A Diversifying, United Arab America
By: Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer
The first wave of Arab immigrants to the United States arrived in the late 1800s, bringing with them shared values and culture that would define what it means to be Arab American. The foundational identity laid by those families and their future generations brought the community together in times of joy and crisis, and it continues to serve as a cornerstone of the community today. As the community has grown and diversified in recent decades, additional cornerstones have been laid by new immigrants and young generations of Arab Americans who are committed to building a responsive shared identity for the future of the community.
It was in the 1960s after immigration laws were reformed to allow for emigration from the Middle East again, that a second sizable wave of Arab immigrants arrived in the United States. The predecessors to these new immigrants, who largely came to the United States to pursue work opportunities, spent decades establishing businesses and communities in populous cities, integrating their identities. The new immigrants, many of whom were leaving crises behind at home, brought with them the shared culture and a renewed appetite for political activism.
At various times and with varying degrees of inter-community collaboration, Arab Americans used their voices to advocate for change in their home countries, collectively for Palestine, and, eventually, channeled their momentum into domestic policy. Many of the Arab American victories secured in the last decades of the 20th century were fought in coalition with allied communities, like the Black community, a key feature of modern Arab American identity and organizing.
For reasons that may ultimately be summed up by recognizing, despite a shared ethnic identity, there were differences within the broader Arab American community, rifts formed and deflated some of the momentum in the Arab American collective. It was a real, “You had to be there,” situation that developed over time, and your author was not, in fact, there. In light of this, it seems best to advise anyone under 35 who also was not there to consult their parents or grandparents if they want details.
While the Arab American identity was still intact, it required thoughtful, intentional steps to progress and strengthen a growing community’s shared identity. This work was undertaken by leaders who built upon the community’s foundations to unite both experienced and new members to amplify the community’s power. As the makeup of the community became and continues to become more diverse and inclusive, these efforts played a vital role in paving the way for the newest generations of Arab Americans, a large number of whom are first-generation, to claim the identity in a way that is flexible, responsive, and effective for them.
Perhaps most distinguishing about the younger generations of Arab Americans is how far removed the majority are from the religious, political, tribal, etc affinities their older relatives carried with them into Arab American spaces. That is not to say there are no affinities, but they are now generally approached as a source of inclusion rather than exclusion. The transition to this approach is at least partially, if not entirely, thanks to the concept of intersectionality—the idea that every person lives as the intersection of multiple identities and systems of oppression.
Recently mainstreamed as a notion, intersectionality has helped young advocates recognize the multiple identities they carry, which develops an understanding that every person has a multifaceted identity impacting their life. This has changed the way advocates approach their work, how internal and external allies interface with each other, and what it means to work in coalition with others.
Greater empathy for the multiple identities individuals carry is increasingly translating into values-based advocacy. This advocacy is rooted in shared identities because they lead to shared experiences that cultivate shared values, especially among younger generations. An oft-cited circumstance is growing up in a post-9/11 world, a time that fundamentally changed how Arab Americans experienced the world. This shared experience developed prominent shared values that denounce religious-based targeting, violations of protected rights, and abuse of power, among others.
In practice, this values-based advocacy looks like Arab Americans calling for an end to wars and human rights violations all over the Arab world, speaking up for, or out against, their own Arab brethren as their values dictate. It appears in denunciations of officials who are complicit in executing a harmful U.S. immigration system that tears families apart, regardless of their religion, country of origin, socio-economic status, etc. In this vein, the values transcend inter-community work and allow Arab Americans to work collaboratively with other communities to see their values realized. The collaboration leads to more wins for their values, which are wins for all impacted communities.
This type of advocacy prioritizes the collective good over the personal. It allows people to be part of a greater community while maintaining their individuality without devaluing the collective identity. And this improved approach to identity and organizing works because it grows from a place of inclusion, weaving together stronger bonds between community members. From this place of unity, the Arab American community is going to be able to respond to needs and challenges for years to come as the community grows and diversifies. There is a bright future to look forward to that was made possible by the lessons learned from the last several generations of Arab Americans and the foundation they laid.
Heba Mohammad is a National Field Coordinator at the Arab American Institute