Arab American Political Participation

Jul 01, 2006

There have been 17 Arab-American members of Congress – but Arab Americans as a group have not been involved in political activity beyond voting and have suffered from a lack of understanding of the way the political system actually works. Some activists believe the only way Arab Americans will succeed politically is to form coalitions and help allies work on their own issues – but others insist that Arab Americans should concentrate solely on the issues particular to themselves.

The estimated 3,000,000 Arab Americans are a diverse group, differentiated by religion, age, country of origin, length of stay in the United States – but they are united in facing marginalization and discrimination. The Arab-American community lacks the financial resources to compete with the Jewish-American community in the political sphere – but it has enough resources to become a significant force in the American political system.

Those were some of the contradictions and divergent points of view expressed at an all-day conference on Arab Americans and political participation that was organized by the Division of U.S. Studies and funded in part by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and that attracted an audience itself as diverse as representatives of the PLO Mission to the United States, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the State Department. The participants were drawn from universities and the worlds of NGO activism and national politics.

Arab Americans and Labor Organizing
Opening the conference, Michael Suleiman, professor of Political Science from Kansas State University, traced the involvement of Arab Americans in labor organizing and the way the lessons learned in union activities translated into political sophistication. That involvement traces back at least as far as 1912, when Arab-American workers were in the forefront of the strike of some 25,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

As Ismael Ahmed, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, noted, Arab Americans, a major component of the Detroit area automobile industry in the early decades of the twentieth century, helped organize the United Automobile Workers in 1935, and Arab Americans have been leaders and officers of the union from its early years. In the 1970s, they organized the Arab Workers' Caucus within the UAW, for the purpose of contesting the union's purchase of Israel Bonds. This became an avenue for the movement of many Caucus organizers into Democratic party activism.

Political Organizing in the Arab American Community
A number of the panelists discussed the impact on Arab Americans of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war and its culmination in Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. Until 1967, Ahmed said, Arab Americans concentrated on non-political organizations: churches and mosques, fraternal organizations, the union movement, and small business networks. Their experience in such groups became a launching pad for institutions that were organized in reaction to the 1967 war: the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (1967); the National Association of Arab-Americans, a lobbying organization founded in 1972 in large part due to the efforts of former U.S. Senator James Abourezk; and the avowedly political American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (1980) and Arab American Institute (1985).

Those organizations, however, did not gain much power, nor did their existence translate into political incorporation for most Arab Americans. University of Maryland Professor of History Gary Gerstle, sketching the history of immigrant political incorporation in the United States, defined it as the process through which immigrants come to think of themselves as Americans with rights and with a voice in the political process. Some groups, such as Irish Catholics and Japanese-Americans, historically held only "alien citizenship": formal citizenship coupled with a feeling of being viewed as aliens by mainstream American society. That, he suggested, is the situation for Arab Americans today.

Janice Terry, professor of Middle Eastern History at Eastern Michigan University, added that the post-9/11 atmosphere has exacerbated the situation. The FBI reported a 1600 percent increase in anti-Arab crimes between 2000 and 2001. Terry asserted that a law requiring immigrants to register with the federal government has been applied only to immigrants from certain countries, almost all of them Arab or Muslim, and that the passage of statutes such as the USA PATRIOT Act opened the door to anti-Arab racial profiling by businesses as well as by local law enforcement entities. The high incidence of traffic stops of Arab Americans has in fact resulted in some people describing the new "crime" of DWA: Driving While Arab.

Yet, while the post-9/11 period has seen increased Arab-baiting, according to Arab American Institute Foundation Executive Director Helen Hatab Samhan,it has also given Arab Americans greater access to government agencies. Local FBI offices, local law enforcement agencies, and federal funding agencies are now concerned about Arab Americans and work with them in a manner that was unseen before 9/11.

