Following the recent election, and noting the growing influence of nontraditional power blocs such as Latinos, Arab Americans have again raised the question of how they can become politically empowered. There is only one answer: become politically “normal” Americans.
This seems simultaneously a provocative and absurdly facile response. Who wants to be “abnormal?” The initial reaction might be outrage: in what way are you suggesting we’re not “normal Americans?” But for many Arab Americans, especially as a collectivity, becoming politically “normal”—successfully acculturated to and invested in the American political system—is easy to endorse in theory but exceptionally difficult to accomplish in practice.
Normalization means accepting that the system is open to all. There are no laws preventing effective participation, and no candidates who aren’t responsive to the normal levers of influence: votes, money, time and advocacy. But there is a self-defeating delusion prevalent among many Arab Americans that they are uniquely excluded. Some identify anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia as insurmountable barriers. Others say our opponents are so powerful that we cannot be heard.
Moreover, the community is badly divided along numerous axes. Many Arab Americans have imported political allegiances from the Middle East. They identify primarily with organizations or constituencies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Palestine, rather than those here in the United States, and formulate their policies accordingly. As my friend and colleague Ziad Asali, President of the American Task Force on Palestine, has pointed out, this is the equivalent of running into the middle of a football game waving a tennis racket and expecting to affect the outcome.
Many Arab Americans left the Middle East precisely to get away from politics, where it has been a terrain of oppression, corruption and, above all, defeat. Politics are considered dirty, because in the Arab world they typically are. Woe betide those on the losing side of a major political fight in most Arab states. So there is a completely unrealistic sense of the cost of political engagement. Many Arab Americans believe even the most mainstream political engagement will get them on some kind of “list,” invite law enforcement surveillance or damage their business opportunities. Such paranoia often functions simply as an excuse to refuse to donate time and money.
No doubt since 9/11 Arab and Muslim Americans have been subjected to unfair and abusive scrutiny by law enforcement. Scandals involving surveillance and infiltration of mosques in southern California and the greater New York City area are all too real. Yet there is no American mukhabarat (secret police). And overzealous and misguided counterterrorism policies don’t mean there is a higher price or a greater barrier to mainstream political participation.
To the contrary, Arab and Muslim Americans can point to numerous instances in which arrests have been made and potential threats thwarted due to their own cooperation with law enforcement. And, as with the growing problem of cultural and political Islamophobia, the most effective response is communal empowerment within the system that would make the social and political costs of discrimination and bigotry prohibitive for promoters of fear and hatred.
Anti-Arab racists and Islamophobic bigots have been able to thrive over the past decade. But one of the principal causes has been the relative impotence of the unorganized and divided Arab and Muslim political response. Serious, respectful and patriotic collective engagement in our country’s political system simultaneously raises the costs of hate speech and proves the bigots wrong. Continued relative disengagement gives them free space in which to operate and does nothing to expose their false accusations.
Probably the greatest barrier to Arab normalization in American politics is the profound alienation many feel towards U.S. policies, particularly regarding the Middle East and Israel. Political correctness and litmus tests, ruthlessly enforced by social and ideological bullies, cripple the community’s ability to successfully participate in American decision-making.
Many influential Arab Americans operating in academia or online forums represent the far left. Others, more quietly but just as insidiously, operate from the Muslim religious right. In their respective echo chambers and cult-like environments, they thunder in righteous indignation that the entire U.S. political system is corrupt and corrupting, engagement with it is debased and debasing, and those who engage seriously betray indispensable moral values and principles.
They revel in the imaginary moral authority of victimization and alienation, and enforce a crippling political correctness, typically based on paranoid and chauvinistic Arab nationalism. This ensures either willful disengagement, or guaranteed ineffectiveness by insisting on political messaging that is not receivable by the government, the policy community or mainstream American society.
For decades Arab Americans have been saying, “We should follow the example of the Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Irish, etc., and engage and empower ourselves.” American political normalization indeed means doing exactly what those communities have done: putting aside imported politics and allegiances from the old world and looking for every opportunity to deal with the government and all key actors on terms of mutual respect. But the litmus tests of political correctness ensure that any Arab American who actually tries to follow those examples and become politically normal in American terms is instantaneously vilified as treacherous, corrupt and morally bankrupt.
There have been numerous individual Arab-American members of Congress, senators, governors and others who have enjoyed political success. But generally speaking they are not popular or influential figures within the community. In every case they got where they did completely on their own and in spite, not because, of their Arab-American identity. To date, this identity is still a political liability, and in no case has it proven an asset to any elected or appointed official.
On foreign policy, normalization means acculturation to the really existing policy making and framing discourse, not indulging in gadfly critiques or imagining alternative versions of the national interest. It means approaching officials with ideas that can help them achieve their goals, not angrily rejecting the consensus on the national interest with pseudo-moral grandstanding, or self-gratifying and purely rhetorical “anti-imperialism.”
Normalizing means becoming genuinely engaged in the political and policy-making system. That doesn’t mean agreeing with every policy, but it requires dropping a knee-jerk and undisguised attitude of hostility towards the law enforcement, defense, intelligence and foreign policy communities. Arab-American organizations that have allowed military, intelligence, FBI or other government agencies to rent recruiting booths at their functions are invariably subjected to vehement abuse. But who in their right mind would prefer such crucial agencies to have no Arab-American input and be run entirely by others? Only those who derive a neurotic emotional satisfaction from the jouissance and supposed moral authority produced by the pain of social and political marginalization. Yet this is a widespread affect among Arab Americans.
Above all, normalization means being willing to work with constituencies of all ethnicities and orientations to achieve desirable results, and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the better. It requires normalization with all other Americans—including the Jewish American mainstream—to be part of the conversation and, when possible, forge alliances for mutually beneficial purposes.
It is normative American political behavior to, for example, shake hands with an ambassador, including Israel’s, on their national day, and talk to mainstream organizations, including pro-Israel groups, on a regular and mutually respectful basis. Refusing to engage in such elementary political protocol is, in fact, to reject normal American political participation.
The accusation of “normalization” with Israel, Israelis, and mainstream Jewish-American groups is one of the most damaging and ubiquitous condemnations employed by the commissars of Arab-American political correctness. Similar denunciations, although less consistent and more implicit, are leveled against those who dare to “normalize” with the American government, establishment and political system.
As long as normative American political behavior is stigmatized as anathema, political normalcy for Arab Americans, as a community, will remain a distant dream. Self-imposed marginalization will persist. And self-defeating Arab Americans will continue to regard “normalization” not as a goal, but as the most damning of invectives.