are afraid of the consequences to their public standings and reputations, at the very least. Let's make sure that this fear is fully justified, because no one who engages in this behavior can, once exposed, hope to be regarded as anything other than a coward, a scoundrel and an individual beneath contempt. And they may well prove to be worse besides.

An outline of the coming Egyptian power-sharing arrangement

One can begin to discern the outlines of a plausible power-sharing arrangement in Egypt emerging from the current transitional period, in which all major players secure their minimal objectives. It would essentially be a three-way division of authority between the existing military establishment, the new presidency and the new parliament.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is dominating the transitional period, but also has strong roots in the old regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Therefore, the military establishment is used to having de facto control of the most important elements of national security policy. Issues such as control and management of the borders with Libya, Sudan and, above all, Hamas-ruled Gaza; security arrangements with Israel pursuant to the peace treaty; and close military ties to the United States are all traditionally perceived as within the purview of Egyptian military authority.

It is hard to imagine the Egyptian military, now more or less in control of the process of transition, relinquishing authority on these matters to civilian control, particularly during a time of uncertainty, amid an evolving new system. Therefore, in one form or another, it is likely that defense and national security policy will continue to be dominated by the armed forces after the upcoming elections, whichever constitutional system emerges in the medium term.

Foreign policy, especially diplomacy and Egypt’s relations with the Arab world and the West, are more likely to be the domain of the new president, who will almost certainly be the former secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. Moussa has long cultivated a populist appeal in Egyptian society and is the only established and experienced professional politician presently operating on the Egyptian scene.

The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is refusing to run a candidate for president, and is expelling members who put themselves forward for that post, is partly due to the desire to avoid a humiliating loss to Moussa. His long experience in Arab politics and with international relations generally makes Moussa well suited to establishing the presidency as a primary vehicle for articulating Egypt’s foreign policy.

The Muslim Brotherhood is also deliberately avoiding the presidency because it does not wish to alarm much of Egyptian society by seizing too much power too quickly and too publicly. The organization is concentrating its efforts on securing maximum representation in parliament, especially by building alliances with other parties and organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood is setting itself up as a domestic power-broker. In fact, it doesn’t have a defense policy to oppose that of the military. Apart from its generalized affinity with other Brotherhood parties and Islamists in the region, it doesn’t have a specific foreign policy to oppose that of a veteran like Moussa or others in the existing Egyptian foreign policy establishment.

For that matter, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t have an economic or development strategy either. Islamism isn’t exactly a political ideology with a comprehensive vision of social relations and structures of governance. But what the Brotherhood does have is very strong views on the role of religion in society and, of course, a profoundly conservative and reactionary agenda.

An Egyptian parliament that is largely excluded from national security and foreign policy will be left to address domestic issues. These will include the social and cultural matters that are the main focus of the Muslim religious right such as the Brotherhood. It will also include crucial questions of fiscal, development, environmental, infrastructural and other policies which Brotherhood ideology, such as it is, does not address in any coherent manner.

Unfortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties are likely to perform well in the upcoming parliamentary elections and will probably have a powerful bloc. Indeed, the current prime minister, Issam Sharaf, has suggested possibly delaying the scheduled September elections to give other parties a greater opportunity to organize themselves and possibly offset the Brotherhood’s existing advantages. That for now the Brotherhood will have to be content with domestic issues will not come as a huge disappointment to an organization founded on the mission to “Islamize” Egyptian society.

To protect the rights of minorities, women and individuals from the excesses of a potential Islamist-dominated or -brokered Egyptian parliament with broad powers on domestic issues, the other two centers of power – the military and the presidency – will also have to play the role of watchdog, drawing red lines around a parliamentary majority that begins to exhibit extremist tendencies. It is therefore essential that the emerging Egyptian constitution and system allow for the full participation of such religious parties, but not their use of possible legislative powers to abuse or oppress vulnerable groups.