One of the groups that sprang to the defense of Arab Americans after 9/11 was Japanese Americans, who recalled their community's relocation to internment camps during World War II. That defense, Terry, Ahmed and Samhan declared, demonstrated the importance of Arab Americans coalescing with other groups and working with them on their issues. They pointed to the efforts of other minority group and civil liberties organizations on behalf of Arab Americans. Coalitions, they argued, are a major key to political power in this country.

The Power of the Lobby
John Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire and former chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush, disagreed. The American political system is receptive to pressure, he stated, but Arab Americans have not handled it well. For Sununu, the primary road to political power is lobbying. "This system was designed to be lobbied," he said during his luncheon address, and the failure to lobby is the failure to carry out one's obligations as a citizen. Successful lobbying is dependent on a unified message, he added, and he advised his fellow Arab Americans to recast their concern about Palestine into a message that the resolution of the Palestinian-Israel issue is of immense importance to American long-term strategic interests.

Urging Arab Americans to speak out against all terrorism and to lobby the Arab nations about the dangers of displays of anti-American sentiment in their countries, he cautioned them not to coalesce with other groups if doing so means to take on others' causes and dilute attention to what he saw as the overarching matter of Palestine and Israel.

The Experience of Arab-American Women
One of the day's panels was devoted to the impact of gender on political participation. Nadine Naber, assistant professor of American Culture and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, described the challenge Arab-American women face in fighting racism outside the home and sexism within it, declaring that Arab-American women are pressured not to expose the misogyny of many Arab-American men at a moment when the entire community feels itself under threat. At the same time, the women find themselves fighting the American society's mistaken assumption that all Arab-American women are either extensions of male terrorists or victims of primitive customs.

Drawing on the Detroit Arab-American Study, Ronald Stockton, professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, summarized the attributes of Arab Americans who are active in the political process. They tend to be active as well in professional associations and in their religious groups, to own businesses, and to enjoy relatively high incomes. When Arab-American women have equal access to resources – holding a job in the workforce, for example – their level of political participation equals the high level of Arab-American men. Muslim Arab-American women (the majority of American Arabs are Christian), according to Jen'nan Ghazal Read, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of California-Irvine, are somewhat less likely than their male relatives to think of political participation as important or to be involved in political activities. One reason may be that they tend to be more involved in peripheral mosque activities than in religious services, during which imams and other male congregants discuss politics.

The Impact of Diversity in the Arab-American Community
One of the ironies of the current period for Arab Americans, Samhan noted, is that the few relatively large Arab-American organizations that emphasize political activism are now in competition with smaller emerging Arab-American groups and, perhaps most importantly, with Muslim-American organizations that have quite different agendas. Of the estimated 6,000,000 Muslim Americans, perhaps only 1,000,000 are Arabs, with African Americans constituting roughly 25 percent of the overall Muslim population and Southeast Asians another 30 percent. That, however, is an additional argument for coalition-building.

The group that may face the greatest disincentive to political participation, according to Kathy Christison, a former CIA analyst, consists of the estimated 300,000 Palestinian Americans. Noting the seemingly arbitrary post-9/11 deportations of Palestinians and the government closure of Palestinian-American charities, she asked whether it is possible for Palestinian Americans to live in the United States without discomfort. Christison quoted a Palestinian-American woman who lamented that the taxes she pays as a good American citizen go to support Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights.

Arab Americans are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the political system, but the very diversity of their communities – as Suleiman pointed out, they are as diverse in background as Latino immigrants – and the fervor of their political beliefs, which results in an unwillingness to compromise, work against them. According to Abdeen Jabara, civil rights attorney and former executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and other panelists, the current political climate, in which candidates such as Hillary Clinton have returned campaign contributions from Arab Americans and Arab-American candidates and have found their campaign posters defaced with the word "Saddam," is less than welcoming. The religious intensity of this historical moment presents a challenge for Arab Americans, Gerstle suggested, because the American society has yet to decide whether it can fully accept Islam and people who are associated with Islam. The relative weakness of once-strong institutions such as local political machines and settlement houses that aided past immigrant integration may also work against full integration. The picture for Arab Americans and political participation, then, remains decidedly mixed.