A different experience in America

October 19, 2005|By JAMES J. ZOGBY

WASHINGTON -- There are important differences between the Arab and broader Muslim immigrant experience in Europe and that of the Arab-American and American Muslim communities in the United States.

First, America itself is different, both in concept and in reality.

I have heard third-generation Kurds in Germany or Algerians in France complain that they remain on the margins of their societies. With difficulty, they may obtain citizenship, but not the identity of being German or French.

But being "American" is not the possession of a single ethnic group, nor does any ethnic group define "America." Within a generation, diverse ethnic and religious communities have been transformed into Americans.

Problems remain, and bigots periodically rear their heads, but as U.S. history demonstrates, incorporation and absorption are decisive. "Becoming American" means more than obtaining a passport and a set of legal rights. It also means adopting a new identity and a shared sense of history. At the same time, as each new group has entered the American mainstream, the concept of America itself has been expanded and transformed.

Because of this unique American experience, recent Arab and Muslim immigrants come into a society that is more prepared to accept them and see them as enriching the complex American mosaic. Immigration is not new to America; it defines the nation's experience. Therefore, ethnic and religious organizations abound. A foundation based on diversity and acceptance exists with fertile ground to accept new communities and include them in the ever-broadening definition of America.

It is also worth noting the importance of the foundation built by an earlier generation of Arab-Americans. Because this community has formed strong organizations that have paved the way for acceptance, more recent immigrants find a supportive network in place. While earlier immigrants formed groups that were secular (including Arab Christians and Muslims from the Arab world), they have provided both support and models for more recent religion-based organizations.

Another important difference between the European and the American experience is the extraordinary social and economic mobility that is possible in the United States. Some argue that the reason Europe's Muslims live marginalized and alienated, while Muslims and Arabs in the United States are integrated, is that immigrants to America were white-collar professionals while those to Europe were uneducated laborers. This is simply not true.

The United States and Europe have each had their share of the Arab "brain drain." In recent decades, the United States has taken in thousands of North African Arabs who started as waiters, Yemenis who worked on farms and docks, Lebanese autoworkers and Syrian steelworkers, Egyptian and Palestinian cab drivers, poor Iraqi Shiite refugees and thousands more from South Asia.

They do not remain in the lower socioeconomic strata because they find opportunities for enterprise. Within a few decades, for example, thousands of Yemenis worked their way out of California's fields into small business ownership. While each new generation may experience initial hardship, the progress made by Arab-Americans and American Muslims is a record to be proud of.

Arab-Americans and American Muslims still face discrimination, share deep frustrations with American foreign policy and have real concerns about threats to their civil liberties. But because they are American, they voice their anger and concern as citizens, not as aliens.

The day after the train and bus bombings in London on July 7, for example, all of the Arab-American, South Asian and Muslim groups were convened for a conversation with the Department of Homeland Security. This was part of an ongoing partnership with DHS and an extension of the working relationship that has been built with the new leadership at the Justice Department.

Not only have these groups repeatedly condemned terrorism, but the U.S. government officials with whom we work have continuously reaffirmed their support for these communities' rights. None of this suggests that extremists do not exist here. But it is they, and not the communities themselves, who are on the margins. The Arab-American and American Muslim groups are vigilant to address and ostracize these elements. While this mindset existed before 9/11, the shock of that horror sharpened the resolve of the community to shun extremism.

These communities have done this while not being silenced as political constituencies sharply critical of disastrous U.S. foreign and domestic policies, and that is a tribute to their viability and self-confidence and to the openness of the U.S. process. That's the difference.

James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.

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