Hyphenated Americans: Integration and Assimilation by Naseer Aruri
It is indeed a great pleasure for me to address the third Annual National Conference of the Union of Arab Students Association. You are the generation of the future, and you carry a huge burden on your shoulders. Every young generation in all communities carries a large burden, for the present and the future belong to the youth.
The burden I am talking about is a positive thing. It is a consequence of challenges, and it affords opportunities—opportunities for you, for our community, our people, our culture, opportunities for the advancement of the principles, perspectives, and values, which define our experience. We, Arab-Americans have had experiences, which differ from those of other hyphenated groups in this country. In fact, ours may have been unique.
Here, I want to focus on two themes that would make up the bulk of what I want to say to you this evening. The first theme relates to integration and assimilation into American society—two concepts that sound a bit academic for a banquet speech, and I hope it will not be boring for you. However, they are relevant to our community’s experience in the United States.
I have long been fascinated by the way the American system deals with conflict resolution. It was a topic that I dealt with in my classes in American Politics and American Foreign Policy over the past three decades. Initially, I was baffled by an obvious contradiction in the American political system—on the one hand, most people are identified as something hyphen Americans, (for example Chinese-American, African-Americans, Arab-Americans) etc. Hence the hyphenated groups, a designation that in itself signifies a lack of assimilation into American society.
A VITAL POLITICAL CENTER: LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES, WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
And yet, this obviously is in contradiction to the dominant American ideology that has long prided itself on America as a melting pot of peoples and cultures. America is a rather well-integrated system, anchored in what is known as a vital political center, a political establishment that rules America irrespective of the party label or the “isms” that politicians frequently stress. So, the system is at once united and seemingly fragmented—united by a common impulse and a desire to remain dominant internationally, to be number one, indeed, to run roughshod over the world. The American population numbers less than 5% of world population and yet it consumes 46% of world resources. A fact that is only possible with America’s ability to dominate the Third world of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Dominance made easier by the collaboration of Third world elites and governments who share in a very small way in the American-based wealth. In the last ten years such American dominance has become stronger in the wake of the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the demise of Communism.
America as people and elites are united by an enduring determination to maintain the high standard of living that can only be assured by the preponderance of military and political superiority (and by remaining as the biggest bully on the bloc). That unity of purpose and action is anchored in the vital political center I spoke of earlier. It is a center of antagonistic collaboration, the center that unites seemingly strange bed fellows such as Bill Clinton, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Bill Gates, and the heads of the largest corporations. These political-economic elites are not only joined but also legitimated by media and entertainment elites, the likes of Opra Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and others: in general, media moguls, movie stars and celebrities, financiers, corporate executives, and politicians.
There are no fundamental differences between these so-called liberals and conservatives. They are really united in purpose, overall ideology and in vision of the kind of world they want to fashion and rule. The small and often subtle differences on social issues should not blind us to the fact of unity in the central economic, political and ideological concerns. But this unity, a favorite theme of most politicians, columnists and ideologues seems to co-exist with its opposite character—social fragmentation. At various levels, one can readily see America divided into virtual cantons—Afro-American ghettos, Latino quarters, Irish enclaves, Chinese towns, redneck domains, Jewish strongholds, and many other districts. Even Arab-American live in large concentrations: in greater Detroit, greater New York-New Jersey, in Orange county in Southern California, etc.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF ARAB-AMERICANS: THE JUNE 1967 WAR:
Now, the question is where do WE, as Arab-Americans, fit into this strange and rather complex politico-ethnic landscape? Are we a centripetal force, on the side of unity, or are we a centrifugal force, pulling away from the political center? How do we figure in this seemingly contradictory nature of American society? What challenges face us, and what opportunities lay ahead of us?
Looking back three decades, I see a remarkable change in these challenges and potential opportunities that affect us, which affect you, as the generation of the future. When I was part of the young generation, I did not even identify myself as a hyphenated American. To say I was Arab-American was a huge concession to the advocates and ideologues of assimilation. It was almost sac-religious to include the “American” designation, even in second place after the hyphen in my identity. It produced discomfort and a feeling of disloyalty-- disloyalty of course, to Arabism, to Arab causes, to Palestine in particular, and not to America.
But there came a time when my generation had to struggle with its identity. We experienced then an identity crisis. Perhaps the catalyst for our transformation, in which we embraced the hyphenated description, was the June 1967 war in the Middle East. The shock of that war had awakened us to some bitter realities. As soon as we turned on the television in those days, or read the newspaper, we saw our culture debased, our motives impugned, our values distorted, our character maligned. Our leaders, back in our home countries, were portrayed as irrationally aggressive, blood thirsty and beastly adventurers, though ultimately losers. It was then that Edward Said, a young Assistant professor of comparative literature at Columbia University wrote his first essay on politics—“The Arab Portrayed”, the theme that eventually led to his seminal and famous work on Orientalism.
Israel in America’s mind was the David to the Arab Goliath—as simple as that. We were the devil incarnate in a society, long accustomed to seeing the world in a Manichean fashion, where the good and evil were clearly separated. That was the era of the Cold War, in which Soviet Union and communism represented all evil, while America was fighting evil communism and leading the so-called free world into a bright era of liberal democratization, and free enterprise.
The 1967 onslaught against the Arab world and its culture had awakened my generation to the reality that our community in the United States had neither the forum nor the spokespersons. It was a community that came together around dabke dance, kibbee and grape-leaves. Our identity was organized on a common denominator of gastronomic nationalism, some cultural activity and family loyalty. It was hardly mobilized around politics or had a real appreciation for Arab culture, tradition and legacy. A legacy to be proud of. An established and recognized legacy of great literature, inspiring and evocative poetry, graceful and elegant art, of science, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. It had developed at a time when the rest of the world was in a dark age. The brilliant Arab Islamic civilization was either forgotten or denied even by the bearers of that legacy.
The June war had changed that. A group of young faculty, recent PhDs, and young professionals came together and established the AAUG, the Association of ARAB-AMERICAN University Graduates. We became ARAB-AMERICANS then, perhaps for the first time. The Association held annual conventions, published books, monographs, and fact sheets and eventually a journal, The Arab Studies Quarterly.
We tried to educate the American public about the flawed American policy towards the Arab world and the Middle East, and about the forces impacting US national interests in the region. We were not a lobby, but even if we were, American policy was not susceptible to the kind of just vision and just solution that we advocated. American policy was and still is based on the calculations of its national security elites, and their pursuit of strategic resources and hegemony over the world, to insure that the United States monopolized the region. Israel or no Israel that was and still is the overarching goal of American foreign policy towards the region. Israel’s victory in the 1967 war had impressed America so much, that it began to emerge as a US strategic asset in the context of the Cold War. No amount of lobbying was about to change that formulation. But we kept up our efforts.
Nevertheless, for the longest time, however, we could not bring ourselves to admit that we were Americans. When we referred to ourselves as Arab-Americans, we could almost hear the Arab part quite loud, while the American part following the hyphen would be barely heard. In retrospect, it was a short- sighted view of our identity that actually compromised our rights as citizens of the United States. So we remained Arabs in America rather than Arab-Americans.
Although many of us came here as young students and could have easily lost our Arab accent, many of us clung tenaciously to that accent, as if to emphasize our apartness and to reaffirm our Arabness. It was as if we raised our flags on our tongues, so to speak. It was a signal of rejection of things American. Of course, a rejection of American foreign policy towards our countries of origin, to the region, to the Arab-Israeli conflict, to Palestine. It somehow did not occur to some of us that we could reject America’s foreign policy and America’s gross violation of human rights around the world, without rejecting the positive aspects and manifestations of American culture and values, especially civil liberties.
In fact, some of the activists from the American anti-war movement, the left, the peace/church community had rallied to our cause. They were just as repelled by America’s uncritical support of Israel and denial of Palestinian rights as we were.
We used to have an organization in the late 70s and early 80s known as the Palestine Solidarity Committee. It had 28 chapters throughout the USA. I will never forget the enormous demonstration organized by that committee in the summer of 1982 to protest the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. No less than 12,000 participated, the majority of whom were Americans.
