Arab Americans: Confronting Challenges, Learning Lessons

This 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 American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s (ADC) annual convention. It appears that Jandali had insisted on including "Watani Ana", a song about freedom, in his repertoire–”and that some leaders at ADC had been equally insistent that the song be dropped. With no meeting of the minds, Jandali was dropped from the program.

Bloggers, especially those looking for a way to draw blood from an Arab American organization, had a field day with the story. The irony of a civil rights organization refusing to allow a song about "freedom" was an open invitation to critics, as were suggestions that a few ADC leaders acted as they did out of support for the regime in Damascus. For more than 24 hours, the Arab American group said nothing, insuring that the story would grow legs. When they finally issued a statement, it was so infuriatingly oblique and/or evasive, that the situation went from bad to worse. By not addressing whether the Jandali performance had been banned and by not dealing with any of the issues raised by such an action, the wound created by the initial decision festered. As a result, several speakers scheduled to appear at the ADC convention (both those from the Obama Administration and leading civil rights activists from across the U.S.) were forced to agonize 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 added comments making clear their disagreement with the decision on Jandali.

My organization, the Arab American Institute (AAI), not wanting to engage in an intramural fight, did not initially make a statement. We decided to do so only after it became clear that the ADC’s leaders were being unresponsive, failing to recognize the damage they had done. Our statement, in part, outlined our concerns, saying:

"First and foremost is our concern for the dedicated staff at ADC, as well as for the organization’s membership across the country (in fact, we overlap in membership and we often partner with ADC staff on initiatives here in Washington). 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. It also hurt ADC’s members who look to this organization for leadership as the country’s largest Arab American civil rights organization. Finally, this behavior by some of ADC’s leaders will be used to discredit the group in the public’s eye, weakening its ability to carry out its indispensable mission.

"Predictably, this episode has opened the floodgates for critics of our community and our work, from within and without.  We, at AAI, do not want to get into an intramural fight which would benefit no one; but we think it is important to make our position clear. We believe that the spirit of the Arab Spring across the region is something to honor and celebrate–”in fact, we have paid an all-encompassing tribute to it during our Gibran Gala a few weeks ago. We did not take this position because we are pro- or anti- any government. We are Americans and our government is here in Washington. Rather, what has moved us was the energy and the hopes of young people across the Arab World who have at great risk peacefully demonstrated calling for freedom and opportunity. The use of state violence to stamp out this movement has been horrifying to witness and demanded a response from us. That is why we honored the ‘youth of Arab Spring’ and that is why we believe Mr. Jandali should have been free to perform ‘Watani Ana’."

Now if there is any good news to emerge out of this messy affair, it is to be found in the reaction of ADC’s staff and young activists from across the country. Incensed by the questionable judgment displayed by the group’s leadership, they have begun an intense national discussion and a mini-campaign of their own demanding an explanation and accountability. But as positive as this new energy is, there is something sad about it, as well. With all the challenges we are facing both here at home and in addressing our country’s handling of crises in the Middle East, it is distressing to see so much energy having to be focused "among ourselves" when we should be advocating "for ourselves". Nevertheless, I feel confident that the effort will, in the end, strengthen the ADC and our community–”and that is a good thing.

There is, however, one final issue that, I believe, must be driven home in any discussion within the Arab American community, and that is my conviction that the "Arab Spring" is "theirs", not "ours".

We have always had "exile" groups here in the U.S. 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 faction fights of the ’70’s, the Palestinian faction fights in the ’80’s, the squabbles between the supporters of the Iraqi and Syrian regimes, and the work/damage done by Chalabi’s group in the ’90’s. This is the nature of exile politics (and is, I might add with emphasis, a characteristic shared by every ethnic immigrant community in America) and it is OK for some, as far as it goes. But as Arab Americans have matured and progressed, we have shed these sectarian and factional divisions and come to operate as a unified community. We have defined a shared agenda to strengthen, politically empower, and defend our community, and to advance the goal of making, our country, America, better, stronger, and smarter in the way it relates to the Arab World. That is the reason we, at AAI, have argued that "the change we need begins at home".  Our job is not to become a support group for or against this or that revolt. That is what the exile groups do, and have a right to do.  Rather, our job, as Arab Americans, is to press for an American foreign policy that promotes justice, human rights, and peace and prosperity.

Our hope, then, is that with the lessons learned from the mini-drama of the last week, we can move 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 that is more responsive to the needs of the Arab World and its people.