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.