By comparison, I am pleased to note that your generation has not been subject to these constraints, nor deterred by our identity hang-ups. You see yourselves as Americans of Arab descent, Arab-Americans, and you have no problem saying We and us, instead of they and them. You have no problem referring to US policy as “our” policy. If it is our policy then we can demand that it be corrected. You, as American nationals, can demand a change of the policy in order to conform to the American national interest. You are an integral part of this society in the legal and cultural sense, but your heritage is still Arab. For you, assimilation is not a problem and not a barrier to activism.
UNITY VERSUS FRAGMENTATION: WHERE DO WE STAND?
Which brings me to the second theme of my talk this evening, and that relates to the concept of unity and fragmentation that I have alluded to in the beginning of my talk, and to our role in today’s political system. Where do we stand in relation to the vital center of American politics—that arena which brings together political forces, seemingly at odds with each other, but which are rather united in the pursuit of self-interest, power, greatness and supremacy. The motto, which was uttered by George Bush, Sr. during the Gulf War, “what we say goes”, seems to resonate among broad segments of the American society. Naturally, we as Arab Americans cannot associate with it. After all, the greatness he pursued meant death to our Iraqi brothers and sisters and the destruction of Iraqi society. On the other hand, that omnipotence and supremacy are the guarantors of America’s obscenely (compared to the rest of the world) high standard of living. So we as Arab-Americans are at odds with the American political establishment and a broad segment of American polity, which supports the establishment, both of which constitutes a barrier to our entry into the vital center of political power.
Let me elaborate this point by making a socio-political observation: Almost all immigrant communities that came to this country since WWII were fleeing persecution. Many of them came from Eastern and Central Europe and were at odds with the ruling communist regimes. Many came from Cuba after the Castro revolution. Haitian also escaped repression, while South Africans, Blacks and Whites, escaped the apartheid regime. On the other hand, Israelis came here attracted by what Silicon Valley had to offer. Indians, Chinese, Cambodians and Vietnamese escaped unfriendly political environments or were seeking better living conditions. Almost all of these immigrant communities embraced American foreign policy towards their respective countries of origin, and supported America’s world-view and mission.
Unlike all of them, however, Arab immigrants could not associate with the goals of American foreign policy towards the Arab world, particularly in the Middle East. Arabs and Muslims found themselves at odd with America’s foreign policy and world-view. They could not in any way tolerate America’s role as an unfair “peace broker” and bank-roller and arm-supplier of Israel at the same time. They deeply resented America’s antipathy to Islam and the stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists. That alone kept them outside the establishment, outside the vital political center, outside the social and political melting pot.
As we saw one administration after another rush to upgrade the strategic relationship with Israel, and to cast one UN Security Council veto after another to protect Israel from world condemnation for the atrocities committed against Arabs, we found ourselves permanently divorced from the American foreign policy consensus. Moreover, as we watched the United States launch direct military attacks against Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and the Sudan, while tightening the siege against these countries, we wondered how we could continue to justify paying taxes and escape being accomplices in war crimes.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF ACTIVISM :
The American stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the harsh policies against non-compliant Arab regimes pose a unique challenge to our Arab-American community, and therefore, it calls for a different kind of activism. Most other hyphenated Americans have their own lobbies, and they work within the system. That is the American way. We also have our lobbies and we are beginning to work within the system. But unlike the others, we have structural disagreement with this system that compels us to seek other avenues, extra institutional means of activism outside the system. This of course is an effort that, like the anti-Vietnam war and anti-apartheid movement, could eventually force the vital political center to change its policy.
There are numerous NGOs with whom we have a common cause. There is a vibrant anti-sanctions movement that has been fairly successful in exposing the American led genocide in Iraq. There is the peace/church community that opposes sanctions in Iraq, opposes the excessive use of force by Israel against Palestinians, and that calls for a non-interventionist foreign policy in general. There is also a human rights movement that works on behalf of a single standard for human rights.
