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Arab Americans still evolving into an effective political force, says leading US intellectual

CHICAGO: The Arab American community has seen many successes, mainly on the economic and education fronts, but continues its advance to achieve the desired level of political influence, says Arab Center Washington D.C. Executive Director Khalil Jahshan.

Jahshan, who has been working with Arab Americans since his college days in the 1970s, called their current involvement in politics an “evolving process,” adding that “nobody makes it in this country except on a gradual basis, step-by-step.”

During an appearance on The Ray Hanania Radio Show, Jahshan said it is a natural progression, although they are nowhere near the level of activism achieved by, for example, the Jewish American community which creates the imbalance in US policies toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“We haven’t done bad as a community over the past 120 years of immigration. We have done best economically and educationally in this country. But politically it has been slow. Again, we have some impressive gains and they need to be built on,” Jahshan told Arab News Wednesday.

Jahshan said Arab Americans need to expand their political activism and engagement, noting that activists are a small minority in the community while the majority tends to remain inactive in advocacy work in the pursuit of political empowerment.

Part of the reason is the fact that Arab Americans, in general, immigrated to America over the past century, beginning in the late 19th century, from colonized countries where political participation was virtually non-existent. These early immigrants tended to have a limited sense of political efficacy, the sense of having the power and opportunity to change politics, said Jahshan.

“Frankly what delayed us and slowed down our progress in this country is our low propensity to be (politically) active, to be visible, to be involved in issues that are relevant to us as a community,” Jahshan said.

“Those who were born here didn’t know the issues, so they waited and waited … for the ‘Holy Spirit’ to strike. And those who came as new immigrants didn’t know the system. So they waited … until a (new) generation emerged that knew how to plug into the (social and political) system. When you look at us today as a community of some 3.7 million Americans of Arab origin, we are still not as involved as we should be.

“When you compare us, let’s say, to the Jewish community which is about twice our size and with at least 3 million American Jews involved in political organizations that represent their interests, we have to ask why we don’t have half of their organized membership. We don’t have that. We don’t even have 300,000 Arab Americans involved.”

Jahshan said the reasons for Arab immigration has varied widely over the past 120 years, which also sees a diversity in the community in terms of educational background and country of origin.

“The early phases of our immigration as Arab Americans tended to seek acceptance through quick assimilation. It was as you said wisely and correctly that their immigration was related to conflict in their homelands. It was related to famine before. It was related to economic crises in the region. So, it took several immigration waves to simply adjust, survive and make it and become part of this American melting pot, this mixed society, this fattoush,” he said.

Early priorities included the preservation of cultural identity, the Arabic language, and connections with the old country.

“First, they attempted to make sure that Arabic survived (here in America) as their preferred mode of communication. They felt that language survival is crucial to culture survival and the continuation of our Arab identity. So, the early phases of Arab American journalism was in Arabic. It was uniquely American journalism, yet it was Arab at the same time.”

Besides lagging behind other communities in activism, Jahshan said Arab Americans must do more in philanthropy to help those in need, but also to support communal causes. Securing one’s rights and role in American politics is a very expensive enterprise and the community needs to do more in this regard, he added.

Jahshan said another major factor impacting the slow evolution of engagement and influence is Arab confessionalism and ethnic fragmentation. The lack of secular identification within the community did not help either.

Explaining that he was not criticizing the importance of faith and religion in the Arab American community, but religious affiliation has tended to overshadow the common cultural identity, especially in the mainstream US news media.

“As a person of faith, I have no problem with people having their own faith be they Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever they are. But at the same time, our identity shouldn’t be colored by our confession. Our religion shouldn’t trump our politics so to speak.”

Jahshan said the mainstream news media exploits these issues and “tends to oversimplify” the community in terms of its diversity, and avoids “in-depth” coverage.

Jahshan noted the Arab American immigrant communities did have their own Arabic language media outlets, but it was only recently that significant numbers of individuals have turned to journalism as a profession, to enter an industry that has so much influence in terms of creating group definitions and stereotypes.

“I am very encouraged by the new generation in terms of their increased activism, particularly those who are going into journalism and public service,” he said.

The Ray Hanania Show is broadcast live every Wednesday at 5 p.m. Eastern EST on WNZK AM 690 radio in Greater Detroit including parts of Ohio, and WDMV AM 700 radio in Washington D.C. including parts of Virginia and Maryland. The show is rebroadcast on Thursdays at 7 a.m. in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Chicago at 12 noon on WNWI AM 1080.

You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.