Arab-Americans Split on Saddam
Gulf crisis threatens to wrench community apart even as it begins emerging as national entity
WHEN Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait Aug. 2, the Arab Network of America (ANA) broke the news at 5:15 p.m. EST, says its Saudi-born chairman, Mohammed Badrawi. It was, he adds, three hours before President Bush was advised of the news and long before the American networks reported the story. Today, in the Washington, D.C., area, virtually every Arab-American - there are about 70,000 - is glued to ANA, which broadcasts in Arabic. And the network, which now transmits in the Detroit area and in Canada as well, has won the Arab-American audience there, too.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It is one sign that a growing US ethnic population, now said to number about 2.5 million, has found a sense of identity as a national group. It consists not only of small shopkeepers but of businessmen, physicians, and academics. Ethnic restaurants, bakers, and Islamic centers serve the community, but now so do local political clubs and national umbrella organizations aimed at mobilizing Arab-American voters to support political candidates and even elect Arab-Americans.
``There's an emerging Arab-American community that's playing a role,'' says James Zogby, executive director of the Arab American Institute, one of three national organizations representing Arab-Americans. ``We're growing up.''
But as the Gulf crisis escalates, this newfound ethnic community risks a deep and long-lasting schism.
``This is a divisive issue, and it's split the community in half,'' Mr. Badrawi says. Arab-Americans are divided not only over what Iraq did to Kuwait but over the US response. The signs of division are everywhere.
ANA, where several on-air journalists have taken the position that ``no Arab should covet another,'' now receives about 200 phone calls a day from listeners, some of whom deliver threats.
Abdul Aziz Duhill, a Saudi Arabian who lives in a Washington suburb, says his relationships with Iraqi-Americans have cooled since the crisis began.
``They used to be very harsh against Saddam Hussein,'' he says of Iraqi-American acquaintances, ``but now with Kuwait, he's not so bad. They have forgiven him.''
Fouad Taima, an Iraqi-American businessman, says that, in fact, fellow Iraqi-Americans are divided. Some support US attempts to corner the Iraqi leader; others, including him, adamantly oppose having US troops in the Middle East.
The Gulf crisis risks not only fracturing an emerging American ethnic group, but it could, if the US attacks Iraq, cause Arab-Americans to choose between their Arab and American identities, something American Jews have grappled with before.
``If the US attacked Iraq,'' says Dr. Duhill, ``it would be hard to find someone aligned with the Americans. We would not accept American planes destroying Baghdad.''
Part of the reason Arab-Americans feel so strongly about events in the Middle East and are so concerned about an American attack is that a large portion of the community is so new that many still have relatives in the region.
The first Arab immigrants came to these shores from Syria and Lebanon at the turn of the century; the trickle increased around 1910. Lebanon and Syria were, at that time, run by the Turks.
``Our first wave came without an Arab identity. I came as a Maronite. The notion of being Arab came much later.'' Mr. Zogby says. That came, he says, with the 1967 six-day war and with the second Arab immigration to the US, which brought thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip fleeing war and Israeli occupation.
``The Palestinian issue helped to unify the community,'' says Zogby, ``but the sense of Arab-American-ness was also fostered by the US civil rights movement and the beginning of ethnic-group consciousness that accompanied it.''