Dr. Ziad J. Asali’s speech at the AMC June 30, 2002
The tragic events of September 11 have not only had a profound impact on the relationship between the United States and the Arab and Islamic Worlds, but, just as dramatically, on the relationship between America and its Arab and Muslim-American citizens.
These events have also singularly impacted the issue of Palestine, an issue that is arguably as close to the hearts of Arab and Muslim Americans as no other. With America’s single-minded focus on terrorism, relentless efforts by pro-Israel forces have been brought to bear to reduce the Palestinian fight for independence against the longest occupation in modern history to one about Palestinian terrorism.
This audience at this time does not need to be convinced of the justice of the Palestinian cause nor reminded of the twisted morality that ignores the original sins of colonization, eviction and occupation. The twenty-first century view of the Palestinians is an an historical distortion, peddled by ideological pundits and masters of spin on TV and in print media. It hardly bears a pale resemblance to the truth.
It is able to paint with the widest brush the sins of the few on the whole Palestinian people, as it is able to downplay the violence of the Israeli occupation and its organized instruments against a whole society. It deprives the conflict of a context and a meaning and reduces it to violent events and images. In short it reflects the power relations in our society where the powerful have access to decision- making and to the media while those who do not are mostly resigned to whine and complain or to abandon hope.
It is because we have to explore better options that I decided that today I will not even get into a discussion of the saga of the political intricacies of Palestinian statehood, Camp David, the fate of Mr. Arafat, or the implications of the President’s speech of last week. I would rather use my time here, and my claim on your attention, to provide a perspective whose purpose is your empowerment, your ability to make a difference on this issue.
It is my contention that your knowledge, your emotions and your wisdom will have to be harnessed and channeled collectively if they are not to be wasted purposelessly. We all need to transform our frustration with unjust policies regarding Palestine into an ability to impact decision making in our country. It is imperative that we understand that we live in a system that makes it possible for us to do so and turn this wish into a reality if we do our part.
There are around three million Arab Americans and six million Muslim Americans, and we represent a wide spectrum of experiences ranging from third and fourth generation Americans to fresh green card holders barely able to tell the difference between baseball and football. I am here to try to offer, from my vantage point as a Palestinian, Arab- and Muslim-American, some thoughts about the global and American dimensions that impacted the Palestinian question so tragically and how we might explore our way out of the present predicament.
From a conceptual level first, it is a moral imperative and an over-riding strategic necessity to avoid any drift towards what has been termed a “clash of civilizations,” a generalized conflict between the West and the Islamic world. There are malevolent but powerful voices in Arab, Muslim and American societies that cast the momentous events of our time in terms of such a clash. In reality, this clash does not exist yet and it must not be allowed to develop. These forces of extremism seek no compromise, speak always of “them” versus “us”, and fall back on the most tribal, ethnic and religious attributes that are insular and xenophobic. They are shared by religious fundamentalists or fanatics, be they Jews, Christians or Muslims, as well as by ideological zealots on the left and on the right. They have much more in common than they think or might like to acknowledge. They all share a sense of righteousness coupled with a paranoid suspicion of one another, and a sense of victimization mixed with devaluing the other’s humanity and suffering. They simply have more hate, or rage, than the rest of us. Theirs is the road to conflagration and catastrophe if we let them.
Let us speak of the dual challenges we face, the one regarding Palestine, and the one related to our civil liberties and our exercise of our rights as American citizens.
On the question of Palestine, the challenge is to bring home to the American public the centrality of occupation as violence that breeds violence, at a time when Americans are more alienated than ever from Palestinians by attacks on Israeli civilians, especially in the wake of 9/11. The combined effect of the skills of Israel and the organized Jewish lobby on the one hand, and the dreadful political incompetence of the fragmented Palestinian leadership and ineffectuality of the Arab- and Muslim-American lobby has made it possible to portray the Palestinian struggle as a part of the global network of terror. The focus of our efforts in redressing this injustice in years to come has to be in reclaiming the narrative of the Palestinian quest for freedom, and their right to live in their independent viable state based on international legality. One party can never rule Jerusalem if there is to be peace. Security is indivisible and no military power can assert its security needs if another’s is denied, and it must be assured for all. Occupation and settlements must come to a quick end. An economic assistance package will provide the underpinning of a lasting peace.
Each and every item just cited has been adopted by the United Nations, the European Community, the Arab League, and by our country as represented by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his November 19, 2001, speech, and even by President Bush on several occasions. However, the reality is that powerful domestic forces in this country have frustrated the implementation of this vision of peace each step of the way. It is up to Arabs and Muslims over there to empower themselves to counter this imbalance, and it is up to us here to do what we can to empower ourselves in this country if we are serious about our professed commitment. We need to find a way to carry our message for justice and peace to the American people and make it stick.
The task of reaching the fair- minded American people and seriously influencing public and foreign policy is not without precedent. One such success story concerns a group that we are all familiar with and that is the Jewish-American lobby. Jewish organizations were first established in 1843, but were marginal and ineffectual up until the Second World War. Six decades ago, the feeble Jewish lobby in America was unable to pressure the American government to reverse its policy of barring Jewish immigration from Europe. Ships full of Jewish refugees were not allowed to disembark on American shores and were turned away. Contrast that, if you will, with the political situation today, where Congressmen by the score attend AIPAC’s convention, literally competing with each other in expressing unbridled support for Israel and providing it with substantive military, financial, moral and political support. How to account for this amazing turnaround? Simple. First is the conscious integration of the Jewish community into the mainstream system of power in America, and second is their hard work. Hard work in organizing, in networking and in fundraising. It is a model that has been used by so many groups: the gun lobby, retired people’s lobby, arms manufacturers as well as farmers and innumerable others with a perceived interest to defend. We should ask ourselves: Do we have interests to defend? Are we up to the task?
