Next week, Arab American leaders and activists from a dozen key electoral states will convene in Washington to map out a political strategy for 2016. Despite the very real challenges facing the leaders who will gather, this generation of Arab Americans can approach the future with some confidence given the progress that has been made the last three decades.
Thirty years ago, the obstacles confronting the community were quite different. Back then, Arab Americans, as an organized constituency, were excluded from the mainstream of American political life. Candidates rejected our endorsements and support; political parties ignored or excluded us; and, for many, simply being of Arab descent was seen as a liability in politics.
Just a generation ago, young Arab Americans felt the need to hide their ethnicity to run for office or to secure an appointment to a federal post. In Washington, only a handful of Arab Americans worked in government or in organizations and think-tanks that focused on issues of concern to the community. As wrong as it would be to ignore the reality of the problems remain, it would be equally wrong to ignore how much has changed.
Today, there are hundreds of proud Arab Americans working in the federal government, in Congress, in human and civil rights groups, and in policy-formulating institutions in Washington. It is important to note that many of these public servants got their start as staff or interns working for Arab American organizations. In addition, there is now a network of Arab American elected officials that includes over 400 current and former Members of Congress and state and local officials from across the US.
In the mid-1980's, there was no recognized "Arab American vote". Today, in places like Dearborn, MI, Paterson, NJ, Chicago, IL, and Northern VA, politicians know that Arab Americans are organized and vote. They, therefore, campaign to earn the community's support. And Arab Americans now sit in leadership positions in the political parties on the national, state, and local levels.
I recall back in 1985, the first challenge we faced at the newly formed Arab American Institute was the threat to our community in Dearborn. They had been denounced by the leading candidate for mayor as the city's "Arab problem". After a decade of voter registration efforts and solid grass roots organizing by community organizations, no one who cared for their political future dared to repeat such an insult. Today, four of Dearborn's City Council Members are Arab Americans, as is the Council's President, as well as the head of Dearborn's Democratic Party.
Much the same could be seen in Paterson, NJ, where in 2012 an Arab American backed Congressman beat back challenges by two opponents (one of whom was a Congressman who had lost his district to reapportionment), both of whom had been supported by hard-line pro-Israel groups.
Despite these real electoral gains, many will focus instead at the challenges we continue to face and with a jaundiced eye and make the case that no progress has been made. They are wrong. To be sure, the challenges have grown more daunting, but we are now stronger and better organized and more able to face them down. One of these critics once challenged me saying that I was guilty of saying "the glass was half full, when it was really half empty". I responded by telling him that neither was the case since I could recall a time when we didn't have a glass to fill. And now we do!
We don't need to be reminded of the difficulties that have shaped the current landscape: the terror attacks of 9/11 and the backlash and threat to civil liberties that followed; the devastating impact of the invasion and occupation of Iraq; the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the wars that have taken such a horrific toll; the unraveling of the "Arab Spring" and the nightmare conflict in Syria; and the spread of extremist currents and the danger they pose to the region.
We have been confronted by all of these challenges and more. Instead of cowering, we faced them head on-and along the way, we've won some little, but important, victories. For example, if we had not been organized and had the allies we had worked hard to develop, we would have been overwhelmed by the 9/11 backlash. Instead of being defeated, we were able to defend our community, educate millions about our history and culture, and win important precedent-setting cases against those who threatened our rights. We were able to secure protection for Syrian immigrants in the US and to expand refugee status for Iraqis fleeing conflict in their country. At critical junctures, we were able to shape the official response to Israel's brutal assault on Palestinians and Lebanese. We have also been able to challenge the disgraceful manner in which law-enforcement treated our community-which has forced the Department of Justice to rethink their approach to how they deal with us. And just this year, together with allies, we were able to effectively block a Congressional measure that would have mandated that Israel be entered into the US's visa waiver program. In response to our appeals, the State Department made it clear that as long as Israel continued to discriminate against Arab Americans they would not qualify for visa waivers.
So when a new generation of Arab American activists gather in Washington to lay the groundwork for their political work for the next two years, they will have the wind at the backs. The community will want to make sure that candidates who run for office in 2016 understand the realities of the Middle East today and that they are sensitive to the concerns that our community will bring into the national debate.
They will do so with determination and confidence. Determination, because they know that the domestic and foreign policy issues for which they are advocating are important not only to Arab Americans, but to all Americans. And confident, because they have a proud record on which to build.
Dr. James J. Zogby is The President of Arab American Institutes.
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