There are important differences between the Arab and broader Muslim
immigrant experience in Europe and that of the Arab American and
American Muslim communities in the United States.
First and foremost, there is the fact that America itself is
different, both in concept and in reality. I have heard third
generation Kurds in Germany or Algerians in France complain that
they remain on the margins of their societies. With difficulty they
may obtain citizenship, but not the identity of being German or
French. On the other hand, becoming "American" is a process that
has brought countless immigrant groupings into the US mainstream.
Being "American" is not the possession of a single ethnic group,
nor does any ethnic group define "America." Within a generation,
diverse ethnic and religious communities from every corner of the
globe have been transformed into what we know as Americans.
Problems remain, to be sure, and intolerant bigots periodically
rear their heads, but as US history demonstrates, the pressures of
incorporation and absorption are decisive. "Becoming American," in
the end, means more than obtaining a passport and a set of legal
rights. It also means adopting a new identity and absorbing a
shared sense of history. At the same time as each new group has
entered the American mainstream, the concept of America, itself,
has been expanded and transformed.
I recall a rather remarkable meeting of US ethnic leaders with
former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in the
White House Cabinet Room. We had been convened by the president as
part of his effort to win support for his "One America" initiative,
to heal the US' racial divide.
Rather spontaneously, individuals seated around the table began
telling their own immigrant stories or the histories of the
difficulties their communities faced as they sought acceptance in
the American mainstream. At the end of this sometimes emotional
session, Clinton observed that all of the stories combined were the
collective American story. They were, in fact, the shared history
of the "One America" he was seeking to promote.
Because of this unique American experience, recent Arab and Muslim
immigrants come into a society that is more prepared to accept them
and see them as enriching the already complex American mosaic.
Immigration is not new to America; it defines the nation's
experience. Therefore, ethnic and religious organisations abound. A
foundation based on diversity and acceptance already exists with
fertile ground prepared to accept new communities and to include
them in the ever-broadening definition of America.
After 9/11, for example, when Arab Americans and American Muslims
felt threatened by a backlash, support was immediately forthcoming
from a broad coalition of Asian American, Hispanic American and
African American organisations as well as a host of other ethnic
and religious groups that came to our defence. It is worth noting
that these groups constitute over one-third of the American people!
On this same note, it is worth pointing out the importance of the
foundation built by an earlier generation of Arab Americans.
Because the Arab American community has already formed
comparatively strong organisations that have paved the way for
acceptance, more recent immigrants, despite difficulties, find a
supportive network in place. While the earlier immigrants formed
groups that were secular (including both Arab Christians and
Muslims from all regions of the Arab world), they have provided
both support and models for more recent religion-based
Another important difference between the European and US experience
is the extraordinary social and economic mobility that is possible
in the US. I have heard some argue that the reason Europe's Muslims
live marginalised and alienated, in ghettos, while Muslims and
Arabs in the US are now integrated, is because the immigrants to
the US were white-collar professionals, while those to Europe were
uneducated labourers. This is simply not true. The US and Europe
have each had their share of the Arab "brain drain." At the same
time, in recent decades, the US has taken in tens of thousands of
North African Arabs who started as waiters; Yemenis who come as
farmworkers and dockworkers, Lebanese autoworkers and Syrian
steelworkers, Egyptian and Palestinian cabdrivers and poor Iraqi
Shia refugees as well as thousands more from South Asia.
They do not remain in the lower socio-economic strata, because they
have found that opportunities for enterprise abound. Within a few
decades, for example, thousands of Yemenis worked their way out of
California's fields into small business ownership in a number of
states. While each new generation may experience initial hardship,
the progress made by Arab Americans and American Muslims is a
record to be proud of.
None of this should suggest that Arab Americans and American
Muslims do not face discrimination, share deep frustrations with
American foreign policy and have real concern with threats to their
civil liberties. But because they are American they voice their
anger and concern as citizens, not as aliens.
Events of the past two weeks are worth noting here. The day after
July 7, for example, all of the Arab American, South Asian and
Muslim groups were brought together in a conversation with the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This was part of an ongoing
dialogue and partnership with DHS and an extension of the working
relationship that has been built with the new leadership at the
Department of Justice.
Not only have all of the groups repeatedly condemned terrorism, but
also the government officials with whom we work have continuously
reaffirmed their support for the rights of these communities. The
DHS conversation was followed by a community briefing with the
Democratic leadership of the US Senate and a meeting with the
chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
None of this is to suggest that extremists do not exist here. But
it is they, and not the communities themselves who are on the
margins. The Arab American and American Muslim groups are ever
vigilant to deal with and ostracise these elements. While this
mindset existed prior to 9/11, the shock of that horror only
sharpened the resolve of the community to shun extremism.
That the communities have done this while not being silenced as
political constituencies sharply critical of disastrous US foreign
and domestic policies is a tribute both to their viability and
self-confidence, and to the openness of the US process. That's the