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America Decides 2004 Domestic Issues Trump Foreign in Views of Many Arab Americans

October 21, 2003
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The imam finished his sermon — a parable about a corrupt emir and a diseased flea — and told his congregants, crammed shoulder to shoulder on the floors of the mosque in this depressed Rust Belt town, “One more thing.”

A senior officer in the Pentagon has equated Islam with Satanic ritual, Imam Hassan Qazwini told his congregation, the largest in the city, and congregants must phone, fax and e-mail the White House to demand the officer’s dismissal.

“We have to speak up,” Qazwini said in Arabic-accented English. “You have the power, brothers and sisters, to make a difference.”

Such an appeal — unimaginable just a decade ago — marks a watershed in the political maturity of the American Arab community.

Immigrants from Arab lands who once thought speaking out was a waste of time at best, and an invitation to hostility at worst, are giving way to a second generation that has found its voice.

“I see the depth of political commitment among my following, especially the youth,” the Iraqi-born Qazwini told JTA. “We cannot isolate ourselves in this society. We are participants in this society.”

A conference of the Arab American Institute over the weekend, which drew hundreds of Arab Americans, was as proudly Arab American as is this town. Arabic neon signs line broad, busy roads here, competing for attention with billboards touting Wendy’s hamburgers, sex toys and drinking emporiums.

And along with the pride comes growing political influence for this country’s growing Arab community.

Qazwini, for instance, was the clergy representative selected to open the 108th session of the U.S. Congress.

The perceived electoral consequence of Arab and Muslim Americans, and their concentrations in swing states like Michigan, drew a roster of top politicians from both parties to the conference here last weekend.

Among them were seven of the nine Democratic candidates — an unprecedented show of political deference to the community estimated to number between 3 and 4 million nationwide.

“Our issues are the nation’s issues; the nation’s issues are ours,” James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said on Friday evening, capping the first day of the conference. “The country our children will grow up in is different. We have crossed the threshold.”

Singled out for special attention were a dozen Arab Americans holding or running for political office, from those on local councils to Gary Nolan, who is running for president on the Libertarian ticket.

The symbolism was overpowering for some.

“I want my boys to know that they can be the next president of America, inshallah,” said Itedal Shalabi, a social worker who deals principally with Arab Americans, using the Arabic term for “God willing.”

Shalabi, an immigrant from the West Bank who wears a traditional scarf, drove four and a half hours from Chicago to attend.

What the burgeoning influence means for U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was a principal focus of the conference. Indeed, the most common question for the candidates was how they intended to force Israel to dismantle the security barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

The politicians have to think about what both sides, Arab and Jewish, are saying, Zogby said. “The discussion is changing,” he told conference delegates. “They’re saying things better than a year ago. This is new. We are in the process of beginning to change how they talk.”

Some national Jewish organizational officials have noted increased political activity on the part of Arabs in the United States, but they say those efforts will have little effect on foreign policy.

“They have been spending a lot of money and a lot of time organizing, including candidates for city council and on up,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “U.S. foreign policy is driven by U.S. interests. People look at issues objectively and see what Israel stands for, America stands for.”

In heated hallway discussions, another theme emerged from many of the conference participants: How important are conflicts an ocean away to a generation of Arab Americans trying to assimilate into an American culture about which they are now proud?

“The elders have the wisdom of our traditions, but our future is here,” said Jordanian-born Wafa Aborashed, who is running for a local council seat in San Leandro, in northern California. “This is where we live. When we go overseas, we’re not identified as Arabs. We’re identified as Americans.”

Naraman Taha, a colleague of Shalabi, the Chicago social worker, said, “There is an identity crisis, the younger generation does not want to be identified as Arabs. We’re proud of our heritage, proud to be Muslim, but we want to assimilate.”

Second-generation assimilation is hardly unusual among U.S. immigrants. For Arab Americans, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their aftermath constituted a watershed event.

“Sept. 11 was a wake-up call for Muslims, because we realized if you were not involved, it would move against you,” said Eide Alawan, an assistant to Imam Qazwini.

The moves by Attorney General John Ashcroft, and the security measures in the Patriot Act he helped shepherd through Congress, helped unite a community long considered divided on all but the Israel-Palestinian issue, community activists say.

“The Patriot Act was a galvanizing issue for a lot of different world views, from fourth-generation Lebanese Christians to Palestinians who have just arrived,” said pollster John Zogby, James Zogby’s brother.

Tales of arrests and detention without legal consultation, and the prospect of federal agents dropping into mosques to listen to sermons, lent Arabs and Muslims who never gave a second thought to domestic issues an issue to rally around, said Muqtedar Khan, a social scientist at Adrian College in Michigan. Khan tracks Muslims in America.

“They saw what can happen when things go bad,” Khan said. “Who will protect their rights?”

At the conference, each Democratic candidate for president earned cheers by promising to repeal at least parts of the act.

Sept. 11 also spurred many American Arabs and Muslims to feel the same rage at being attacked that their compatriots did, Khan said. “Sept. 11 put the ‘American’ in Muslim American,” he said.

Marine Sgt. Jamal Baadani tours Dearborn high schools in his uniform to pitch the armed services and occasionally fields comments from stunned Arab American students who wonder how he could join a military now occupying an Arab state.

“They have to know what comes first is their country,” said Baadani, who immigrated to the United States from Egypt.

Many Arabs say Sept. 11 also helped throw their sense of Americanness into relief.

“No other country, much as we criticize it, is as wonderful,” Shalabi said.

That new sense of belonging has led many Muslims and Arabs to consider other domestic issues not often considered a high priority by Arab Americans. Young Muslims have set up study groups to develop political positions on such issues as abortion, genetic engineering and gay rights.

Some cast such outreach as a strategy to advance issues dear to Arab Americans — especially when addressing what many Arab Americans consider to be a lack of balance in the Middle East.

Others say the bread-and-butter issues are fast becoming the point.

“We can’t be the foreign policy people solely,” said Marwan Kreidie of Philadelphia. “Make sure we’re involved in the health care debate, the jobs debate.”

Shalabi said the number of clients she has who lack healthcare has appalled and politicized her. Learning about health care has led her to examine — and care for — other hot-button issues.

One question is whether such interests will supplant the passion Arab Americans feel for the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conference suggests it won’t — none of the politicians could successfully squirm away from questions on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

But away from the conference, there are signs that the Middle East is not the fire starter it once was for Arab Americans.

“I’m a local issues guy,” said Kamal Nawash, a Jerusalem-born candidate for the Virginia Senate. “You can’t get far focusing on international issues alone. To appeal to the heartland of America, you have to assimilate.”

In Dearborn, Alawan, whose father emigrated from Syria, toured the construction site of the congregation’s new mosque over the weekend. He pointed out a balcony for women, allowing them greater participation in the services than they would have in the Middle East, and the modern steel girders reinforcing the minarets.

A flood of refugees from the Lebanese civil war necessitated the new mosque, which will accommodate 1,200 worshipers, he said. That it is in a nice neighborhood of Dearborn, and that it is funded locally and not by Saudi money, is also significant, Alawan indicated.

“In America, you can be a Republican, I can be Democrat,” Alawan said, hoisting his grandson in his arms. “We can argue all night and still survive.”

Earlier, in his sermon in the older mosque, Imam Qazwini referenced a phrase from Americana as he exhorted his congregants to political action.

“Like it says in the thing of allegiance, what is it?”

“A pledge,” one congregant murmured.

“The pledge of allegiance,” Qazwini said. “Liberty and justice for all.”

He read out the telephone number to White House’s complaint hotline. “Write this down,” he said.

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