Arab Americans fought hard to be recognised

A recent proclamation from Joe Biden follows years of struggle to overcome exclusion and discrimination

Arab Americans have continued to organise, mobilise their vote and coalesce with allies. Getty
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On March 31, US President Joe Biden issued the first-ever formal proclamation designating April as Arab American Heritage Month. This is the second year in a row it has been celebrated. That Mr Biden took this step is significant, marking a turning point in our decades-long effort to secure recognition and respect for our community.

I’ve written before about the exclusion and outright discrimination we’ve faced in past decades. These have been due to external threats either coming from those who feared our becoming organised and empowered, or those who saw us through the lens of racist stereotypes.

There are unfortunately too many examples of this: candidates returning “Arab money” or rejecting our endorsements; Arab Americans denied positions or advancement in government, academia or media because their ethnicity was viewed as suspect or threatening; political coalitions and parties denying membership to Arab-American organisations because some objected to our involvement; and law enforcement, at national and local levels, launching surveillance programmes or indiscriminate round-ups of persons with Arab names for questioning or harassment.

All of these external challenges to our community were painful to endure, but tested our mettle and made us stronger. Because we continued to organise, mobilise our vote, coalesce with allies and fight back, we have earned recognition across the country and now from the president of the United States.

To be clear, however, the external threats to the Arab-American community's organisation and recognition are only one part of the story. We have also faced internal challenges. These have mainly been due to the importation of ideologies and identities that have divided the Arab world or the ways that others have used these divisions to their advantage and not our own.

On March 31, US President Joe Biden issued the first-ever formal proclamation designating April as Arab American Heritage Month. EPA

It’s worth noting that the birth of the modern Arab-American identity occurred simultaneously with various nationalist upheavals across the Arab world. There were the competing movements led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq, the heyday of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, and the deeply divisive Lebanese Civil War.

In this context, many politicised Arab immigrants took sides, identifying with one or another group or ideology. At the same time, those in the generation who came of age in the US saw their Arab identity as a unifying factor and began to build organisations based on shared heritage and concerns, including advocacy for Palestinian human rights.

They contested negative stereotypes in the media and popular culture. They registered and organised Arab-American voters and supported Arab-American candidates for public office – and did so without attention to country of origin or religion, something that many in the Arab world or those who, as we say, “have their feet planted here but their heads in the Middle East” just couldn’t understand. Three stories come to mind.

Challenges to our community were painful to endure, but tested our mettle and made us stronger

In 1983, amid the civil war in Lebanon and after the Israeli devastation of Beirut and the south of the country, a group of Arab Americans launched a project called Save Lebanon to bring wounded Lebanese and Palestinian children to the US for medical care that was unavailable to them in Lebanon. The outpouring of support from the community was overwhelming. Hospitals run by the Shriner fraternal society donated services and families took in the wounded kids. Jordanian airlines provided flights and the Saudi ambassador’s wife underwrote an event at the Kennedy Centre that featured two famous Arab-American entertainers – Danny Thomas and Casey Kasem.

Over a two-year period, a group of Arab-Americans brought 63 children and found homes for them and their families in more than a dozen communities. There were, however, some who complained when a Palestinian child was sent to a largely Lebanese community (or vice versa) or a Christian child was sent to a largely Muslim community (or vice versa). But the complaints were short-lived because those who initially objected would melt upon meeting the kids and their families. What we said in response was, “We brought the children here to heal them. In the end, they healed us.”

In the early 1990s an Arab ambassador visited my office and began the conversation by asking me, “How do you organise your staff?” I responded by telling him that there were organising, policy, communications and administrative teams. He asked again, “How are they organised?” I replied, “By function.” He then said, “No, I mean that guy at the front desk, he’s Lebanese Shia, isn’t he? What are the countries and religions of the rest?” Now understanding his question, I replied, “In all honesty sir, we don’t ask their religion or country of origin so I have no idea. That’s not who we are.”

At the Arab American Institute's annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity gala, we honour groups and individuals for their public service. One award we give is for public service, named after Najeeb Halaby, the father of Jordan’s Queen Noor. Mr Halaby, a Syrian American, was the first Arab American to serve in high office as a presidential appointee. The award in 2012 was given to ambassador Ted Kattouf, a Palestinian American and was presented by former Secretary of Transportation, Ray Lahood.

At the dinner’s end, I addressed the audience noting that, “Tonight we gave an award named after a Syrian American to a Palestinian American and it was given by a Lebanese American. That is who we are and it’s something that couldn’t happen in the Arab world.”

In recent years, we have seen this same unity manifesting itself time and again. Still, problems remain. Some originate with government policies that attempt to define us or cherry-pick portions of our community in an effort, unconscious or deliberate, to divide us, often by erasing our ethnic identity by prioritising religion.

The Bush administration, for example, courted several Christian groups, while the Obama administration conflated the Arab and Muslim communities. In other cases, it was by prioritising countries of origin. During the Arab uprisings, some focused special attention on the communities of exiles from the affected countries while ignoring the broader Arab-American community. These efforts were exploited by those who used these divisive tactics to their advantage – serving only to disrupt efforts to build a unified community.

With this background, it should be clear why the Biden administration’s formal proclamation of Arab American Heritage Month is so important. It acknowledges our hard-fought efforts to overcome the external and internal forces that have sought to exclude or discriminate against us or deny us the right to define ourselves. And by recognising our history of overcoming obstacles and paying homage to our contributions to America, this proclamation empowers us on our path forward.

Published: April 14, 2023, 5:00 AM