As members of the Arab- and Muslim-American communities, we are successful citizens of this country, producing doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and businessmen far higher than the national average. We do, however, face a set of challenges to our civil rights as we cope with a negative public image that is bound to have a serious impact on the lives of our children if not stemmed. Our individual success stories have not been matched by a positive public image or a place at the table when decisions are made. Before we blame others, rightly or wrongly, we must admit that we ourselves have fallen short in participating in the social, civic and, above all, political life of our country. It is time to do so.
What exactly does our participation entail? It entails first articulating a message to our fellow American citizens on Palestine that resonates with them, that is in line with the values of this country. As far as Palestine is concerned, that message must be fourfold: an end to occupation and settlements, the establishment of a Palestinian state now, secure borders for both countries based on international legality and a clear condemnation of violence against civilians – ALL civilians. This is the moral thing to do. As long as some are ambiguous or equivocal on the issue of violence against civilians, we will never be able to educate the public that in fact Israel has killed three times as many innocent civilians as have the Palestinians, despite all the media hype about suicide bombers. Proper and full condemnation of killing civilians means condemning Israel as a main culprit whose offenses get little attention. Killing civilians is a war crime under international law, while resistance to occupation is legitimate, and here, too, the killing of innocent civilians deflects from the true issue, which is that international law is a major ally in the liberation struggle of Palestinians. There must be absolute clarity in making these distinctions, and we must offer total support and backing for those in Palestine who oppose attacks on civilians, as recently expressed in a full-page ad in the Al-Quds newspaper. With Israel’s successful linkage of attacks against its civilians with America’s war against terrorism, our message against violence must be clear. Only then will we be able to focus the American public on the main message to be heard here: occupation and settlements are the basic sources of violence in this conflict, and only if they are ended can the violence be halted. It is that simple.
Participation primarily entails engaging at every level of society, from Parent Teacher Associations to civic clubs, from community organizations to local and national politics. We have the capability to influence every senator, representative, newspaper and community organization if we begin by active participation on the local level. For it is only through coordinated involvement at the local level that changes at the national level will ever take place. We have to pay attention to our local papers, the Detroit Free Press, the Orlando Sentinel, the Houston Chronicle, papers all over the country, and when they publish something, whether positive or negative, we need to criticize or commend them. We have to be registered voters, we have to hold our local representatives to some basic standards, and we have to learn the intricacies of local politics, local party primaries, and municipal politics. These are the building blocks of political power in this country. We can never hope to influence Congress without first influencing City Hall and State legislatures. This whole effort will not bear fruit if not done in an organized and deliberate fashion. Individual effort is necessary but insufficient. It has to be coordinated and organized if it is to be sustained and effective.
We also need to contribute financially in order to make our voices heard and this is where we need a basic change of our mind-set. Donating to election campaigns from the local to national levels is just not part of our way of thinking. In fact, many of us probably associate any financial contributions to the political system as bribery considering the cultural baggage we carry. However, we must understand that campaign donations are as American as apple pie. This is a critical way of getting our voices heard and a legitimate way of investing in the system. Ultimately, it is one of the tools available for us in the political process to achieve a public policy that provides a secure future for our children and grandchildren. We must learn and master the art of political philanthropy and not just show our generosity and good fortune by our lavish parties, expensive homes and luxury cars. Let us learn to show off, if we must, by how much we contribute to the common good. Let us do it in an organized and coordinated way. A just-released study has shown that Jewish-Americans and pro-Israel interests have contributed over $41 million to federal candidates and party committees since 1989. The same report puts Arab-American money at under $297,000 – a ratio of roughly 140 to 1?140 to 1!! It is obvious that each gets what they pay for.
Our meager presence in the arena of electoral politics and its imperatives of money and votes is not acceptable any longer. We must engage with diligence and seriousness of purpose.
As you go back to your cities and towns, you need to give an expression of your commitment by your active participation in the civic, political, cultural and educational life of your communities. You need to know your community political leaders and they need to know you. You have to give support and to withhold support where appropriate. You need to count. You need to be counted. You need to be a source of help to your Senator and Congressman, or a source of headache. He or she needs to feel your presence and miss your absence. November elections are just around the corner, and 2004 is not far behind. Let us coordinate, plan and deliver our votes as the precious commodity that they are. Let us put an end to the era of taxation without representation that we ourselves have volunteered by not participating.
Basically, all of what I have talked about today boils down to us claiming our place as proud American citizens. For, ultimately, if we ourselves are unsure or timid about our first-class citizenship, others will question it and diminish it. We need not just to state, but also to feel and convey to all, that we will yield no ground to anyone who will treat us as anything other than first-class citizens. The gains in the struggle for equality and civil rights in this country, achieved through the heroic efforts of so many good people over the past half century, cannot be allowed to be so readily relinquished as they apply to Arab and Muslim Americans. Let us help build the Arab- and Muslim-American organizations that protect these rights. Let us build alliances across the nation with people who care about these rights. Let us protect our rights to speak freely about issues foreign and domestic, and to organize and work to reverse policies that we think are wrong-headed and counter productive. This is our historic task and the ultimate test of our mettle. Let us pledge, here and now, that we are up to it.