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Arab Americans come together during troubled times   

The National - 22 April, 2012
Author: James Zogby

With all of the dramatic and sometimes discouraging developments taking place across the Arab world, the challenges faced by the small but vibrant Arab American community are often given short shrift. This week we took time to acknowledge the threats to the community's security and well-being and the efforts being made to address these challenges.

On Wednesday, the Arab American Institute hosted its annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Dinner, giving special recognition to the community's resilience, personal resources and the courageous allies who stand in defence of Arab American rights.

In the past year, the seriousness of these dangers has come to light. In some cases, threats have emanated from "hate groups" that have been emboldened in their efforts to defame the community. