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Hussein Ibish

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.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • wilypagan

    S - take a chill pill. All of those high-flown ideals are meaningless if you don't have the military fire-power to enforce them. It is very simple really. Do you want to live under Islamic rule or Western hegemony? Looks like the time for choosing is upon you. Choose well. The freedom of your children depends on it.

    June 17, 2011

  • b

    "Rather they're guided by my understanding of politics, hegemony, imperialism, cooperation, peace, etc. rooted in a belief in human rights, humanism, and justice." I thought that Osama Bin Laden was killed but I guess el-khallaf ma mat.

    June 16, 2011

  • mike

    As mentioned in previous posts, a great untapped resource are the Christian-Arab Americans, particularly those not from Arab countries but of Arab heritage. I for one am the grandson of Syrian and Lebonese grandparents who were Christians, left their respective homelands, came to America and embraced it as their own. They loved America for what it was and the freedom it offered. I love this country as well and have served it in many capacities most of my life. But, being of Arab decent, I keep abreast with great concern of what is happening in the land of my grandparents, and other Arab nations. There are millions like me, who love our country and want the same freedom for those who are oppressed in Arab lands. If there were legitimate organizations with this goal, I would become involved.

    June 16, 2011

  • S

    With all due respect Mr. Ibish, you present an elementary view of identity (that Arab-Americans have only 2 identities and must privilege one over the other) and you assume that national/ethnic interests are the sole guiders of our values. We do not oppose US imperialism in the Middle East because we're "Arabs in America." You seem to suggest that if we were "Americans with Arab heritage," we would celebrate US hegemony. While I am an Arab American, my values, political beliefs, voting tendencies, etc. are not primarily guided by ethnicity, religion, or nationalism. Rather they're guided by my understanding of politics, hegemony, imperialism, cooperation, peace, etc. rooted in a belief in human rights, humanism, and justice.

    June 16, 2011

  • wilypagan

    We Americans love our Christian Lebanese brothers and sisters. Most of them came here in the early 20th century to escape the ongoing barbarism in the "Arab" world and their kids and grandkids are as American as Apple pie. We have married them, elected them to high office and watched their grand success as all-American entrepreneurs. It is the new generation of Islam sympathizers and adherents who are the problem. They should be sent back to Dar al Islam immediately where they will feel at home.

    June 15, 2011

  • Youssef Haddad

    Most Arab Americans were brought up in a culture of hate and intolerance and are further misguided by exploitative organizations. In their homelands power rules and dissent with power is fatal. It is then no wonder that when they could express themselves so freely in the US they become thrilled and confuse the power given to them by freedom as being their own power. Religion and tradition are prisons that keep the minds of these Arabs closed. THEY WILL NEVER BECOME AMERICANS because what they believe in contradicts the main principles of our democracy.

    June 15, 2011

  • tete

    The beauty of living in America is the freedom to disagree with the government's policy. The lady holding up the picture of Khomeini can do it in the US but would be arrested tortured and most likely killed id she was in Iran holding an Obama picture.

    June 14, 2011

  • جوزيف النقدي

    What about Christian American Arabs who are primarily Lebanese-Sysrian followed by Egyptians and Palestinians? In fact this category of American Arabs are more assimilated into the American society and have proved to be more effective in the past 80 years while cherishing their Arab and Middle Eastern heritage. Of course it is true that more recent Arabic immigrants to the US bring more of their cynicism and divisions hence undermining the effectiveness of Arab American participation in the American debate.

    June 14, 2011

  • Barb

    Moreover, my intelligence was insulted and I was deeply offended at the fact that the unfolding tragedy in Syria went unmentioned. Not a word was uttered for the thousands of Syrian refugees or the dead in the streets. I would rather be a nobody than identify as an Arab-American if this is what Arab-Americans are. I'll just be my Lebanese self.

    June 14, 2011

  • Barb

    Dr Mr Ibish, As an invited guest on behalf of a friend, I attended the ADC. And I am regretful pf every minute spent there on a beautiful Saturday night. The speakers, these filthy rich Arab entrepreneurs, could not utter one sentence of correct grammatical structure. Their language was so poor and their choice of wording was in such foul taste that it embarrassed me to attend this event in the heart of Washington, DC. One of the chairmen, Mr Jibara called Representative King a bigot, an idiot, and a stupid man. He tried to justify the disinvitation by asserting a re-invitation that was subsequently and rightfully refused. What struck me most, is the staunch focus on Islam and the hate of AIPAC. They make it sound as though ALL Arabs are Muslims, and no other Arabs in America exist. They offered no solution or ideas toward the Palestinian situation but rather the hateful messages toward Israel escalated.

    June 14, 2011

  • joe

    Some facts need to be clarified. Most 'Arabs' in the U.S. Are Lebanese, and most of the Arabs in the U.S. are Non-Muslims. Also, Most Muslims in the U.S. Are Not Arabs.

    June 14, 2011