Can we distinguish between reality in the Arab World and the future of the Arab/Muslim community in the United States?
by Dr. Mohrez El-Hussini, Al-Manassah Al-Arabeyah, 11 January 2002.
Every once in a while I meet with the Egyptian Consul General in New York, Mr. Mahmoud Alam. We discuss the latest events, especially those that touch on the lives of the Arab community. In our meeting after September 11, Mr. Alam said he is convinced that the future of the Arab community in the United States and the resolution of its predicaments fall squarely on its own shoulders. He said there is no room for any direct role from the mother countries. In his opinion, it is imperative that the community deal with the current situation in a flexible and objective manner and insist on collective action. The community should avoid looking to the mother country for aid and support, and look only periodically for direction. Otherwise, he said, the community will face a lot of obstacles that will probably derail its mission.
With all due respect to Mr. Alam, I consider his vision to be only partly realistic. There is an organic relationship between the Arab communities and the mother country that cannot be ignored. Without this relationship, the Arab community will continue to be marginal to American society and vulnerable to threats. That will lead to the Arab community’s retreat (such as after September 11), when American anti-Arab and anti-immigrant pressures led to losses of freedom and limits on its ability to develop, grow and occupy its rightful place in American society.
The points of disagreement between Mr. Alam and myself are the nature and depth of the home country-diaspora relationship. Whatever happens in the Middle East has a direct effect on the Arab community here and our ability to work, as well our interaction with American society at large.
Let us face it: the Arab nations have failed to recognize that the Arab-American community represent a strategic depth in that most crucial of arenas, the American arena. The Arab nations must understand that the repercussions of September 11 necessitate developing a healthy relationship and balance between the diaspora community and the mother countries. We must open up dialogue and find ways to cooperate, or the Arab-American and Muslim communities will be totally polarized, isolated and eventually separated from the mother countries.
It seems, from recent events, that the Arab community is marginalized by American society at large. We have had no input in any of the changes in national policy, in regards to foreign policy in the Middle East, or domestic policy, in regards to immigrants and detentions.
Arab nations do not differ from other Third World countries; a sizable segment of their populations wish to emigrate, especially intellectuals and scientists. And the United States continues to attract us. We start new lives and pursue better futures; this means the waves of migration will probably continue for a long time.
The Arab community is the operational and psychological environment that helped shape them. Due to this influence, it is hard to produce a wide range of able personalities who are capable of facing the new cultural, social and political challenges. A few overcome this cultural shock and start to acculturate to life in the United States, but these few tend to be isolated from the Arab community.
Meanwhile, the majority carries on in semi-seclusion from mainstream American society. Many choose to live in isolated enclaves, maintaining conditions similar to the home countries in the name of preserving their identity.
There are some common characteristics who reside in isolated areas in the U.S are: feelings of inferiority as opposed to the natives; fear of involvement in any political activity; distorted notions about freedom and democracy; inability for collective action; hesitation and fear when opinions are expressed boldly and frankly; envy of the success of others; love of leadership in the absence of qualifications; superficiality in dealing with diverse situations; no clear role definition; lack of confidence; suspicion towards leaderships in their goals and intent. In addition to many other inherited notions brought from the mother country. These demonstrate the basic role and responsibility of the mother country to prepare and build the citizen’s character for emigration to the West.
A dangerous element of the Arab communities in the United States is regionalism. By this I mean having allegiances to particular countries, rather than the whole Arab world. This affects the nature of the collective Arab movement in the United States. In my opinion, this represents the biggest problem the community faces. Perhaps what explains some of the Jewish organizations’ success is their unity of purpose and goals despite varying tactics. Their main goal is Israel’s national interests, so they employ all resources to create harmony between Zionist goals and domestic and foreign US policy.
In contrast, Arab nations and United States-based communities have not created an effective means of organization. The Arab nations have failed to create local media outlets or satellite networks to communicate with the American audience about Arab issues. Thus, our efforts to influence the American decision making process are marginalized and dissipated.
On the other hand, Jewish organizations influence the media to shape the American public’s opinions. The Arab community (both Christian and Muslim) felt this influence firsthand after September 11 as we became the target of public scorn, the main suspect, and the object of revenge.
The Arab community personifies Arab reality (in the Middle East and North Africa) in that both suffer from the absence of leadership and role models. Ethnic and religious differences mirror the situations at home. Every ruler has his own vision, and every political force looks out for its own chauvinistic interests and goals. In the United States, we see there is a Moroccan enclave with its leadership, goals and vision; and there are the Egyptian, Sudanese, Jordanian, Lebanese, Yemeni, Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, and so on. Even the Islamic movement is not any different. There are the Sunni and Shiite mosques. There are further divisions, such as political Islam that espouses to the liberation; Hamas or Umma. There are those who differ on the strictness of interpretations, others who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood; independents and followers of Sufism and so on.
The immigrant media is in no better shape. For the most part, it is superficial and disorganized. It lacks expertise and political and strategic vision. It too personifies the regional fragmentation. There are Egyptian papers, Jordanian or Syrian, and they differ from the Yemeni, Moroccan and Palestinian papers. In many instances they contradict the national and the immigrants’ points of view.
We can contrast the positions of the Jewish and Arab organizations. The different trends in the Zionist movement in the United States have a least common denominator in goals and the different situations that require collective action.
Arab interests primarily follow regional politics in a parallel fashion; our interests will not intersect. If it weren’t for the Palestinian Intifada with all its humanitarian, religious and nationalistic dimensions, and Muslims’ concern about the distortion of their religion, there wouldn’t even be any semblance of unity at all. We will have instead a reflection of the different regional struggles and interests, even though we are thousands of miles away from those countries.
These differences make collective action very difficult and diminish the attention paid to our community’s special interest within American society at large. There is a multiplicity of factors that make the Arab and Muslim community different from other minorities in the United States.
The Arab and Muslim community here is very connected to geopolitical factors over which we have little influence. The United States has geopolitical interests in our area, and Israel (as of now) represents a lone strategic ally. Additionally, there are domestic political considerations that dictate taking into account the reactions of Jewish groups.
We, the Arab community, live in a society controlled by aggressive forces sympathetic to Israel. Such forces promote its interests in the media — sometimes against the United States’ own interest. The Arab community resembles the sacrificial lamb. Any crisis that affects the region has direct consequences on the Arab and Muslim community abroad. At the same time, this community realizes the impotence of those governments to intervene in an individual or collective manner to help the community as a whole, or even particular individuals, in times of hardship.
The Arab community is connected organically to the fate of the Arab and Muslim nations. Individuals in this community have the right to express their opinions related to these nations, for they are the first to experience the repercussions of the actions of Arab rulers and other irresponsible organizations. When Arab and Muslim immigrants call for human rights and development for their compatriots, this is not interference in the internal affairs of these countries, nor an intellectual luxury. It is unjust to accuse their proponents of treason, insubordination and being extremely westernized. But these principles are initiated due to feelings of fear, isolation and weakness in the hope that the mother country will provide the necessary support.
This article appeared in Edition 6 of Voices That Must Be Heard
Included by permission of Al-Manassah Al-Arabeyah.