April is Arab American Heritage Month. It may not be a big deal to some, but for those of my generation this recognition represents a half century of struggle to overcome outright bigotry, political exclusion, ignorance about the community's identity, history and contributions to American life. Unlike many other new ethnic communities struggling for acceptance in American life, Arab Americans have had to not only build themselves up, but also build up community institutions, and along the way, confront unique challenges and roadblocks.
In media and popular culture, Arabs have often been negatively stereotyped and depicted in crude caricatures. When Arabs organised as a national political movement, powerful forces were against the community, insisting on excluding them from the political mainstream. Even in education, the contributions made by Arabs to human civilisation were often ignored, as were the roles played by Arab Americans in politics, culture and business.
The trajectory of the community’s growth during the past half century has been a steady ascent. Hundreds of Arab Americans have been elected to significant government posts, served in presidential cabinets and been appointed to high-level positions.
Exclusion from politics has become a thing of the past, as Arab Americans today play key roles in US politics at the state and national level. Not only that, but members of the community are proudly manifesting their identity and culture and lifting the negative stereotypes. Arab history and language are being taught. Arab heroes are now known. And the community is even fighting to reclaim the region's food from cultural appropriation, from it being labelled Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cuisine.
Those who mobilised to exclude Arab Americans seemed afraid that should voices of the Arab community grow stronger, its members would challenge the exclusive control of the debate over Israel/Palestine. They even went so far as to refuse to see the group as an ethnic community, caricaturing it instead as a “single issue” anti-Israel lobby.
Over the years, Arab Americans have overcome narrow-mindedness and bigotry, and established a key constituency in political coalitions on issues ranging from Middle East policy to civil liberties, hate crimes, immigration reform and voting rights. When Arab Americans first sought formal recognition of a heritage month on the national level, the effort failed because some political leaders feared the political repercussions of this acknowledgement. That is no longer the case.
This year, US President Joe Biden issued a proclamation from the White House in which he wrote: “The history and story of the Arab American community is deeply woven into the diverse tapestry of America. This National Arab American Heritage Month, I thank the community for all that you have done to help move us forward and for representing the best of who we are.”
Mr Biden continued: “For centuries, Arab Americans have embraced working hard, giving back and cultivating friendship and community – helping shape our nation's history and build our future. Today, we see the contributions of Arab Americans reflected in every aspect of American life. By advancing innovation, leading businesses, serving in our military, teaching in our schools, and representing communities in elected office, Arab Americans make us stronger and help us form a more diverse and vibrant America.“
"We also recognise that too many Arab Americans continue to be harmed by discrimination, bias and violence. As President, I have made it a top priority to strengthen the Federal Government's response to hate crimes and to advance a whole-of-government approach to racial justice and equity so that all Americans, including Arab Americans, can meet their full potential. I am grateful for the tireless work of organisations that promote Arab American heritage and empower Arab Americans across our country.”
Mr Biden was joined by cabinet secretaries, the National Education Association, the chair of the Democratic Party and many others who issued similar statements. And while the national recognition is new, the efforts on the state and local level to recognise Arab American Heritage Month have been happening for decades thanks to the work of community members who have led with programmes in their local school districts and before their city councils and state legislatures.
Today, aided by the recent organising effort of ArabAmerica.com, the movement on the local level has resulted in official recognition by governors and state legislatures in 28 states (with more to come). Additionally, the White House is planning a series of briefings for community leaders on a number of policy concerns.
As I noted at the beginning, some may dismiss these as “hollow gestures”. But when seen in the context of the struggles of Arab Americans to earn respect and recognition, the significance of these statements becomes clear.
There is most certainly more to be done to change American policy, to secure the full democratic rights of the community, and to ensure that future generations learn the truth about Arab American history and culture. The important fact to remember, however, is that we are now better positioned than ever before to take up these critical tasks.
On hearing me make this case, a critic sarcastically commented that I was just “seeing the glass as half full”. I responded that it wasn’t about the glass being half full or half empty, because I remember when we didn’t have a glass at all. Now we do and we are working hard to fill it. We have gone from being ignored, defamed and excluded to being recognised and honoured as a respected American constituency. That is called progress.