Q&A – Hussein Ibish

The Arab American activist and analyst gives his take on U.S. policy toward Arab Americans and the Middle East.

By Judith LeBlanc Mar 01, 2007

As the executive director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership and Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, you deal with both the domestic and foreign policy concerns of a very diverse community. Give us a picture of the makeup of the Arab-American community.

The emphasis for many is on their country of national origin rather than on a broader Arab-American identity.

There are religious and ethnic minorities, who in many cases are marginalized, disenfranchised and involved in conflicts in the Arab world that the Arab identity has not been broad enough to include in the last 60 years.

There are also class divisions that are important in the Arab and immigrant community; and divisions also based on how assimilated people are and when their families arrived in the U.S. [There are] big differences between those who arrived pre-and post-World War I and post-1967 when the immigration laws changed.

How did 9/11 change the outlook of the Arab American community?

It was not changed that much. I don’t believe that any of the organizations that exist, whether they are Arab-American or Muslim groups led by Arabs, have particularly increased the scope or size of their membership since Sept. 11.

But a whole group of people was energized to get involved by Sept. 11 and the backlash who were not involved before. I would say another group, smaller but significant, was either discouraged from doing stuff that they did before or strengthened in their disinclination to get involved with anything in the U.S. with the words "Arab" or "Islamic" attached to it.

It’s very common for those of us who’ve tried to organize in the Arab community to be faced with this reality. If you make a pitch for a donation to Arab American organizations, you will very often receive cash, but on condition that the cash is given anonymously. What this reflects is [the belief] that there is an American mukhabarat or secret police that is collecting secret and hostile files on everyone who gets involved with organizations that are Arab and Muslim.

This, I would argue, is not the case and certainly not the way they imagine it to be–as the first step on the road to jail.

There’s a widespread perception that there is a social or political cost to join organizations, partly because there is much rhetoric about the scope of the government’s activities towards Arab Americans post-9/11. There’s been a great deal of publicity, and rightly so, on the civil liberties crisis facing the immigrant community. It’s been very much a crisis.

But very few people have noticed something that is crucial. The picture is extremely different when you cross over to citizenship. The government has restrained itself to a large extent, although there have been some egregious instances.

The political discourse tends to allay the distinction between citizens and immigrants. That’s right and proper, for the purposes of solidarity, and I agree with that.

However, for the purposes of sound analysis, you have to understand that the government takes that distinction very seriously. If people believe the community is under siege, which is a word that is used a lot, they may behave as though it is under siege, whether it is or not. I would argue it is not under siege. That word is total hyperbole. If your community were under siege, then it would be sensible to shy away from things. The community is not under siege and not the citizen part by any means.

What issues does the community share a consensus on?

The overwhelming majority holds a couple of opinions. First, the Arab community is facing unreasonable and onerous problems, both from the government and the rest of society. Number two is that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has to change, which has a huge consensus. But how to deal with the first problem and effectuate the second is a subject of enormous division.

What happened in the 2006 midterm congressional elections?

With every election, you see more and more Arab-American involvement. The community was part of several key races that were crucial to winning the Democratic Senate majority.

On the other hand, a big majority of the Arab community is not politically active or still not involved in electoral or partisan processes where the decisions are made, for good or ill. It’s not as if you can’t be active without partisan politics. It’s the most direct route. It’s very hard to be effective without that. You have to develop a voice through the media or through grassroots activism.

What role can the Arab-American community play in changing the Bush administration’s foreign policy? Are there new openings due to the 2006 elections?

No, there aren’t new openings due to the 2006 elections; there are new openings due to the fiasco in Iraq.

At times, the public will weigh in as they did in the 2006 elections. That was an unusual moment of the American people speaking almost unanimously on a foreign policy issue, [saying] get the hell out of Iraq immediately.

There is a real opening for Arab Americans who’ve built up credibility with the national security establishment or who have a presence at the grassroots level or in the media. It’s clear that the Bush administration’s approach hasn’t worked.

The war in Iraq has created an entirely new strategic situation in the Middle East–one that is incredibly dangerous and challenging for the U.S.

Iran has emerged as the regional superpower counter-hegemony to the U.S. Very remarkable. Many policies of the Bush administration have catapulted Iran into a position with a level of power they couldn’t have dreamt of two to three years ago.

The Middle East has divided into two clear camps: a pro-American camp and a pro-Iranian camp. The problem is that the U.S. allies feel they have been dragged into the situation. An even bigger problem for them is to be in alliance with Israel, due to the occupation of Palestine. So there is a lot of pressure on the U.S. to solidify its own camp by taking a more serious, constructive line in regards to Palestine. That is precisely the cause for the positive changes we have begun to see, both rhetorical and policy.

And who will be a part of the struggle to change U.S. Middle East policy?

In the first place, it’s the Arab groups ourselves, but also pro-peace Jewish organizations, who are an important counterpoint to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which supports the line of whatever government there happens to be in Israel.

There is a whole class of liberals in Congress, especially the Congressional Black Caucus, who have an independent foreign policy view that is supportive of Israel but not slavishly so–they understand the need for Palestinian rights and do so in moral terms.

Also, we have a big and influential group of allies of Republicans who are realists, conservative realists. Realists reacting to first of all a changed strategic environment and secondly to the neoconservative outlook, which involves a bizarre conflation of U.S. and Israeli interests to the detriment of the U.S.

With the looming 2008 presidential elections, what is the national political impact of the Arab-American community?

There’s a silver lining to the incredibly huge dark cloud of Sept. 11 for Arab Americans. After Sept. 11, [there is] almost no one in the U.S. [who] is not aware that there’s a large, important Arab-American and even larger Muslim community.

The notion that we have something important and serious to contribute is growing. Increasingly, there are more Arab Americans in senior positions. And those Arab Americans are happier to acknowledge their heritage and admit that they are part of the community and have that help shape their views.

We have six to seven Arab Americans in Congress. Not a record number, but they are more open about their heritage than they used to be. Now it is possible for an Arab American to get elected.

Although Keith Ellison is not Arab or an immigrant, his election to the Congress is very significant. In the minds of many people in the U.S., these communities, Arab and Muslim, are often conflated. It is significant for us that Ellison makes no bones about being a Muslim. That did not stop a majority Christian and white constituency in Minnesota from electing an African-American Muslim.

Arab Americans seem to feel, particularly immigrants, but not only, that the system is somehow closed to us. That it will work for everybody else but not for us because of racism, the strength of the opposition, Jewish groups and so on.

My argument is that it’s not that the community is disempowered. It’s that the community has latent power, which it has never chosen to exercise. That’s the reality. We have to get people to see that.

There’s far too much in the discourse in our community on how victimized we are and how vulnerable, how exposed and under siege we are. It’s very important to take your own problem seriously and defend ourselves, our rights, interests and dignity.

Judith Le Blanc is national co-chair of United for Peace and Justice.