The wisdom of the importation of the politics of division to the Muslim and Arab American communities

My dissertation was on the political behavior of Arab Americans. Using the data from the Detroit Arab American study, I examined three forms of political participation- voting, campaign donations and writing to political officials. I looked at the differences between national groups, faith groups and generations. I found that there is no significant difference in political participation between Christians and Muslims and that education and income are, as expected, strongly linked to political participation. One finding that showed assimilation of Arab Americans was the consistent increase in participation between the generations-from the first generation through the third generation.

We know that Arab Americans are assimilating and are part of the political process. However, my study relied on survey data. Surveys are snapshots of reality. The data was gathered after 9/11. Did political participation increase after 9/11? The survey numbers could not address that. In addition to relying on the survey data, I interviewed a number of Muslim Arab American and Arab American activists to get their insights on Arab- American participation. They were able to provide the history and the contextual knowledge to help better understand and explain the numbers.

An Arab American activist told me that a number of factors helped increase Arab- American political participation.  One of them was the Gulf War. Another was the unification of Yemen. Before the unification of Yemen, the Yemeni community was divided between North and South. The pro South would not attend the events attended by the pro North and vice versa. Foreign- based organizations were very active and their American supporters’ attention was on international politics rather than American national politics. Yemen was unified, the Cold War ended, Saddam invaded Kuwait and the US forced him out. All these factors, he said, made Arab Americans turn inward and work together as Arab Americans and get more involved in American politics.

The Muslim American activist attributed increased and accepted Muslim political participation to generational change. He said some in the old generation was divided over whether participating in American politics is halal or haram. Still others even questioned whether a Muslim can live a real Muslim life in America. One argument was that if Muslims cannot change American politics toward the Muslim world, especially as to the Palestinian issue, then there is no point to involvement in American politics. The 9/11 attacks settled this ongoing conversation in favor of those who wanted participation and national Muslim American organization not only said it is permissible to participate in American politics, they now say it is even religiously obligatory. Part of the change is in leadership with younger generations more familiar with and more comfortable with American politics and culture. The other reason the young activist gave was the realization that in a democracy if you do not participate then your interests are not represented or protected. There is strength in numbers, working with large blocs, therefore, these groups tried to minimize internal divisions and work together to counter real threats facing American Muslims.

Political developments overseas again threaten to weaken whatever Arab and Muslim political unity have coalesced.  Unity, or the appearance of unity, was evident until 2003. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the first divisive development. With the Arab Spring came more polarization. One way to gauge the extent of polarization is listening to anecdotes of daily friction between member of different Arab and Muslim communities. The level of polarization and division is seen in the harsh rhetoric on the Facebook community group, Dearborn Area Community Members, with the division being Sunni-Shia, pro Iran v. pro Saudi Arabia.

Given this reality, are the years of collective action gone? Are the days when Arab Americans used to protest together in support of unifying causes such as Lebanon or Gaza against Israeli aggression over? Are the days when Arabs and Muslims stood together facing the national backlash from the 9/11 attacks long gone?
Arab and Muslim Americans are all together facing a very serious challenge. The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath is not behind us.  That challenge is not gone and the community’s future is still connected to national and international events beyond Arab American and Muslim American control.

The Arab American activist told me that in the aftermath of 9/11 Bush’s Attorney General visited Dearborn and met with Arab American leaders. Listening to the complaints and concerns of the attendees, he told them that if there were another attack on US soil, all bets are off.

We as Arab and Muslim Americans are still demonized by key mainstream media. Our loyalty and patriotism are questioned by important figures. We have a problem of the threat of the radicalization of our youths that risk being brainwashed into joining terrorist organizations or engaging in terrorist acts. This threat of youth radicalization is added to the other threats facing them as American youths- teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcohol, etc. Those who organize divisive events, protests and counter protests are invited to visit the Dearborn courthouse to see what issues face our youths that we are not taking care of.

Young people on Facebook are saying all kinds of things, including speech that is abusive or sectarian and divisive. But it is one thing for the young and immature to be divisive but a completely different thing for the adults, those in leadership positions, to organize around division and conflict.

Importing inter Arab and inter Islamic disputes to our community is simply unwise. The leaders behind the organization of divisive protests and counter protests, divisive events, have to rethink the wisdom of importing division to our community in light of former attorney general Ashcroft candid warning.*

Entry appeared in the Forum and Link of April 30, 2015.


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