The broader Arab world could not have higher stakes in Egypt’s ability to develop a functional power-sharing system that includes the division of authority, the participation of all peaceful parties including reactionary religious ones, and the protection of the rights of individuals, minorities and women. Egypt’s influence on the political direction of much of the rest of the Arab world will be enormous, if not decisive. If the Egyptian experiment disintegrates into chaos, direct or indirect protracted military rule, or the emergence of a tyrannous Islamist parliamentary majority, the “Arab Spring” will have well and truly become a winter of discontent.

Some Arab-Americans need more of the American

The Arab-American community continues to suffer from the debilitating condition of operating primarily within an Arab rather than an American framework, and of approaching its political mission based on a set of imported imperatives, rivalries and grievances. Far too many prominent people and organizations are driven largely by a derivative agenda, looking for guidance and direction from groups, individuals and governments in the Middle East, thereby rendering themselves woefully ineffective and marginal in their own country.

In some cases this is because of a reliance on external financial support. However, worse, in many other cases it’s based on genuine political allegiance, a real commitment to the agenda of organizations and governments outside of, and often opposed to, the United States and its national interests.

The first is problematic, because to some extent whoever pays the piper generally calls the tune. More than anything, it reflects the unwillingness of the large, successful and disproportionately wealthy Arab-American community to support its own organizations, a failure that has left many groups at the mercy of external donors.

But the second is even worse. A genuine, deep-seated allegiance to non-and indeed anti-American Middle Eastern actors guarantees political marginalization, ineffectiveness and self-defeat for those Arab-Americans who persist in taking the lead from dynamics half a world away. Other Americans are perfectly justified in dismissing and ignoring Arab-American groups that not only seem, but indeed are, irrelevant to the American conversation.

My colleague, the president of the American Task Force on Palestine Dr. Ziad Asali, frequently points out that “there are Arabs in America and Americans of Arab origin.” Those who consciously or unconsciously see themselves, act and speak as Arabs who happen to be living in the United States can have no hope of influencing the American conversation because their derivative agendas are at best inconsequential to American interests and at worst at odds with them.

Those, on the other hand, who see themselves first and foremost as Americans and take pride in their Arab heritage – therefore are in a position to help their own country advance its interests and promote its values in the Middle East – have an extraordinary opportunity to make a major contribution to the United States and to the Arab world.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this distinction, and the tragedy that a very large number of prominent Arab-American individuals and organizations continue to function primarily as Arabs in the United States and not as Americans of Arab heritage. Among other crippling implications of these imported agendas is that they persist in re-inscribing among Arab-Americans national, sectarian and ethnic divisions in the Arab world, dividing the community and rendering it politically ineffective. Organizations remain small and dysfunctional when they insist on speaking for Arab factions or governments when they should be addressing the core concerns of the Arab-American community in both foreign and domestic policy.

The “Arab Spring” ought to be providing an unprecedented opportunity for Arab-American individuals and groups. They can play an important role in helping to shape an effective American response to the tumultuous changes in the Middle East, and to define a better future for Arabs by promoting the rule of law, pluralism and separation of powers that characterizes the American system at its best. But because many prominent individuals and organizations remain mired in imported loyalties and rivalries, they are abdicating this responsibility, forgoing an extraordinary opportunity.

Cynicism about the American political system and the responsibility to help promote an enlightened version of the US national interest in the Middle East is crippling organized Arab-American efforts. It is a grotesque irony that in the decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, every single major Arab or Muslim American national community organization is in one way or another smaller, weaker or less effective than they were on September 10, 2001.

Sadly, this cynicism is not restricted to an older generation of immigrants whose worldview was shaped by formative experiences in the Arab world. Among the young, particularly online and campus activists, an irrational and unjustified belief that the American political system is somehow closed to Arab-American participation, or that engagement with the system and policymakers is debased and debasing, is propagating itself with a vengeance.

The good news is that there are quite a few individuals and smaller, policy-specific organizations that have broken with these attitudes in recent years, and are making significant headway. A number of my former colleagues from prominent Arab-American organizations are doing outstanding work in government service on domestic issues involving civil rights. And there’s no doubt that my colleagues and I at American Task Force on Palestine have demonstrated that constructive, serious and purposeful engagement with the policy community on even that most difficult of issues, Palestine, can produce real, substantive input and results.

