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April is Arab American Heritage Month

Apr 25,2022 - Last updated at Apr 25,2022

April is Arab American Heritage Month. It may not be a big deal to some, but for those of my generation this recognition represents a half century of struggle to overcome outright bigotry, political exclusion and ignorance about who we are, our history and our contributions to American life.

Unlike many other new ethnic communities struggling for acceptance in American life, Arab Americans have had to not only build up ourselves and our community institutions, but also confront unique challenges and roadblocks that have been placed in our way. In media and popular culture, Arabs were negatively stereotyped, depicted in crude caricatures. When we organised as a national political movement, powerful forces were arrayed against us, insisting that we be excluded from the political mainstream. And in our education, the contributions made by Arabs to human civilisation were ignored, as were the roles played by Arab Americans in politics, culture and business.

The trajectory of our community’s growth during the last half-century has been a steady ascent. Hundreds of Arab Americans have been elected to significant governmental posts, served in presidential Cabinets, and been appointed to high-level positions. Exclusion from politics has become a thing of the past, as Arab Americans today play key roles in US politics on the national and state levels.

Not only that, but we are proudly manifesting our identity and our culture and cleansing them of the negative stereotypes that had been imposed to tarnish them. Our history and language are being taught. Our heroes are now known. And we are even fighting to reclaim our food from those who have sought to culturally appropriate it (as Israeli) or strip it of meaning (calling it Middle Eastern or Mediterranean).

Those who mobilised to exclude us were afraid that should our voices grew stronger we would challenge their exclusive control of the debate over Israel/Palestine. They even went so far as to refuse to see us as an ethnic community, caricaturing us instead as a “single issue” anti-Israel lobby. We have overcome their narrow-minded bigotry and established ourselves as a key constituency in political coalitions on issues ranging from Middle East policy to civil liberties, hate crimes, immigration reform and voting rights.

When we first sought formal recognition of an Arab American Heritage Month on the national level, the effort failed because some political leaders feared the political repercussions of acknowledging us. That is no longer the case. This year, President Biden issued a proclamation from the White House in which he wrote:

“The history and story of the Arab American community is deeply woven into the diverse tapestry of America. This National Arab American Heritage Month, I thank the community for all that you have done to help move us forward and for representing the best of who we are.”

The National Education Association and the chair of the Democratic Party issued similar statements, as have governors and legislatures in 28 states (with more to come). Additionally, the White House is planning a number of briefings for community leaders on a number of policy concerns. 

As I noted at the start, some may cynically dismiss these as “hollow gestures”. But in the context of our struggles to earn respect and recognition, the significance of these statements becomes clear. We most certainly have more to do to change American policy, to secure the full democratic rights of our community, and to ensure that future generations learn the truth about our history and culture. The important fact to remember, however, is that we are now better positioned than ever before to take up these critical tasks.

On hearing me make this case, a critic sarcastically commented that I was just “seeing the glass as half full”. I responded that it wasn’t about the glass being half full or half empty, because I remember when we didn’t have a glass at all. Now we do and we’re working hard to fill it. We’ve gone from being ignored, defamed and excluded to being recognised and honoured as a respected American constituency. That’s called progress.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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