MILLIONS OF ARAB CITIZENS TOOK TO the streets in almost every major Arab city on the 10 June 1967 proclaiming their intent to reverse the consequences of the June 1967 war, the third Arab-Israeli war, and their determination to defeat Israel's attempt to establish its dominion over the region. Arabs, in their multitude, understood that such an undertaking had two aspects. On the one hand, a military option to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and a diplomatic option to engage the United States, Israel's primary benefactor and protector, were required. On the other hand, the conduct of the war made it amply clear that the Arab status quo was no longer viable. Their societies were in need of radical reform.
Arab-American academics and professionals, who founded the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) in 1967 and immersed themselves in building it, shared many of the same perceptions. My association with AAUG began in the 1970s. Earlier, as a graduate student in Canada, my activities in the public field were focused on the mobilization of Canadian Arabs at the local and national levels through the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF). CAF was established in 1967 to represent Canadian Arabs on issues of public policy. Following my graduation in 1973, I returned to the Arab world to assume a teaching position at Kuwait University. Naseer Aruri was spending a sabbatical that year in the Department of Political Science. He introduced the AAUG to his colleagues immediately after his arrival and was very successful in recruiting new members and supporters from among their ranks. These included an elite circle of accomplished scholars from various academic disciplines and different Arab nationalities, some of whom were recognized political or social activists, such as As'ad Abdul Rahman, Walid Khadduri, Adrian Shihab El Din, Khaldoun Al Naqib, Hassan Al Ebraheem, Faisal Al Salem, Mohammad Rabi', Ahmad Tarabain, and many others. Naseer's personality exuded confidence; his intellectual vigor and his mannerisms endeared him to all. Soon, with Naseer in the lead, we succeeded in holding a joint AAUG-Kuwait University conference in Kuwait which exceeded our expectations. Naseer returned to his post at Southeast Massachusetts University leaving many friends behind. After that year, Naseer and I continued to work together on public issues and maintained a special friendship which endures until today.
My association with AAUG became intermittent. During my seven-year stay in Kuwait, I helped organize and participated in AAUG conferences held in the U.S. and Kuwait, contributed to AAUG publications and built a network of supporters for AAUG in the Gulf. It was a time when Arab nationalist sentiments and thought dominated the region, especially in Kuwait, a country whose infrastructure and economy were built by Arab professionals and whose educational system was manned by Arab teachers to a greater extent than in any other Arab Gulf country most of whom depended on foreign educators. Between 1979 and 1990, when I joined Harvard, McGill, and then the University of British Columbia, I became totally immersed in the XVII annual convention in 1984, President in 1985, ex officio member of the board in 1986, reelected to the Board in 1988, and Board of Editors from 1987-1990. In addition to the time and effort spent on AAUG affairs in the U.S. and Canada, I was also traveling repeatedly in the 1980s to the Middle East at the head of AAUG delegations or by myself to raise the funds that were needed. Over all in that decade, I volunteered some six to eight weeks each year on AAUG business. I could not have maintained such a schedule had it not been for the support of my wife and two of my brothers, Mohammad and Nabih. They understood how much I was committed to the success of AAUG. Since 1991, my involvement in the workings of the Association has been minimal. Given my record at AAUG, my observations are more pertinent to and representative of the 1980s.
Until about 1990, AAUG remained the leading national Arab-American organization in the field of scholarship. Its intellectual output gained prominence in three areas: the publications' program of books and booklets, a scholarly journal and the annual conventions. Over the years, it published a significant number of high quality original manuscripts on Arab issues, the Palestinian cause, Israeli politics, Arab-Americans, and the Middle East policy of the U.S. These studies were written by AAUG and non-AAUG members, Arab and non-Arab scholars, including noted intellectuals such as Joe Stork, David Hirst, Cheryl Rubenberg, Amnon Kapeliouk, Claudia Wright, Glenn Perry, Livia Rokach, Israel Shahak, Noam Chomsky, Carolyn and Richard Lobban, W.T. Mallison, Janet Stevens and many others. The publications program also included the Mideast Monitor, Special Reports, Information papers and Occasional Papers on topical issues. The AAUG collection of publications offered an alternative library to the pro-Israeli, anti-Arab literature widely available to U.S. readers.
In 1979, AAUG established the journal Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ) to augment the publications program. Within a relatively short period, ASQ established itself as a leading periodical in the field of Middle East studies. By 1986, ASQ was ranked among the top three US-based academic journals on the Middle East, and one of the top twenty most read academic journals in the U.S. (From a letter written by Fouad Moughrabi to the then President of the AAUG, Halim Barakat, dated 2 January 1986). In addition, the Journal attracted renowned intellectuals from many nations and disciplines.
The third major field of intellectual activity was invested in the annual convention. These meetings served several purposes. AAUG's most active members assembled to consider, debate, and deliberate. Arab scholars, statesmen, political leaders, journalists, literary figures, artists, and activists were also invited to address the members and to participate. They enriched discussions by sharing their thoughts and experiences with the conferees, while gaining insight into the research and analytic contributions of Arab-American intellectuals. On several occasions, noted Arab guests told AAUG members that they and other Arab diaspora intellectuals were the best hope for an Arab world where free speech remained constrained, corruption was rampant, and tyrannical rule abounded. The message Mohammad H. Heikal brought to the 1984 convention was illustrative and probably most moving. He said, "Come as near to us as you can. Come to us as often as you can. Get involved as much as you can. Come and share your thoughts with us, and don't put any limitations on your thinking" (Mohammad H. Heikal, "The Future Arab World: An Overview," in Hani A. Faris ed., Arab Nationalism and the Future of the Arab World, 9). Professional links and lasting friendships were built between the two groups.
Conventions also offered young Arab scholars a forum to present their research to a gathering of colleagues and to learn from more established scholars. The conventions succeeded in activating and politicizing numerous individuals who established, at a later date, organizations in the fields of advocacy, information, community mobilization, human rights, and political lobbying. Meanwhile, holding the convention in a different city every year brought the Association closer to Arab-American communities across the U.S. Often, as many as one thousand or more members of the local community attended the conventions. Not surprisingly, the conventions provided AAUG with a continuous source of new recruits and support. Last, but not least, internationally recognized individuals gravitated to the conventions to proclaim their solidarity with popular Arab causes which were the basis of the AAUG platform. Progressive Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism, justice for the Palestinians, solidarity with third world struggles and balanced socio-economic development formed the core of AAUG beliefs. The annual conventions of the AAUG, which became the largest grouping of organized Arab intellectuals outside the Arab world, were especially attractive to reform-minded elements everywhere. The resounding success of AAUG in the field of scholarship evidenced in the above three areas was the direct result of the distinguished qualities of its core members. They were leading academics and professionals in their fields of expertise.
AAUG began to experience major constraints by the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some date these constraints as far back as 1974. The organization was overstretched and overloaded, yet still overreaching. From the outset, it had compensated for its limited financial resources with volunteerism on a wide scale. Often, tasks were done out of the homes of its members. Members also undertook missions on behalf of the Association at their own expense. With time, an expensive bureaucracy developed to serve an expanding structure and ever increasing number of projects and to take on the work previously shouldered by members, now burned-out who suffered from over-exertion and fatigue or from disillusionment. The divisions the Arabs experienced as a consequence of Sadat's policies regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, the Iran-Iraqi war, the intra-Palestinian clashes and other crises affected the cohesiveness AAUG had previously enjoyed. Differences surfaced whenever AAUG announced a position on contentious issues and the membership base eroded. By the late 1970s, the human resources of the AAUG were dwindling and it was failing to replace the funds being spent. The organization had to rediscover its raison d'etre in the 1980s.
At the time I was elected President, AAUG had an overstretched organizational network with limited efficacy. Other than the board of Directors, there was an Advisory Board of Past Presidents, Technology, Medical and Youth sections, and the Finance, Chapters, Membership, Program Development, Publications, Public Affairs, Education, Youth Trip and N/NGO standing committees. AAUG also had local chapters in Detroit, Eastern Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Montreal, New England, New York, North California, Ohio, Texas, and Washington, D.C. AAUG had the network but not the human and financial resources to maintain it.
Faced with a grave and threatening situation, one of the first decisions I took as President was to assemble a task force made up of former presidents from the New England area. It was comprised of Abbas Alnasrawi, Naseer Aruri, Elaine Hagopian, Abdeen Jabara, Mujid Kazimi, Faith Zeadey, and I. The group met at the National Office in Belmont, Mass., for three days in February 1985. Those attending were asked to consider three issues: to define the elements of a long-term strategy for the Association, to assess the value of ongoing activities of the AAUG in light of such a strategy, and to propose projects for 1985 that would serve this strategy. Participants submitted position papers in advance of the meeting. The deliberations involved the most thorough review and assessment of the organization and its activities ever undertaken. A detailed review of the workings of this task force is, therefore, warranted.
Without exception, the position papers referred to the future prospects of AAUG as dim. One participant wrote, "The day of reckoning is at hand whether we are willing to face the issues squarely or not. That paper proceeded to state, "In view of a situation in which the powers that be and the base upon which these powers rest are anti-Arab, reactionary, motivated by immediate self interest and horrendously myopic, AAUG may well be an exercise in futility." A second participant noted, "It is surprising that AAUG has been able to stay active for so long." A third wrote, "... the Association, given its depleted human and material resources, its battered consensus, its aging and worn-out leadership; together with severe blows to the movement back home, has reached a point of no return." The papers made it clear decisive actions were needed to save the Association.
On the basis of the discussions, a working paper containing the recommendations of the task force and entitled Future Directions for the AAUG was drafted by Susan Ziadeh, Director of the National Office and myself. The principal conclusions were presented within five headings. The first, on the nature of the Association, defined AAUG as an:
Organization of educated Arab-Americans who strongly identify with their Arab heritage and have intellectual and emotional interests and concerns with issues common to Arab-Americans and the Arab world. They are conscious of the effect U.S. politics has on the Arab world and mobilize their skills and energies to alter the harm inflicted on the Arab people as a result of these policies.
The second, on objectives and audience, assessed the Association's performance in its eighteen years of existence and ranked the precedence which the Association gave to its activities in the following order: educational; establishing ties among Arab-American professionals; political action through coalition building; image building for Arab-Americans and transfer of professional skills. As for audience, AAUG activities were found to be the most effective among Arab-Americans holding views in consonance with the Association's objectives and aims, politically conscious Americans interested in the Middle East, and Arabs, especially in the occupied territories.
The third, on expectations, recommended that educational and political activities be undertaken in concert with an aim to mutual reinforcement. It declared the vision the Association held that the provision that an alternative literature would result in a better informed American public and a more evenhanded government policy was unrealistic. The fourth, on projects and resources, directed that a series of meetings be held with prominent members of major African-American and Hispanic organizations. Meanwhile, activities were to concentrate on two major issues: U.S. aid to Israel and conditions in Israeli-occupied Arab territories. It was also decided to arrange a speaking tour to major cities in the U.S. and Canada for a noted figure from south Lebanon and to recruit a community organizing officer. As for fund-raising, a redirection of efforts from overseas to local sources was deemed essential. The new focus would be Arab-Americans, American corporations doing business in the Arab world, and Arab corporations with branches in the U.S. The fifth and final heading, on structural reforms, proposed changing the By-Laws to allow for a staggered Board. Of the eight elected members, four would be elected each year to serve a two-year term. The Board would appoint two members who would serve for one year only. The rationale behind the proposed changes was to allow for greater continuity and to complement the Board with experiences and talented individuals from among the membership. In closing, the task force called on the Association to hold a similar exercise every few years as a form of self-examination and revitalization.
The work of the task force reinvigorated the AAUG to some extent. Measures were adopted to reform the structure, streamline operations and prioritize activities. A restructured Board, with the assistance of those who served on the task force, rededicated itself to reforming and energizing the Association. Among the adopted measures was the decision to rationalize spending and "to create a more secure and dependable financial base." To that effect, all programs were placed under review. The one program that needed special consideration was the Arab Studies Quarterly and a review process for it had been initiated the year before. The funds needed to maintain the journal made up the largest item in the budget and, given the drop in donations, was jeopardizing the financial health of the organization. A committee made up of Baha Abu Laban, serving as Chairperson, Abbas Alnasrawi and Naseer Aruri, serving as members, was formed to assess and recommend a course of action to save the journal and to assist the Association. Their report to the board, submitted in October 1985, presented recommendations under three headings: autonomy and self-sufficiency, content evaluation, and management. In the process of trying to implement the recommendations of the Special Committee on the Future of the ASQ, major differences surfaced and further split developed among the members.
AAUG succeeded in buying itself more time. A small number of people, determined to keep AAUG alive, expended, for the next several years, an inordinate amount of time and effort to raise the funds needed to keep the organization going. Income between 1986 and 1989 ranged between about a quarter and a half million dollars. These efforts notwithstanding, the organization failed in two areas: controlling spending and raising the donations it hoped for from local sources. Overseas donors remained the primary source of income and were critical to the Faith Zeadey, dated 7 July 1989.
1990 was a turning point when the organization began a descent to oblivion. Divisions within the ranks reached unprecedented levels and AAUG began to fragment and to lose direction. Membership dropped in that year by about 22 percent. In addition, financial problems assumed crisis proportions. For the first time in more than two decades, the Board was not able to organize even one overseas fund raising trip. Instead of doubling efforts, decisions were taken to reduce the National Office staff to one, cancel the annual convention, reduce the number of Board meetings as well as programs and publications. Understandably, the organization descended into a downward spiral. A lower level of activity meant less exposure and that, in turn, discouraged donations. (See Riad Abu Laban's, Treasurer's Report to the AAUG Membership, dated 29 November 1990). The possibility of have to let AAUG 'Die a slow or a natural death' was considered. (From a letter dated 4 February, 1991, by Rashid Bashshur, chairperson of the Committee on the Future of AAUG, to the members of the committee and past presidents of AAUG). To avert a total collapse, the Board sold the National Office building which was the only remaining worthwhile asset the AAUG had.
Understandably, the sale proceeds provided temporary relief for the next few years. It was a last stop-gap measure--a blood transfusion for a dying patient. A concerned effort launched in the last few years by a group of past presidents led by Naseer Aruri failed to resuscitate AAUG. In its present form, it survives on life support. For all practical purposes, the chapter has closed on AAUG--the longest and most serious attempt at organization that American and Canadian Arab intellectuals have undertaken to improve the image of their communities and to build bridges to their adopted societies.
The 40-year record of AAUG offers the next Arab-American generation a number of lessons. Foremost, there was, and there continues to be, a need for a vehicle such as AAUG to build bridges of mutual respect and understanding between the Arabic-speaking communities in North America and fellow citizens. AAUG promoted this objective through the development and dissemination of accurate information. This is what it did best, given the nature of its membership. However, while it succeeded in the production of information, it failed in distributing it, but not for lack of trying. It faced national newspapers, television and radio information networks disproportionately biased and hostile. The electronic media now presents opportunities not previously available, and young and educated Arabic-speaking generations have mastered its tools. It presents the best venue for spreading information in massive volumes and in bypassing what is in effect a boycott of Arab viewpoints.
The AAUG record also reveals a set of lessons that explain the ultimate decline of the Association. First, officers and members of the Association never had a common conception of what the raison d'etre of AAUG should be. Instead, different perceptions of what it stood for developed: an educational organization, an information vehicle, an ethnic society, a political organization, a special interest group, a lobby, and an ideologically motivated group. Whenever they came into conflict with each other, these perceptions weakened many members' enthusiasm for and identification with the Association. Second, the confusion as to the exact nature of the Association led to the diffusion and dissipation of the material and human resources available to the Association. It was not that AAUG did not do enough. An examination of the record reveals an impressive volume of activities. Rather, the problem with the AAUG was its willingness to undertake too many projects in various fields, all at the same time. Consequently, the Association moved in many directions, but its activities did not leave a lasting imprint because they were not sufficiently concentrated or focused and lacked follow-up.
The challenge was great and in its enthusiasm to fill the gaps, the leadership dissipated its limited human and financial resources. Third, for a number of reasons, the solidarity of the "old guard" which provided the Association with purpose, direction, and cohesion in the earlier stages cracked. When this nucleus fragmented, the Association began to splinter. Fourth, and finally, the organization had an elaborate program and structure requiting a significant and renewable amount of financial resources. The leadership recognized AAUG was in a precarious position as long as it depended on overseas donors. Yet, repeated campaigns aimed at members and community failed to meet minimum targets. Essentially, the decline of AAUG is attributable, in large part, to the failure of AAUG members, leaders, and the community to provide their Association with the needed resources to keep it alive. Perhaps the younger generation of Arabic-speaking Americans will rise to the challenge again.
Hani Faris is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Political Science and a Research Associate in the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He has held academic affiliations with Kuwait University, American University (Washington D.C.) Harvard University, McGill University & Simon Fraser University. His areas of specialization are Lebanon, the Arab/Israeli Conflict, Developing Areas, and Conflict Resolution.…