Hussein Ibish: The Arab American Activist and Analyst Gives His Take on U.S. Policy toward Arab Americans and the Middle East

By Le Blanc, Judith | Colorlines Magazine, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Hussein Ibish: The Arab American Activist and Analyst Gives His Take on U.S. Policy toward Arab Americans and the Middle East


Le Blanc, Judith, Colorlines Magazine


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. …

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