Washington, DC - Throughout much of America's history, racial and ethnic minorities have faced hardships which have highlighted both the best and worst tendencies of our nation. The successes of the civil rights era are felt not just by African Americans but by all of our country's minority communities. Similarly, during World War II, Japanese Americans suffered internment but have since been at the forefront of protecting other communities suffering racial or ethnic prejudice. In the aftermath of 9/11, the responsibility of leading the struggle to protect civil liberties, keeping our nation secure and bridging the growing gap between the United States and the Arab world falls on Arab Americans.
As the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant, I have always had an interest in the status of the Arab American community as well as the relationship between the Unites States and the Arab world. After graduating from college, I moved to Lebanon to work as a teacher for AMIDEAST. My students included Lebanese from many of the country's diverse religious and ethnic communities preparing to begin their university studies.
Interacting with these students afforded me the invaluable opportunity to learn how young Arabs viewed my country. Through our discussions, I came to realise that the treatment of Arab Americans was a major contributor to their impressions of America: when Arab Americans suffer hate crimes or discrimination, Arabs also feel pain; alternatively, the acceptance and success of our community in the United States shows Arabs abroad that their culture, religion and history are respected.
Since 2002, the Arab American Institute has commissioned an annual survey in six Arab countries (Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) to determine impressions of America and the key factors involved in forming those opinions. The polls, conducted by Zogby International, show that while Arabs generally view American culture and people positively (although even these numbers have experienced a downward trend), attitudes towards American foreign policy are so negative that they drive overall favourability numbers to alarmingly low levels.
The good news is that large majorities in most countries (e.g. over 70% in Morocco, Jordan, and Lebanon) say that they would like to know an American, and a plurality of those who have travelled to the United States had a positive impression of their visit. Unfortunately, not many Arabs have actually had the opportunity to meet an American – the range is from only 14% in Saudi Arabia to 41% in Jordan - and even fewer have travelled to the US—from a high of 22% of Emiratis to only 9% of Moroccans.
This is where Arab Americans play a vital role. During this summer's war in Lebanon and the ensuing evacuation of American citizens, many Americans were surprised to learn that over 25,000 of their compatriots regularly spend their summers in Lebanon. This was not, however, a surprise to Arab Americans who have always maintained a tradition of visiting their countries of origin and remain dedicated to building positive relationships between their country and that of their ancestors. At the same time, for the majority of Americans who will never travel to the Arab world, their Arab American neighbours have embraced the opportunity to share with them the generosity and hospitality that characterise Arab culture.
Arab Americans serve as ambassadors not only at the individual level, but can, and should, be engaged by their government. The Iraq Study Group reported recently that of the 1,000 employees in the American Embassy in Iraq, only 33 speak Arabic, 6 of them fluently. While it is true that not all Arab Americans speak Arabic, there is a cultural intimacy and religious respect that Arab Americans—including Christian Arab Americans—possess which is invaluable to U.S. efforts to understand and act responsibly in the region in a manner that benefits both Americans and Arabs.
Moreover, both Arabs and Americans care deeply about family and education and large numbers in both societies reserve a significant role for religion in daily life. Why not emphasise these shared values rather than focus on the issues on which we differ? If, for example, the United States decides to aid in Lebanon's reconstruction by building a school in the southern village of Bint Jbeil, why not send Arab Americans whose parents came from that very village to dedicate the school as a gift from their government? The impact that a delegation of Arab Americans empowered and respected by their government would have throughout the Arab world should not be underestimated.
The relationship between the United States and the Arab world is in crisis and American credibility is at an all-time low. What we need is to build a different relationship. This entails not only a change in foreign policy, but creating different attitudes on both sides. Arab Americans can offer a representation of America that Arabs can trust, recognise and identify with. Let us help.
* Rebecca Abou-Chedid is the director of government relations at the Arab American Institute. This article is part of a series on diaspora communities and Muslim-Western relations distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 27 February 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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