Arab Americans Win a Victory

“…we believe that the Arab American community is an important constituency, and we are sensitive to your concerns. For this specific one pre-scheduled national event in Michigan, this request will be acceptable.” [From a letter from the Democratic Party Chairs of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and granting Arab Americans a special waiver.]

With these words, Arab Americans won an important victory in their continuing effort to secure the community’s role in the political mainstream

As I reported last week, because we found ourselves in the crossfire between Michigan that are called “the four early states” (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina), the success of this year’s Arab American National Leadership Conference (NLC) was at risk. This quadrennial event historically takes place in Michigan, the year before the Presidential election. At the NLC, Arab Americans gather to debate the issues in the upcoming election and plan the community involvement in the campaigns. After years of exclusion, the last two NLCs also featured appearances by Presidential candidates, marking a breakthrough for Arab Americans in the U.S. political process.

But when Michigan moved up the date of its primary to mid-January, interfering with the role played by the four early states, these states retaliated by asking the candidates to sign a pledge committing not to campaign in Michigan. When all of the major Democratic candidates signed the pledge, Arab Americans feared being left out in the cold.

We appealed to the Democratic Party chairs in the four early states, and based our appeal on the following points:

  • Our National Leadership Conference is a national conference, offering Arab Americans across the U.S. their only opportunity to engage the candidates during this election process. Therefore, candidates appearing at our event should not be penalized for “campaigning in Michigan.”
  • The NLC date and venue were set long before this conflict between Michigan and the four early states began. Therefore, we should not be penalized.
  • Arab Americans have experienced political exclusion in the past, with candidates, at times, rejecting our support and avoiding our events. While it was certainly not the intent of the “four state pledge,” a consequence of its enforcement in this instance would be to politically sideline Arab Americans.
  • The concerns of Arab Americans are central to the national debate in 2008 and, therefore, it is critical that we hear from the candidates, and that they hear from us. This final point is of central importance, and I was grateful for the opportunity to elaborate upon it in my discussions with the party leaders.
  • Our NLC, for example, will bring together a diverse range of Iraqi Americans. No group knows better the impact that the war has had on the people of Iraq, the plight of Iraqi refugees, and the consequences of failing to “get it right.” These Iraqi Americans deserve to be heard, and can help inform the national discussion.
  • Similarly, Lebanese and Palestinian Americans know all too well the consequences of continuing strife in their lands of origin. And, because they maintain contact with their families and the broader region, they can speak to the impact that U.S. policies have had on American image and standing in the broader Middle East.
  • And Arab Americans, especially the most recent immigrants among us, have experienced first-hand the erosion of civil liberties and the threat to personal freedoms in this country. Arab Americans, especially those who are Muslim, have experienced, as well, the decline in civility in our political discourse. We have been targets of hate crimes in record numbers, and can speak of discriminatory practices in our immigration process.

On all of these issues, Arab Americans can make an important contribution to the national discussion. These are not “our issues;” they are, in fact, the nation’s issues. They are the issues at the core of the 2008 debate about how American projects its values to the world in policies and actions.

And so, for all these reasons and more, Arab Americans have a role to play and do not deserve to be sidelined in the 2008 contest.

What is important here is that our concerns were understood and supported by the party Chairs of the four early states. Though understandably protective of the opportunity presented to their states by virtue of their first in the nation status in the primary process they, nevertheless, granted Arab Americans this special waiver to be heard by and hear from the candidates.

The challenge now shifts to the candidates to respond and accept the Arab American community’s invitation to appear at our National Leadership Conference. There is, as well, a challenge for Arab Americans to get organized and respond to the opportunities made available to them by a political process that rewards those who participate.