x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A coming of age for Arab Americans in the 2012 election

Their representation at the upcoming Democratic Party convention shows Arab Americans are being heard in the US.

This week, I will be in Charlotte, North Carolina where I will participate in my eighth Democratic convention.

There will also be 55 other Arab American delegates and committee members from 21 states who have been elected by Democrats to participate in this year's party gathering. This is a record number of Arab Americans elected to any national convention. It surpasses the 52 who participated in the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta.

In conventions before 1988, Arab Americans had only managed to send a handful of delegates to the national meetings, and so the 1988 total represented a real breakthrough for the community. In the years that followed, despite real challenges, there were consistently about 40 to 45 Arab American delegates. This year's total is quite remarkable - a tribute to the hard work of many activists and the acceptance of Arab Americans at all levels of the Democratic Party.

In some ways, this Charlotte meeting will not be as thrilling as the 1984 San Francisco convention where Jesse Jackson electrified the country with his "our time has come" speech - a theme that resonated not only for African Americans, but Arab Americans as well.

Nor will it be as exciting as the 1988 Atlanta convention, where Arab Americans fought for the right to insert 13 minority planks in the party platform. That year, I had the opportunity to address the convention, leading to the first party debate at a national level on Palestinian rights. Before that, it was taboo to even say the word "Palestinian" in American politics. I will never forget looking down at the convention floor, watching over 1,000 delegates waving banners and signs saying "Palestinian Statehood Now".

This convention will be different. For Arab Americans, it will represent a coming of age. Hard work and perseverance have brought Arab Americans from exclusion to being respected and recognised as part of the mainstream Democratic Party.

In Charlotte, there will be an event for Arab American delegates, enabling them to meet one another and prepare for the November election, and the Arab American Institute will join with J Street, a Jewish peace group, to host a forum on the need for American leadership to push for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I am looking forward to meeting some of the Arab Americans who will be attending their first convention and being a part of the events the Arab American Institute has organised for delegates. There will be some fascinating people to meet.

One of my favourite people in the Arab American delegation is Majid Al Bahdali. A refugee from Saddam Hussein's Iraq following the Basra uprising in 1991, Mr Al Bahdali spent years in a prison camp, until he was given refuge in the United States. He became a citizen, and a few years later he was elected as an Obama delegate in 2008. His is a great American story.

This is Mr Al Bahdali's second convention. Hindia Ali from Minnesota has the distinction of being the first Somali American to be elected as a delegate. And Ferial Masry of California is the first American of Saudi descent to become a delegate.

They will be joined by nine Arab American delegates from Michigan, led by Ish Ahmed, the vice chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, and the rising star State Representative Rashida Tlaib. St Louis's Mayor Francis Slay, and St Louis City Democratic chairman Brian Wahby will represent Missouri. And former South Carolina gubernatorial candidate and State Senator Vincent Sheheen will join Rhode Island Councilman Michael Solomon and labour leaders Bill George (the former president of Pennsylvania's labour union AFL-CIO) and Tom Balanof of Illinois.

And so we go to Charlotte having realised the promise of 1984's "our time has come". But we also go to this convention knowing that real challenges remain. Arab Americans still face serious threats to their civil liberties and their voices are desperately needed in the national debate over America's still one-sided and misguided foreign policy.

Arab Americans are better positioned today than they were a generation ago. For decades, they have fought to form and protect the community, and they won. They fought against exclusion and for inclusion, and they won. Now they must fight to make a difference - to make America better, smarter, more respected and stronger - and this is a fight they must not lose.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

For James Zogby's convention blog, visit www.thenational.ae/ thenationalconversation