A ‘teaching moment’ for Arab Americans?

Arab Americans should look beyond their differences and come together as revolutionaries of the Mideast came together.

Lebanese Americans at DC rally - to go with Khaled Beydoun piece
Rather than marginalising one another even abroad, Arab Americans should take a page out of the revolutions sweeping the Arab world [CCMatthew Dailey]

The revolutions sweeping through the Arab world and North Africa captured the world’s attention.

Will the Arab and national Diasporas in the West mobilise to help their countries of origin through processes of reform?

Those of us who care about the futures of our homelands should work together, in solidarity with the young leaders spearheading progressive change in the region.

As an Egyptian American with family who marched into Tahrir Square and faced the force of police batons and gunfire, the revolution that commenced on January 25, 2011 had as much a personal slant as it did a political one.

This is true for many Americans, whose ancestral homelands are currently experiencing the sort of democratic awakening, or dawn, they believed impossible just several months ago.

Blaming the ‘other’

The United States is home to an eclectic and diverse population of Americans who are originally from the Arab world and North Africa – from as far east as Bahrain, and as westward as Mauritania.

Like the region they hail from, Americans from the Arab world are diverse and eclectic, but also disconnected and divided.

Those of us in the Americas, Europe and elsewhere share common narratives of displacement and struggles against the forces that drove us and our parents from the region.

The success of organic and popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the unfolding movements in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, and the call for reform in Sudan, Algeria, Saud Arabia, Palestine and other nations, represents a burgeoning spirit of cross-national affinity built upon a common call for reform.

Dictators holding on to a precarious brand of control have perpetuated regional disunity by blaming domestic uprisings on others, such as “meddling” Tunisians or Egyptians in the words of Libya’s head, Muammar Gaddafi.

A different tale

The people on the ground are telling a different tale, one of solidarity and inter-regional linkages. A frequent symbol of this is the conjoining of different national flags – Tunisia or Egypt’s usually – in protests and online forums.

The names of other countries’ leaders, deposed or soon-to-be deposed, are used in chants and slogans to drive home the same point – the need for reform.

This new-found unity in purpose – the fight for peoples’ rights – should not turn us blind to the diversity of the region.

The rich array of ethnic and religious communities makes calling these uprisings “Arab” or “Muslim” very difficult.

North African states boast indigenous Berber nations, who faced considerable persecution (particularly in Algeria), while Egypt is home to a vibrant Coptic community that has also endured considerable discrimination and violence before Mubarak was unseated, and after, sadly.

The Egyptian Muslims who rose up to protect their Coptic brothers and sisters in the face of attacks represent the type of solidarity we should all strive for.

Arab identity is also particularly contentious in Sudan and Lower Egypt, home to Nubian and African populations that preceded the incursion of Arabs.

Ethnic, religious and sectarianism is most pronounced in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, where an amalgam of peoples were consolidated after the introduction of the nation state into the region by western powers.

The remaining Arab nations cannot be classified as ethnically or religiously homogeneous, whether because of indigenous populations or the presence of large numbers of non-Arab guest workers.

Americans who hail from the Arab world and North Africa embody the region’s heterogeneity. We have important differences in racial and ethnic ancestry, complexion, dialect, religion, and with regards to the latter, sectarian and confessional affiliation.

To speak of Americans from the Arab world and North African in singular terms may expedite social or political convenience, but it establishes a distorted image of these Diasporas as homogeneous and currently politically united. This representation is inaccurate.

Political integration undermined

A range of factors undermined the political integration, and unity, of these Diasporas.

First, the platform has been dominated by Arab Americans, specifically from the Levant countries and Egypt, who have prioritised their national concerns and marginalised the others. For example, while Palestine is a central cause, these revolutions expose the problems of Arab repression as well.

Second, one cannot overlook the latent role of racism, or a pigmentocracy that privileges those with lighter skin, as a dividing line. In the Middle East and North Africa, as with some other regions, a premium is put on those of lighter skin colour. This is retrograde and destructive, and has no place in modern thinking.

Third, religion is a critical factor: Christians from the region generally have an easier time assimilating, while their Muslim counterparts – particularly amid today’s rising tide of Islamophobia – are being pushed toward America’s societal fringes. At the same time, some Muslim political movements have unfairly treated the region’s Christians as the enemy and the region as monolithically Muslim.

We have to move from this politics of difference to a unity of purpose. Today’s movements for change should lead us.

If the diverse peoples of Tunisia and Egypt can organise across ethnic and religious lines to topple their repressive governments, then Americans who originate from the region can also come together politically to promote a more promising future in their adopted country.

Furthermore, the peoples’ victories in Tunisia and Egypt have surely inspired the swelling movements throughout the region. There is a proliferating spirit of oneness among nations in the Arab World. Yet, some resist it.

Indeed, Lebanese-Americans should champion the cause of democratic reform in Sudan, and Egyptian Americans must be not turn a blind eye to the calls for change in Bahrain, and so forth.

A new DAWN

Americans from the Arab world should not only emulate that spirit of unity, but also actively work in order to further the interests of their brethren at home.

Those living in America can support the people back home by pushing for sustainable democracies and reform throughout their region of origin. Our organisation offers a venue for solidarity action.

The organisation I co-founded, Democracy in the Arab World Now (DAWN), will embrace our differences in identity for the sake of a higher goal – building better societies.

Our platform avoids the divisions that have held back the countries and the region’s people from working together. It embraces the spirit of the reformers on the region’s streets.

DAWN aims to bring together leaders from the various Diaspora communities in the United States, and provide them with a broader audience to address their respective nation’s crisis or domestic concerns. In addition, we hope to translate experiential parallels into lasting bonds, where Lebanese, Sudanese, and Tunisian Americans, for instance, can speak to the media, Congress, and other venues of influence with a common chorus, instead of disjointed and less organised solo positions.

We are not Arabist, nor religionist, nor do we prioritise the need for reform in one country against the other. We could be said to be proceduralist.

Our main goal is supporting the processes of reforms in the region so that governments better represent all the peoples’ in their borders, from the country’s natives, to refugees and guest workers.

Governments that rule by repression and demagoguery have no right to rule – and our objective is to galvanise our Diasporas under this common banner.

Those in the Diasporas of all stripes, hues and political positions who trace their ancestry back to the region, should follow the lead of the reformers back home.

By working together, we can overcome the divisions and the top-down political structures and ideologies that have kept us all down, and promote a new dawn for the region – and our communities in the United States.

Khaled Beydoun is an attorney and co-founder of Democracy in the Arab World Now.