In praise of Arab identity

In the US, activism for Palestine has been hijacked by non-Arab Islamic organizations.

US muslims 88 (photo credit: )
US muslims 88
(photo credit: )
The other day, I received a call from a prominent Chicago organization asking me to participate in a Christian-Muslim dialogue group. I told them I'd be happy to join them. "I'm a Christian Arab," I said. The caller apologized, and said they were looking for Muslim Arabs. Although I pointed out that more than half of the nearly 4.5 million Arabs in the United States are Christian Arabs, but that of America's seven million Muslims less than 24 percent are Arab, the caller still uninvited me as politely as the invitation had been extended. It's not the first time this has happened, but this problem of ignoring the significance of Arab Christians has been growing over the years. And it has created a real problem in our world, one that actually fuels, not discourages, Middle East extremism. On the one hand, the problems of the Middle East are problems that stem from secular, non-religious issues. For example, in Palestine the dispute is over land ownership and the boundary that would divide the Israeli and Palestinian states. Sure, religion is an aspect of it, but it's not the driving force. In Iraq, the issue was about a secular dictator who, granted, had been an American client-turned-foe. The issue of religion only entered after Saddam Hussein was ousted and murdered. It's only when you leave the Middle East that the problem transforms from secular politics to religious fervor. Even 9/11 was not about Islam, although Osama bin Laden is an example of the growing extremism in the Muslim world. The terrorist attackers may have cloaked themselves in a bastardized misinterpretation of Islam, but the purposes were all about politics. Bin Laden's initial break began with his declared his opposition to the presence of American military forces in Saudi Arabia, but it was his Islamic fervor that he used to attract support among the faithful. AND WHAT has the response been to these events? Well, there is a rise of Christian and Muslim dialogue groups in the United States, not with Muslims who are Arabs, but with Muslims who are non-Arab. Muslims have been given a major role in society. Ironically, on the first anniversary of September 11 in many cities around the country, outreach efforts included non-Arab Muslims. Muslims are becoming a very powerful force, in part because the majority of their members are non-Arab and have strong non-Arab activist roots in America, such as Pakistanis, Indians and Asians. Many of them recognize the significance of the Arab role in Islam. After all, Islam was founded in Arabia by an Arab. The language of Islam is Arabic. But, the majority of believers are non-Arab. There has been a dangerous weakening of the secular Arab aspect of the Middle East conflict over the years, and a significant growth in the Islamic movement which is slowly becoming the "official spokesman" for the Palestine-Israel conflict, for example. Arabs are on the receiving end of more of the criticism, while Muslims are actually increasing in power and popularity, not just in the United States but throughout the world. In the United States where Arab activism was solidly based, the activism for Palestine and the Middle East has been hijacked by Islamic organizations. The danger is in the very disturbing shift in the secular political focus on the world's conflicts to a growing view of Islam as the both the cause and the answer. THE SECULAR Arabs, who are Christian and Muslims, are declining in power and influence over their own people, while the Muslim religious leaders and religious activists are becoming the de-facto representatives in terms of addressing Middle East issues. Christian Arabs, especially, who are already an abused and patronized minority in the Middle East, face the greatest threats to their existence. For the most part, many in the West do not even recognize the term "Christian Arab." After the attack on the World Trade Center, for example, an educated American woman approached me and said, "I can't believe you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab." It was a stupid comment, reflecting the woman's unbelievable lack of education on Middle East subjects. But her error was in the growing confusion between the terms "Arabs" and "Muslims." Arabs are disappearing. Muslims are growing in organizational strength, power and in presence in all aspects of the challenges facing today's world. That is not good. Religious activists are in fact religious by the very nature of having placed faith above individual reasoning. Secular Arabs, though, place the emphasis on their societal existence and on their perceived nationalism. There is an inherent problem in addressing "terrorism," for example, from a religious perspective than addressing terrorism from a secular perspective. TO A RELIGIOUS extremist, the end result is not compromise but the submission of the opponent. There can be no compromise on issues of faith for the faithful. Secular Arabs, however observant they might be of their religion, will compromise on issues and place individual reason above religious doctrine. The impending storm is as ominous for Israelis as it is for Palestinians - secular Arabs and Christians from the Middle East. They are being marginalized not by a strategic move on the part of the West, but because most people in the West really can't distinguish between Muslims and Arabs. As the Islamists grow in strength, the ability to compromise on issues of faith vanishes in direct proportion to that empowerment. One day, the secular Arabs will just disappear. Christian Arabs will vanish. And the only ones left standing on the battlefields of the Middle East will be a movement of Muslims dominated by non-Arabs who have no real stake in the issues of the Middle East, Palestine or even Israel, but do have a powerful drive to impose their religious beliefs on everyone in the region. The writer is a Palestinian American columnist.