America's diverse ethnic communities provide an alternative view of the uprisings in the Arab world.
The US views Arab uprisings through eyes of immigrants
The room was filled to capacity with members of the Democratic Party's Ethnic Council, with the uprisings taking place across the Arab world at the top of the agenda. The strong turnout at this recent meeting shows that far more than just those with Arab origins share the concern.
The council is an assembly of representatives from America's rich and diverse ethnic groups. Constituents come from all communities across the United States: Irish, Italian, Polish, Eastern or Central European, Haitian, Arab, Turkish, Armenian, Iranian, South Asian and more. Some are recent immigrants, while others are first, second or third generation US-born citizens. The diversity is self-evident. Not as obvious, at first glance, are the common traits and bonds shared by the council members .
Whether immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, members including myself are all proud of our lands of origin and demand respect for our individual heritages. As Americans, members share the experiences of our ancestors who came to this land seeking freedom and opportunity, faced down discrimination and hardships, worked hard, and became full partners in the American enterprise.
And as Democrats who strongly believe in the values of the party, members know from experience that government can be a force for good: lending a helping hand to those in need; providing essential services that serve the common good; and fighting discrimination and protecting the rights of society's most vulnerable.
For over a decade and a half, I have had the distinct honour to serve as a leader in this council, and now act as the chairman of the Ethnic Council's caucus in the party. Through the council, Arab Americans have secured a prominent role within the mainstream of American politics.
We have been able to show the effectiveness of our political organisation and in the process we have won allies and friends. Through political networking, we have had the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other communities and have also shared our own histories and concerns.
Some examples stand out. The first party sessions after the horror of September 11, 2001, were to be held in New York City, with Arab Americans increasingly the targets of hate crimes across the country. Having personally received death threats, I approached both the trip to New York and that meeting with a degree of trepidation.
However, my fears were unfounded. I was late, and found the meeting underway with the assembled group discussing a resolution that had been submitted by the Democratic Party chairman decrying the manifestations of hate and discrimination, and expressing solidarity with Arab and Muslim Americans.
A similar attitude was apparent this week, as Arab uprisings came under discussion. Arab Americans who were present were deluged with questions about the region, and a resolution was passed unanimously demonstrating strong support for the Arab people.
It is this sharing of experiences and knowledge, and the bonds that have been formed, that make ethnic politics so rewarding. Haitian colleagues of mine found much the same experience when their native land was devastated a few years ago. Irish Americans, too, found that their joy at the signing of the Irish Peace Agreement was shared, as did our colleagues from Eastern and Central Europe when Nato was expanded to include their once-captive lands of origin.
At times the meetings look like a mini-United Nations, with all the concerns but without the discord. At one meeting during the terrible Bosnian war, it was heartening to see the representatives from the Serbian, Croatian and Albanian communities sitting and communicating together. Likewise, the Armenian and Turkish colleagues continue to work together and support each another.
There are lessons to be learnt. First and foremost, when people are respected and empowered they can find common ground. They may not always agree, but through engagement they can at least learn from one another. As Jesse Jackson used to say, it is this uniquely American experience that ought to be exported.
In this context, it is also important for political leaders to understand the valuable resource that exists in the richness of America's diversity. This clear lesson is ignored by policy-makers most of the time. With direct familial ties, cultural sensitivity, and deep and personal knowledge about the history and hopes for their ancestral lands, these communities, if tapped by policy-makers, could provide valuable insight and direction. Too often, sadly, they are not.
Through the successes and frustrations, our ethnic council and component constituent groups continue to grow and assert themselves. We do so knowing that the role we play is vital to the well-being and success of our communities and the future peace and prosperity of America and the world.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute