American Arabs deserve respect
American Arabs are finding their voice in this country, engaging in business, community service and in elective office and public service. Today’s atmosphere of American Arabs running for public office is in full swing from the days years ago when politicians did everything they could to exclude Arabs from government, from services and from community activism.
By Ray Hanania
After being honorably discharged for my service in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War in 1975, the FBI opened a two-year investigation into my activities asserting that I was engaged in “terrorism.” The report they produced concluded I wasn’t a terrorist at all and only wanted to help American Arabs become more involved in American society.
In 1984, Democratic Presidential Candidate Walter Mondale made a public display of returning $5,000 he received from five donors because they were Arab American.
It wasn’t the first time. Michael Dukakis refused the endorsement of American Arabs in 1988. And Hillary Clinton, running for Senator in New York, returned money from an American Arab Muslim group.
It wasn’t a good time to be American Arab. Yet in the midst of all that, Palos Hills activist Samir Khalil co-founded the Arab American Democratic Club to encourage Arabs to register to vote, and to vote, and to educate local and regional elected officials to better understand who we were as a community.
The AADC hosted an event which drew more than 400 Arab American voters but no elected officials had the courage to attend the banquet. Things have changed a bit. This past Sunday, the same organization attracted more than 400 attendees and nearly 50 of them were elected officials.
It was remarkable to see the change.
Many people still don’t understand who American Arabs are.
As a political writer, I was asked to provide closing remarks at Sunday’s event which featured mayors from two dozen municipalities, a dozen officials from Cook County, several Chicago aldermen, a few state legislators, one congressman and the leading candidate for Illinois Governor, Christopher Kennedy, son of the former U.S. Attorney General and New York’s U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
My comments were simple but direct.
American elected officials should not be afraid of the four-letter word, “Arab.” They need to recognize that Arabs are American. We served this country in the military. We pay our taxes. We work hard to support of families. We are engaged at almost every level of private business, although we are not very engaged in local government.
We are often excluded from government, as well as from the ranks of the major news media.
Sadly, American Arabs are excluded from our society at almost every level. We have no holiday to honor or ethnicity. We don’t have a day, a week or a month that anyone recognizes any more. We have few appointments to local, county and state government offices. We have very few members writing for the major newspapers or working for television or radio.
That has to change. I argued, “We can’t ask others to do for us, what we as an Arab American community can’t do for ourselves, first.”
In other words, Arab Americans need to get their acts together, too. We have to overcome our own challenges and end the divisions and rivalries that keep our community apart. We still need to become more involved in our society.
We can do that by supporting our schools, volunteering to help our youth and our senior citizens.
In other words, we need to participate in American society not just as Arabs, but as Americans, too.
We also have to learn to give up the “all or nothing” mentality that has held many Arab Americans and the Arab World back. We need to look at candidates and recognize that while we might not agree with every position or view they have, we might agree with most of them, and that is enough to justify our support.
Much of the discrimination Arabs experience is not the result of racism, but really the result of people who just don’t know who we are.
As Arab Americans, we haven’t done a good job telling other Americans about who we are. We have to tell them our story. We need to show Americans that we are just like them, proud immigrants who are proud to be American, too.
I am proud to be an American. Who knows, maybe one day we might even have a parade down State Street. We might have our own sitcom on television, our own radio show on Sirius XM, or maybe an Arab American will be elected to higher office.
That’s what America is about. That’s the dream that drives our hope and one day will make America an even better country than it already is.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist and author, and former Chicago City Hall reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Originally published in the Des Plaines Valley News, the Regional News, the Reporter Newspapers, and the Southwest News-Herald newspapers.)