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A Brief History of Arab American Political Participation
By: Ivey Noojin/Arab America Contributing Writer
The issue of Arab American political participation is especially important in wake of the midterms yesterday. Arab Americans haven’t always had the opportunity of feeling represented, because of prejudices within the U.S. society. Historically in the past, many Arab Americans were made to feel that they did not belong in America.
The Idea of Temporary Residency
During World War I, many people fled the Ottoman Empire to the United States to escape the violence. However, they anticipated that they would ultimately return to their homeland after the war. These immigrants identified with the land in the Ottoman Empire and not the U.S. Therefore, there was no need to preoccupy themselves with the politics of this country; they thought they would leave in a couple of years anyway.
Since many were new arrivals to the United States, they focused on survival instead of politics. These immigrants cared more about where they were going to get their food, what job they could acquire and focused on ways to understand the English language. They didn’t even try to have a voice in the national sphere because they were so focused on providing for themselves.
However, after World War I, they became isolated and confused about their ties to the Arab World and the U.S., leading to weak Arab American communal solidarity. In response, many wanted to forge a connection to the new land they were inhabiting and joined the military. More than 7% of Arab Americans fought for the U.S. in its upcoming foreign conflicts and their women worked to handle the domestic needs of the U.S. Army.
Maintaining a Connection to Their Homeland
Even though many people were fighting for their new country, the Arab American community still felt very marginalized in the U.S. due to their lack of wealth and lack of power. Many of them focused on their religion and on adhering strictly to their culture. The media was attacking them as outsiders, so many did not want anything to do with national politics.
However, at the start of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, many Arab Americans began to become more involved. They were frustrated that they were not in the Arab world to defend the Palestinians, like so many of their fellow Arabs. Therefore, many Arab Americans established interest groups and organizations to help the Palestinians. Protests were organized to let the U.S. government know the stakes of the war. This beginning of political participation highlights the goal of Arab Americans to strengthen ties to their homeland while also taking advantage of their rights as U.S. citizens.
In response, Arab Americans became more involved with the Middle East issues. Many intellectuals were inspired to study the political and humanitarian crises in the Arab world, which led to widespread academic discourse in the United States about the issues. More Americans became cognizant of the problems many Arabs, especially Palestinians, were facing. This led to efforts of establishing political action and lobby groups (Association of Arab American University Graduates, National Association of Arab Americans, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Arab American Institute) advocating for Arab and Arab American issues. Such efforts increased knowledge and understanding of Arab American communities by directly corresponding with legislators. These groups emboldened Arab Americans to feel that they had a say in the U.S. policy.
Entering the National Sphere
After World War II, Arab Americans started running for public office. However, many of them were not elected due to lack of funding or moral support from the Arab American constituency. When the first Arab American joined Congress in 1959, George Kasem did not win due to Arab American votes; he won because of local support in general.
Since the 60’s and 70’s, notable Arab Americans, predominately of Lebanese/Syrian heritage, entered the world of politics, among them: George Mitchel, John Sununu, James Abourezk, Mary Rose Okar, Charles Boustany, Nick Rahall, and others.
In 1985, the only organization solely dedicated to Arab Americans in political life was established. The Arab American Institute has supported members of their community in their desires to run for office.
Change Due to 9/11
After 9/11, Arab Americans began to expand their local and national political activism to make sure their voice was heard. A year later, the National Network for Arab American Communities was established, as a branch of ACCESS, to help unify Arab Americans regarding domestic issues such as immigration, health care, and civil rights. Today, Arab American political participation is growing exponentially compared to many of the ethnic groups in the United States.
The voice of Arab Americans in U.S. politics is growing, especially through digital and social media. Arab Americans realize through the voting process, they can impact domestic and foreign policy issues. On election day, they have the ability to make their voice heard and increase their representation in Congress. Now more than ever Arab Americans are participating in the single most important virtue they can exercise as Americans, to vote.