Remarks by Walid Maalouf
Director, Public Diplomacy for Middle Eastern & MEPI Affairs
American University of Cairo
Monday, June 12, 2006
Arab Americans in the United States are growing in numbers, mainly due to migrations from different Arab countries. It is a flourishing community within the American society. They lead energetic lives, and maintain an ongoing commitment to America while perpetuating the legacy of their culture identity. They are active participants in politics and the economy thereby increasing the Arab American profile in this melting pot.
Today in America you find more than 450 Arab Americans in the public arena. On the local and state level of government, there are more than 40 state representatives and senators, as well as two governors, five mayors, countless numbers on county boards, judges and city councils.
At the federal level there are one Senator John Sununu and six Congressmen Ray LaHood, Nick Rahal, Charles Boustany to name a few. Several Arab Americans currently serve in President Bush’s administration. Today, the highest Arab American ranking official is Alex Azzar, Deputy Secretary of the Health & Human Services Department.
The Arab American community with its differences is strongly participating in the political process. Many of them belong to the two major parties in America - the Republican and the Democrats. They support candidates from each party and engage in debates with each other as to which the community should support. They are tolerant toward one another and understanding of the democratic process.
The first Arab community of immigrants to the United States was the Lebanese who began arriving in the 1820s, followed in the early twentieth century by the Palestinians. In the mid to late 20th century Iraqis start migrating to the United States of America and, in the second half of the twentieth century Egyptians have migrated to the States in sizable numbers as well. Today you find Lebanese Americans and Palestinian Americans of the second, third, fourth and even fifth generations.
In America we can point to more than a century of Arab American contributions and achievements in science, medicine, entertainment, military, government, business and arts such as Dr. Michael DeBakey, General John Abizaid, Paul Anka and many others.
Since I assumed my present position I have been visiting Middle Eastern American communities around the United States. I am amazed how wonderful and hard working our community is in America while remaining attached to their homelands and wanting to help in the re-building process. Whether it is Lebanon, Iraq, or the Palestinian territories Arab Americans are eager to forge new programs related to democracy and good governance.
Middle Eastern Americans are the perfect bridge between the United States and the Arab world because they understand the American way of life and at the same time they understand the region. They are the perfect messengers for democracy and freedom of expression because they practice it and live it every day. Because there is a separation between state affairs and religion and freedom of religion is a major feature of our bill of rights, you are free to practice any religion you want in America.
Middle Eastern American religious institutions are spread all over the United States, and they play a pivotal role in organizing and instilling the Arabic heritage and spirit among the community in America. They are influential in educating the youth by opening special classes to teach the Arabic language and culture in addition to providing a networking center to help new immigrants adjust to life in America. Even today, Middle Eastern churches conduct their services in Arabic and English.
This leads to a brief on where the Muslim American community stands in America. Muslim Americans have been migrating to the United States from all parts of the world, in particular from South Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India) Iran and the Middle East. It is a new migration and they are not yet fully integrated into the American way of life as other Arab Americans. It usually takes twenty to thirty years for the new arrivals to begin assimilating into the United States and here is no reason it should be any different for Muslim American community to match that of other migrations and participate fully in the American experience. In my visits around the nation to the Middle Eastern American community I have visited the Muslim community in the city of Dearborn, Michigan, and the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego in the State of California. I am scheduled to visit other communities in the months ahead.
Today the Muslims American community in the United States is about 7 million and they are served by 2200 Mosques. These mosques operate under the same principals and are governed by the same laws as any church or temple in the country.
The Muslim non profit organizations who are active and involved in lobbing efforts (political or social) are the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Islamic Relief, the Muslim American Society, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) that has 30 chapters throughout the United States. Also the Islamic Society of North America and its annual conference which attracts around 30 thousand people each year, last but not least the Muslim Student Association which has a chapter in almost most American University campuses.
What has made the most profound contribution to the Arab heritage in America? Al-Rabitah Al-Qalamiyyah, established by Gibran Kalil Gebran and his colleagues who shaped modern Arabic literature in America. The pioneers of this great event in the Arab world were from Lebanon and Egypt because of their direct contact with the West through missionaries, consulates, denominational foreign schools and scientific endeavors.
There are three renaissances in Arab history. The Prophet Mohammed created the first one when he pushed the Arabs ahead and gave them a new spirit of life from which they became leaders of knowledge contributing to the world civilization. The second one took place in Baghdad during the reign of the two famous Caliphs, Haroon Al-Rasheed and his son, Abdullah Al-Mamoon, and in Spain where a new style of poetry, Al-Muwashahat, and great architecture was created. The third one started in Lebanon and moved to Egypt and then to New York with Gibran Kalil Gibran, Ahmad Fares Al-Shidiaq, Butrus Al-Bustany, Adib Ishaq, Najeeb Haddad, Michail Naimy, Amin Rihani and many others.
In an age of global upheaval and polarizing rhetoric, characterized by some as a clash of civilizations the need for increased cultural exchange between the peoples of the world, especially the West and the Arab world, has never been greater. Economically motivated attempts at creating mutual understanding between the East and the West, and politically driven peace processes of recent decades, have failed to produce lasting peace. It is only by transcending the political and materialistic premises of the past century – through a deeper exchange, rooted in the spiritual and cultural heritage of humanity – that we may develop the qualities of appreciation, acceptance, and forgiveness needed in a global age of religious pluralism.
The Middle East is certainly a diverse society with many ethnic and religious pluralities. But today there are many voices urging intolerance and ethnic hatred. It seems to me we are today in dire need of people like Amine Rihani, Gibran Kalil Gibran, Philip Hitti and Elias Abou-Madey to help America and the Arab world to get closer again through tolerance, understanding, openness and freedom of expression.
It is you the new generations of young Arabs who must help in these endeavors; it is you who can make this change leading the Arab world to a better future.
Thank you and I look forward to your questions.
The Arab American Almanac, Los Angeles, CA
The Ameen Rihani Institute, Washington, DC
The Council on Islamic Relations, Los Angeles, CA