There is the newly created movement of al-Awda, which in nine months of existence, has succeeded in becoming the premier organization advocating the right of return for the more than 4 ½ million Palestinian refugees. It had already held two successful rallies on behalf of the right of return—0ne last September, across the street from the White House, and the second was held in New York City on April 7, 2001.There are also the ADC (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee), AAUG( association of Arab-American university Graduates), (Trans-Arab Research institute)TARI,( The Palestine Center) PC, and others working on issues of justice and equality in the Middle East and in the United States. There are a number of American-Muslim organizations and Jewish anti-Zionist organizations working towards the same goals that separate us and place us at odds with the policies of the American political establishment. All of that underscores an urgent need for a minimum level of coordination among the Arab-American groups and organizations.
Unlike most hyphenated Americans who have typically supported American foreign policy towards their respective countries of origin, our task is an uphill battle. We need to combine the efforts of all these organization to expose the double standard, as it is being applied to domestic and foreign policy of the US government. We need to remind our politicians and media analysts that the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process clause cannot be applied selectively anymore. We will not tolerate a standard for Muslims and Arab-Americans, who can be incarcerated on the basis of secret evidence, on the one hand, while another different standard is being applied to Irish- Americans and all other Americans. We must make it clear that we will not tolerate airport profiling of our people simply because of their surnames and color of their complexion.
I know that you will agree that secret evidence and airport profiling were major issues to our community during the recent presidential elections. I know that a sizable percentage of our voters gave their vote to George W. Bush because he denounced the use of these illegal measures, and he pledged to appoint Arab-Americans to high position in his Administration. Well he did appoint more minorities to his cabinet than Clinton had ever done. But does that really signal our admission to the vital center? Do Senator Spencer Abraham and his conservative policies represent the aspirations of Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans? Does it remove the chasm that separates us from the establishment? Didn’t Bush threaten more devastation for Iraq, and wouldn’t that campaign threat be reinforced by the presence by international standards of war criminals in his administration? Weren’t Dick Cheney and Colin Powel directly responsible for atrocities committed against Iraqis in 1991?
Now, just a few days ago, representatives of American-Muslim organizations met with Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, John Sununu, Jr., and Rep Tom Davis in order to discuss various issues ranging from Iraq to secret evidence. I guess it was payback time. In the American system, you are supposed to get something in return for your vote. That is what lobbying is all about. Isn’t that what American-Jews have been doing for the past half-century? Now, many in our community want to follow their path, and join the consensus. But can they really, In view of the structural barriers and value differences that separate them from the establishment’s world view?
Wasn’t the bombing of Iraq George Bush’s first adventure in foreign affairs? And didn’t he give Israel a green light to use excessive force under the guise of ending the “violence?” Didn’t he just deliver a Security Council veto to deprive Palestinian civilians from international protection in the face of Israel’s ongoing onslaught?
His father, George Bush Sr. did not go after Iraq because he hated Arabs—in fact he probably hates Jews more than he hates Arabs, just like Richard Nixon--but it is the way these people see America’s strategic interests that really counts. Nixon was the first president to recognize that Israel had succeeded in its region in doing the job that his surrogates in South Vietnam had failed to do. Israel became a strategic asset, and that has nothing to do with Jews. And Iraq was perceived as having a potential, which must be nipped in the bud. Otherwise Saddam Hussein would be a pace setter in the Gulf, and that was unacceptable to Bush. So “what we, Americans, say goes.”
And when Clinton came to power he continued Bush’s policy in Iraq, just as he and Bush continued and enhanced on the policies of Nixon and Reagan towards Israel. American policy does not change so easily, and it is not exchangeable for votes, no matter with whom our community leaders meet--Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld or President Bush himself.
Contrary to the widespread view that the Zionist lobby makes US foreign policy in the Middle East, it is the national security establishment that sets the pace, and whose world-view is shared by most American-Jews, and many other hyphenated Americans and interest groups. It is this world-view that makes our work in this country an uphill struggle. And it is this world view that we, together with other like-minded groups, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion must struggle to discredit and defeat. That means we must build coalitions that can produce a broad national movement opposed to sanctions, opposed to secret evidence, opposed to apartheid, opposed to double standards, opposed to Israeli war crimes, opposed to Us hegemony and globalization. We must work together with other groups that seek a humane approach to domestic issues and to international concerns.
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- Netanyahu’s Machine: The Crisis of Zionism
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- The Palestine Nakba: Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory
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