Unexpected Consequences

Identity & Resistance

One of the most consistent results across each of these disparate geographic areas is the dramatic impact on identity and self-image that has emerged in response to the unrelenting assault on community rights and family integrity. A very common comment from Arab interview subjects was that Arab Americans are beginning to realize that they are not, and most likely never will be, accepted as “white,” even though that had traditionally been the primary self-understanding of many Arab Americans and Arab immigrants. In different ways, young activists are beginning to reach out across traditional barriers, struggling to find ways to form a networks of mutual support with other immigrant communities and other communities of color. Traditionally quiescent communities focused on assimilation are beginning to re-evaluate the advantages of fighting back.

Most vocal in this process is the US-born second generation – young people in their twenties and thirties who grew up in the United States and are beginning to assert their identity — religiously, culturally, and ethnically — in the larger context of a progressive spirit of resistance and self-assertion. They understand the system from the inside and have a keen intuition about the trade-offs of the risks and benefits of resistance and political mobilization. Many of these activists are in turn beginning to have an impact on younger generations within their own communities, junior high school and high school aged youth.

A political realignment?

This is only one of the numerous consequences of the increasingly harsh repression of immigrants that the system’s policy planners doubtless never took into account. The Arab American community in particular, as well as Muslim immigrant communities in general, have traditionally tended to be a politically more conservative constituency, not surprisingly for a community with many small business owners and professionals. Some analysts have argued that the Arab American electorate handed critical votes to George W. Bush in the 2000 election, when community leaders urged their constituency to throw their support to the Republican Party. By the 2004 presidential election, 93 percent of Muslim voters, as well as a majority of Arab Americans, had changed their allegiance (see Resources for a detailed report).

In admittedly oversimplified terms, every act of government repression calls forth a range of responses, ranging from conservative spokesmen who counsel cooperation with the FBI to creative youth activists who see hip hop as a bridge to other young activists of color. Every act of hate violence calls forth a display of support from democratically minded elements of the community. Every slander against Islam provokes the formation of another interfaith coalition. Several interview subjects commented on the unprecedented level of interest in Islam and Muslim communities from outsiders – and on the unprecedented willingness of mosque communities to turn outward for support rather than exclusively inward.

As part of this overall process, Arab and Muslim immigrants are making common cause across previously insuperable barriers. In Los Angeles, Iranian and Arab immigrants, communities that have traditionally been distant from one another, are beginning to cooperate. In Chicago, Arab American community activists are beginning to talk about holding convenience store owners in their own community accountable for the way they treat their primarily African American clientele.

Also in Chicago, a young Iranian American activist with Voice in the Wilderness talked about the many bridges she built with Iraqis during the period of the sanctions – as people on both sides recognized that the bitter Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was fought by their governments, not by their peoples. She spoke also about her return to Chicago and the impact of this experience on her parents, Iranian expatriates, and their larger circle.

The Global Context

As with any immigrant community, political and economic realities in countries of origin play a central role in shaping the experiences, aspirations, and self-image of each succeeding wave of immigrants. Oil politics and US-backed wars in the Middle East and Central Asia have produced a dramatic increase in the number of Arab and Muslim immigrants to the United States. Established residents are being joined by waves of increasingly desperate refugees – fleeing the destruction of economic opportunity throughout the developing world caused by globalization and the destruction of everyday life in Palestine, as well as military conflicts and communal violence in Indonesia, Sudan, Kashmir, and elsewhere.

The community experience of demonization and stigmatization during the first Gulf War gave rise to new organizations like CAIR or MPAC, dedicated to defending their communities through modern communications and advocacy techniques. Such groups were already mature organizations by 9/11, able to develop sophisticated networks of support with legal advocates, advocates for religious pluralism, and advocates for civil and human rights.

In some ways, this experience echoes that of every immigrant community. In other ways, it echoes other historical experiences that have been heavily shaped by war fever, with the stereotypical image of today’s “terrorist” standing in for the “yellow peril” or “Soviet threat” of earlier generations.

In still other ways, it has entirely unique characteristics, owing to the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – in the contemporary political culture of the United States as well as the loyalties and sensibilities of most Arab and Muslim communities. In many areas of civil society that are normally supportive and receptive to immigrant voices, such as the educational system or arts institutions, Arab voices and especially Palestinian voices are routinely censored or stigmatized as antisemitic. Similar dynamics have emerged in struggles over civil liberties, academic freedom, and beyond.