Our columnist, a leader in the Arab American community, reflects on 35 years of progress in building identity and capabilities for Arabs in the US.
Arab Americans are taking their place in US society
Two events last week pushed me to reflect on my community and the trajectory of our progress in American life.
On Wednesday, after I delivered a briefing to Arab League Ambassadors on developments in Washington, one of the diplomats asked me a rather pointed question about the organisations and accomplishments.
I answered, I hope to his satisfaction, by noting the progress we have made during the past four decades: organising ourselves and securing our identity; defending our heritage against defamation and ourselves against discrimination; and developing the capacity to provide services and support to our community.
A better answer to the ambassador's question sat around a table the next day at a luncheon for the 16 young people the Arab American Institute helped to find summer intern posts this year. Most of these impressive individuals are Arab Americans, diverse in their backgrounds - Christian and Muslim, native-born and recent immigrants from a variety of Arab countries. Some have come to us directly from the Arab world - Yemen, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Tunisia. A few are not of Arab descent, but have come to learn more about our community and our work.
These graduates from prestigious colleges and law schools were selected from hundreds of applicants. One is working at the US mission to the United Nations. Four have taken posts at Washington think tanks. Others are in Congress, media institutions and advocacy groups.
To understand what this means to an old-timer like me, I must take you back about 35 years to when I first came to Washington, to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, a group I had cofounded in 1977. Back then, there were only four Arab Americans working in community-based organisations in Washington. Most think tanks and advocacy groups who worked on our issue concerns had no Arab Americans on staff.
Back in the 1970s, there really wasn't much of an Arab American community. Most people of Arabic descent didn't even identify as "Arab American". Instead, they used their country of origin, or religion, as their preferred self-identifier.
Since then, we've built institutions that have enabled us to define ourselves as a community. We had to face down many challenges: some internal - from those who wanted to emphasize our differences of religion or sect or country of origin - and others external from those who made a determined effort to exclude us and sidetrack our efforts to be recognised and included in the mainstream. Our polling shows that in the last 20 years, the percentage of people of Arab descent who call themselves "Arab American" has doubled.
We also developed the capacity to defend those whose rights have been violated, to assist recent immigrants with basic needs, to use our networks to help young Arab Americans advance in government and public service; to work with local communities to support their empowerment and to defeat those who seek to defame our heritage or exclude us from full participation in civic life. Finally, maybe most importantly, we have been able to elevate public service, especially service to the community, as a career option for hundreds of dedicated young Arab Americans.
The Washington I see today is dramatically different from the city of 35 years ago. Today we have two vital national Arab American organisations - the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Arab American Institute (AAI). Next weekend ADC and AAI will host a joint meeting during an ADC convention. They have invited over 40 Arab American groups, in an effort to foster coordination on programmes and policy matters.
Most major think tanks and advocacy groups now have Arab Americans in residence or on staff. We are part of coalitions dealing with foreign and domestic policy concerns, something that was denied to us three decades ago. Most significantly, Arab Americans are working at all levels in every branch of government, and playing leadership roles in both political parties.
We are fully aware of our limitations and where we have not met goals we set for ourselves. But we also recognise what we have, in fact, accomplished. A friend once chided me, saying "Zogby, let's just say you see the glass half full, and I see it half empty'". I responded, "just a short time ago we didn't even have a glass. Now we do, and we're filling it up, slowly but surely".
And so to those who say "what have you done?" I am proud to say "come to our offices and ask our interns why they are there and what they are doing". Despite hailing from a rich variety of backgrounds - with families from every part of the Arab world - they have come together with a commitment to serve their community. That consciousness, that commitment, and those opportunities to serve didn't even exist 35 years ago. Now they do and, as a result, good work is being done by and for Arab Americans. That is the kind of progress of which we can all be proud.
James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa