Arab Americans lead the charge for US civil liberties

Arab American activists are not only organising across faith and colour lines in the US, but beyond its borders.

International Women''s Day 2017 in New York
Activist Linda Sarsour is arrested for blocking the street in Columbus Circle during a rally and march marking International Women's Day on March 8, 2017 [Justin Lane/EPA]

Before Linda Sarsour was an organiser of the Women’s March, which the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration mounted the largest protest in US history, she was an Arab and Muslim American community organiser in New York City, building bonds with New Yorkers of many other ethnicities and faiths.

Sarsour is a prominent example of the many Arab American community leaders across the country joining forces with others across faith and colour lines to form a united front against what many consider to be the aggressive and bigoted policies of the Trump administration.

The sheer breadth of American communities – people of colour, women, the working class, disabled persons – threatened by the Trump administration has inspired Arab American community leaders to hurriedly build on long-standing collaborations with non-Arab compatriots, community leaders say.

Together, they are organising for besieged American civil liberties – strategising over how to protect and bolster each other amid growing turbulence in the United States and beyond.

And they’re drawing from a tradition of Arab resistance to more than a century of colonial subjugation. Imperial administrations have traditionally aimed to divide and conquer, they stress. Communities were divided along socioeconomic, religious and cultural lines – the conquerors exacerbated in-fighting among the conquered and unevenly applied policies of oppression.

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All in the same boat

Arab American community leaders see that same philosophy driving the presidency of Donald Trump, as certain communities are – objectively, per the nation’s own court rulings on proposed travel restrictions for people from Muslim-majority nations – targeted for discrimination.

Intersectionality is central to the work of these Arab American community leaders. 

“Most of our work is done in coalitions. This is intentional,” explains Lara Kiswani, director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) advocacy group in San Francisco, California. “We come from a tradition of Third World liberation movements in solidarity with one another. We understand that we are more powerful and more effective when we shape our work according to the value of joint struggle.”

For many, intersectional organising is about human empathy and strength in numbers.

“We have always understood that social justice for Arabs and all people cannot be won without real, principled unity with other oppressed communities and working people,” says Hatem Abudayyeh, director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago.

Rashad al-Dabbagh is the founding director of the Arab American Civic Council. Like Kiswani and Abudayyeh, they were at the airports, organising with non-Arab Americans to call for the release of travellers from Muslim-majority nations trapped in holding centres following Trump’s travel ban.

“There’s no way we’d be able to survive without unity. That’s why it’s important to work together with all of our communities – Latinos, Asians, LGBT groups, African Americans, Indigenous peoples. Our struggles are linked,” he says.

“Right now, we’re at a point in history where we cannot afford to work alone,” Dabbagh adds.

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Carried through generations

These community leaders are not the first generation of Arabs to feel this way. In one prominent example, at the onset of the Algerian war for independence from French colonial rule, for instance, the National Liberation Front famously wrote a series of letters to Algerian communities, across cultural, religious and economic lines. The letters’ message was clear: Join forces with your nation against second-class citizenship; together, the last shall become the first.

For many, Trump’s presidency has further highlighted the reasons for intercommunal activism.

“When our president and other officials want to use us as a scapegoat and blame us for everything going on, the only way to react is to resist. That’s why we see more and more people taking the lead,” Dabbagh says of Arab American activists.

Dabbagh spoke to Al Jazeera a few days before attending an event where members of interethnic and interfaith groups present each other’s members with letters on a variety of topics relating to civil liberties. The letters are addressed to elected officials in Washington. The campaign has the dual objective of pressuring legislators to act on their constituents’ behalf and also allowing previously distant communities to familiarise each other with their problems and find common ground.

“Trump’s administration has forced us to deepen our work around community self-defence. It has unmasked US imperialism, racism and xenophobia. It has also unmasked a history of resistance, cross movement building and solidarity,” says Kiswani.

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AROC in recent years has mounted – together with a host of California Bay Area communities – a protest against Urban Shield, a police training and weapons expo in the California Bay Area. The police tactics – and often artillery – used in the US police’s extrajudicial killings American people of colour are often the same kinds of tactics and artillery used by Israeli forces in the extrajudicial killings of Palestinians, Kiswani – who is Palestinian, like the other community leaders who spoke to Al Jazeera for this article – recalls.

Just after the Trump administration’s second attempt at a Muslim ban, Kiswani’s AROC was “able to mobilise 500 to the San Francisco Federal building to make a pledge of resistance that we will not only fight for those unable to enter the US. We will also fight for the rightful owners of this land, the indigenous people of the Americas, to stay. We will fight for the working class and poor communities to stay despite displacement and gentrification. We will fight for all migrants suffering from the devastation of US foreign policy to be able to move freely. And we will fight for all people, all refugees, to have the freedom to return to their homelands,” she says.

Racial profiling 

Abudayyeh’s AAAN is working on activism against rampant racial profiling affecting people of colour across ethnic backgrounds in Chicago.

“We are closely connected to a number of campaigns, including one with the Chicago Teachers Union to make all Chicago schools real sanctuaries, and this includes protections for undocumented immigrant students and black students,” he says.

Abudayyeh is not only drawing on the past to inform the present; he also sees his community’s struggles in the US in concert with struggles around the world.

“We always connect local issues in the US with issues abroad. It is a cruel irony that the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans, who have been coming here nonstop since the 90s, are doing so because economic policies of NAFTA and CAFTA forced them from their homes. The same is happening with the six countries affected by the Muslim ban. All have been bombed, occupied, droned, or threatened with war by the US. Again, we force them off their lands, and then we say to them, ‘You can’t come here!'” he says.

“We have said for decades that to justify war, occupation, and foreign policy in general, the US government needs to criminalise Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants here – put a local face on the ‘enemy’ abroad. More and more people are understanding this, and are beginning not only to reject the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiments, but to realise that our wars in the Middle East are not ‘humanitarian’ ones, but only fought to expand empire.”

Kiswani agrees that people in the US must see their organising in concert with the world beyond its borders.

“It is a responsibility for us not to shy away from saying we will not normalise occupation, apartheid, colonialism, war here or anywhere. And it is a responsibility on our parts to fight alongside all oppressed communities, including the indigenous people of this land, to expose how the US-Israeli partnership strengthens US imperialism, makes wars possible, and furthers the devastation of Third World people globally,” she says.

These community leaders – beyond US borders – are governed by the philosophy of experiencing solidarity in the struggles of others. They are governed by a long-standing revolutionary ethos – born semantically in America, with roots in so many other traditions – of united we stand, divided we fall. Or perhaps it’s the Chilean revolutionary ethic of: The united people will never be defeated. Or perhaps the Arabic revolutionary slogan: The people demand the end of the regime.

Source: Al Jazeera