The controversy over the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s decision to disinvite Syrian American pianist Malek Jandali to perform at its recent convention seems to illustrate a failure by some groups to appreciate the normative expectations of American political culture. Too many Arab-Americans and their organizations remain trapped in derivative, external and sectarian agendas that cripple what ought to be important national groups. This has rendered the community marginal and greatly complicating its all-important quest for empowerment in our own country.

What is Washington’s end-game in Yemen?

News that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been forced to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia will be very welcome in Washington. However, the United States still lacks an effective policy for ensuring long-term stability in that volatile, fractured country.

Since the turmoil in Yemen began, the US has been primarily relying on efforts by the Saudis and their Gulf Cooperation Council partners to secure Saleh’s departure from office as the beginning of a transition toward greater stability. For many weeks, the president refused to finally commit to a GCC proposal in which he would step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Now that he’s in Saudi Arabia, there is no doubt that the post-Saleh era in Yemen has begun.

But it’s not clear at all that this means an end to the bitter power struggle among Yemen’s elites that has divided the government and military, leading to his serious injuries. Saleh’s vice president is now nominally in charge, but his sons and nephews are still in place in their key military and intelligence positions. It’s not yet in the least evident what kind of reconciliation or agreement can be secured between the remaining regime forces and opposition groups such as the powerful Al-Ahmar clan and dissident generals.

For this, the United States is likely to continue to rely primarily on efforts by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to heal the rifts and restore a modicum of unity among the country’s elites and military. Washington was angered and alarmed by Saleh’s increasing use of American weaponry and US-trained counterterrorism forces in his internal power struggle with rivals within the elite, and will certainly expect that to stop given his removal.

American interests in Yemen are driven, above all, by concerns about the activities of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni affiliate of the loose-knit terrorist network. This organization has proven uniquely interested in and able to launch attacks directed against the American homeland. That includes the failed “Christmas bombing” over Detroit two years ago and an effort to send explosive packages onto American-bound international aircraft.

There has been increasing alarm in Washington in recent weeks that al-Qaeda and other terrorist forces have been exploiting the chaos in Yemen to gain space to operate – possibly even re-creating the kind of area of wide-ranging impunity that other groups used to enjoy in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Washington does not have any major stake in the outcome of power struggles within the Yemeni elite, but it has a strong interest in a stable and united Yemeni government committed to denying terrorists an operating base.

The US has also sought to avoid Yemen turning into a fully-blown failed state, a kind of Somalia on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and on the coasts of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Like the Saudis, Americans fear that such a failed state could prompt instability in much of the region, especially in Saudi Arabia itself. Therefore, Yemen has been one of the few cases in the “Arab Spring” in which Saudi and US interests have aligned almost entirely. This confluence of interests, along with the very limited options and influence the United States has on its own, has informed Washington’s reliance on Riyadh in trying to come to grips with this serious challenge.

That Saleh has now been forced to flee his country provides the two powers with a fortuitous and unexpected opportunity to move quickly to restore stability in Sanaa and move Yemen away from its seemingly inexorable drift toward failed-state status. It is precisely the kind of fortunate incident – removing a leader who is a clear impediment to progress – that has eluded NATO forces in Libya.

How the regime will fare in his absence and what the prospects for reconciliation among Yemeni elites are remains to be seen. So does the reaction of the thousands of peaceful street protesters seeking change. But it is strongly in the interests of everyone with a stake in Yemen’s future to move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity to reverse the drift toward anarchy and institute both reconciliation and reform measures.

From the beginning of the Arab Spring, it has been clear that, with Syria, Yemen has presented the greatest potential for regional disruption. Along with efforts by groups like al-Qaeda to promote and exploit chaos in the country, Houthi rebels and other insurgents, and a simmering North-South division that could again erupt into civil conflict, the anxiety-inducing factors in Yemen are uniquely alarming.

One can therefore expect Washington to give enthusiastic support to Saudi and GCC efforts to stabilize the situation and reverse the drift toward chaos. The chances of success for this exceptionally important but extremely difficult project are difficult to gauge, but the stakes could not be higher for Washington and Riyadh alike.