Our People, Our Narrative: A Call to Mobilize
It is an unsettling and curious conversation being had by Arab-Americans since Trump’s inauguration and the travel ban. Arab Christians seeking a voice in Washington felt that their voice was heard and reflected in section five of the original ban, while other Arabs struggled to meet with representatives in Washington in some effort to explain “who we really are.” Both routes are wrong and dangerous, not only for Arab-Americans, but also for Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa.
At what point in the history of our political experience in the United States has either route proved successful? In Trump’s joint session address on February 28, he referred to everyone from Arab countries as Muslim despite the ban’s distinction between Arab Muslims and Christians. The President’s blanket statement regarding a collective Arab identity was ignorant at best. Neither the U.S. government nor the clamoring effort of Arab-Americans adequately recognizes the rich ethnic and religious diversity of the Middle East and North Africa.
President Trump’s ban is misguided at best. An immigration policy that favors Arab Christians over Arab Muslims further deprives the Arab world of its diversity and aggravates existing religious sectarian strife. The U.S. has benefited from Middle Eastern, North African, and Asian refugees, Christian and Muslim alike. Americans need to see the current refugee crisis for what it really is: the stripping of beloved homelands from Arabs who would otherwise have stayed in their countries had it not been for unjustified wars and blanket bombings.
The narrative that America is at war with radical Islam and that Arab Christians need saving is hollow. There is no evidence that Christians or any non-Muslim minority in America is being saved or even kept safe by the United States. If the claim were true, then what is to be said for Khalid Jabara, an Arab Christian, who called the police only to be ignored by them and later shot dead by his neighbor who called him a “dirty Arab.”
This is a call for Arab-Americans to find their collective voice in this opportune time, to politically engage in a manner that clearly articulates an overriding narrative. Arab-Americans have repeatedly yielded power in exchange for perceived security. We may be safe from the battles that rage back home, but there is another battle gaining strength right here in the U.S. We must have the courage and cohesion to face it. We can no longer hide in places of worship and behind our religious leaders. Politics is not their job. It is an arena into which they are thrust precisely because our mobilization is stalled. Rhetoric that utilizes regional conflicts to justify division in our community for the sake of national security must be resisted, questioned, and countered.
First, we must agree to be under a shared name umbrella. All of us are not ethnically Arab, but we are all culturally Arab. This is not to belittle or erase our individual identities. Washington does not see us as a sum made up of diverse ethnic groups, and to simply fall in line with that assumption, without re-defining what it means, will not help us advance our interests. We are a minority spread across the country, and we lack strong concentrations in more than one city. We need to agree on ‘Arab-American’ as our shared umbrella. Let’s not make this word the hill our efforts die on.
Secondly, there must be a radical confrontation of our relations with one another as people from a region that is Muslim-majority and contains several religious minority groups. We must work together to heal the wounds our Arab governments and Arab societies have inflicted upon us as a result of religious sectarian strife in our homelands. It is imperative that we do not carry the baggage of our parents or our own negative experiences from the motherlands to America. This is not to minimize the experience or forget it, but to forgive it. We must see past our lost battles and envision winning the war as a united front. Washington’s rhetoric of security for select Arabs will inevitably fail us and, as we have seen, it does not produce any fruit. If it did, then what of the lost lives of Khalid Jabara, Sarahan Sarahan, and the Barakat siblings of Chapel Hill?
Finally, we must learn the tools of successful political mobilization from our African and Latino-American brothers and sisters. These tools include organizing caucuses, PACs, and initiatives as well as how to produce political leaders from our community. Currently, there are American cities with a high population of Arabs represented by non-Arabs, predominantly Caucasians. It is due time that we see our own in State capitols and on The Hill. African and Latino-Americans did not wait for permission, higher census numbers, or more money to come into their households in order to organize. They saw that the time was ripe or past due for mobilizing their communities.
Arab-Americans, our time is now. We love America, we have served her in a myriad of ways, and now, we have one request: a place at the table for our unified voice. As in Shirley Chisholm’s famous call to action, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Suzie Abdou is Principal at Ma’at Consulting specializing in policy and development in the Middle East & North Africa. Views expressed are her own.