x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A Syrian song of freedom and riffs in a US movement

The controversy over the banning of a Syrian musician from performing a song at the annual convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was a distraction that the organisation could have done without.

Last week a bit of controversy erupted in Washington when it was announced that the performance of Malek Jandali, a Syrian musician, had been dropped from the annual convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). It appears that Jandali had insisted on including Watani Ana (I am my homeland), a song about freedom, in his repertoire – and that some leaders at ADC had been equally insistent that the song be dropped. With no agreement, Jandali was dropped from the programme – and only reinstated late last night.

Bloggers, especially those looking to draw blood from an Arab American organisation, had a field day with the story. The irony of a civil rights organisation refusing to allow a song about freedom was an open invitation to critics, as were suggestions that a few ADC leaders acted out of support for the regime in Damascus. For more than 24 hours, the anti-discrimination group said nothing, ensuring that the story would grow legs. When they finally issued a statement, it was so infuriatingly oblique and evasive that the situation went from bad to worse.

Because the ADC did not address whether the Jandali performance had been banned, and did not deal with any of the issues involved, the initial wound began to fester. Several speakers scheduled to appear at the convention (including officials from the Obama administration and leading civil rights activists from across the United States) agonised over whether or not to participate in the event. In the end, most speakers did attend out of respect for the Arab American community, but made comments about their disagreement with the decision about Jandali.

My organisation, the Arab American Institute (AAI), did not initially make a statement because we did not want to become involved in a fight within the community. We decided to speak out only after it became clear that the ADC’s leaders were being unresponsive, failing to recognise the damage they had done.

Our statement outlined our concerns, saying: “First and foremost is our concern for the dedicated staff at ADC, as well as for the organisation’s membership across the country ... The silencing of Mr Jandali has unfairly harmed and cast a pall on the hard work done by ADC’s staff to make this convention a success ... Finally, this behaviour by some of ADC’s leaders will be used to discredit the group in the public’s eye.

“We believe that the spirit of the Arab Spring across the region is something to honour and celebrate ... That is why we honoured the ‘youth of Arab Spring’ and that is why we believe Mr Jandali should have been free to perform Watani Ana.”

If there is any good news to emerge out of this messy affair, it is to be found in the reaction of ADC staff and young activists from across the country. Incensed by the questionable judgement displayed by the group’s leadership, they have begun a national discussion and campaign of their own demanding an explanation and accountability. As positive as this new energy is, there is something sad about it as well. With all the challenges that Arab Americans are facing in the United States and in addressing the US handling of crises in the Middle East, it is distressing to see so much energy focused on ourselves, when we should be advocating for community. Nevertheless, I feel confident that the effort will in the end strengthen the ADC and the Arab American community.

There is, however, one final issue that I believe must be driven home, and that is my conviction that the Arab Spring belongs to Arabs in their own countries, not Arab Americans.

The United States has always had “exile” groups whose attachments and identities have remained tied to their homelands – some for or against the many governments or political movements that exist in the Arab world. I remember the Lebanese factional fights of the 1970s, the Palestinian feuding in the 1990s, the squabbles between supporters of the Iraqi and Syrian regimes and, also in the Iraqi diaspora, the work and damage done by Ahmed Chalabi’s group.

This is the nature of exile politics, shared by every ethnic immigrant community in the US, and it is OK as far as it goes. But as the Arab American community has progressed, we have shed sectarian and factional divisions. We have defined a shared agenda to strengthen, empower and defend our community, and to advance the goal of making the United States better, stronger and smarter in the way it relates to the Arab world. That is the reason AAI has argued that “the change we need begins at home”. Our job is not to be a supporter for this or that revolt. The exile groups do that, as they have a right to, but our job is to press the United States for a foreign policy that promotes justice, human rights, peace and prosperity.

Our hope is that the lessons learnt from the mini-drama of the last week can move us forward as a community to confront the challenges we face in defending civil rights and liberties, advancing immigration reform and advocating for a more balanced American Middle East policy.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute