Arab-Americans Split on Saddam

Gulf crisis threatens to wrench community apart even as it begins emerging as national entity

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.''

Large waves of Arab immigrants fleeing civil war in Lebanon, oppression in the Israeli-occupied territories, human rights abuses in Saddam's Iraq, and poverty in Egypt helped to swell Arab-American ranks in the 1970s and '80s. The population grew by 25 percent in 10 years.

Today, Badrawi says, 36 percent of the Arab-American community is Lebanese, 22 percent Palestinian, and 20 percent Syrian. The Egyptians and Iraqis amount to about 5 percent each of the Arab-American population. Until today, Gulf Arabs mostly came to the US to educate their children and then return to their well-to-do countries afterwards.

Arab-Americans have largely settled in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, Chicago, and New York. Large portions of them have moved into mainstream US life.

They are not, as frequently pictured, men and women in long robes or chadors, speaking broken English and eating hummus in a pita bread. Many are assimilated in appearance and comportment. In the 1980s, national groups aimed at promoting their political interest emerged.

Today, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, headed by former US Sen. James Abourezk, monitors the US press, TV, and movie industry to sniff out anti-Arab bias and bring it to light - a job that he says will become more difficult as the hatred building against Saddam ``spills over against the community.''

The Arab American Institute, headed by Zogby, focuses on voter registration to maximize the influence of Arab-Americans. Zogby says that today there are 27 Arab-American mayors and Arab political involvement is growing.

``We've gone from a community to a constituency,'' he says.

But Arab-American leaders worry the divisions highlighted by the crisis in the Gulf could undermine the progress made in the last 10 years.

The divisions are deep and generally cut along national or sectarian lines.

Palestinian-Americans, critical of the US tilt toward Israel and of Kuwait for its harsh treatment of resident Palestinians, are siding with Iraq's Saddam against the US and the Gulf states.

``I'm somewhat glad this has happened to the ruling family in Kuwait,'' says Khalil Shalabi, a Palestinian-American who owns a fast-food shop in Chicago. ``The Kuwaitis have given only lip service to the Palestinian cause, and the Palestinians in Kuwait were not allowed to own land or businesses.''

Iraqi-Americans have also been supportive of Saddam. But those who suffered under his harsh rule and recently arrived in the US tend to oppose him and would support a US drive to remove him.

Lebanese-Americans are also split, sources say, with new arrivals from Christian areas lining up alongside Saddam because of his support for the beleaguered Christians. Older Lebanese American families are supporting the US position and so are some newer Lebanese immigrants, who see Syria as their savior.

``Everybody is on different sides of the line,'' Zogby says. ``We've worked 20 years to build this community. We're trying to find common ground so we don't rupture what we've worked years to build.''

Some Arab-Americans find comfort in just that effort to iron out political differences.

``In the Middle East, if you have a different point of view, you run to your gun,'' Duhill says. ``We are learning that here you talk it out.''

``We are talking to each other about it,'' Zogby says. ``There is a sense of a common culture, historical forces that have resulted in religion and a language. We have these differences, but the place we feel most comfortable discussing it is among ourselves. That's community.''

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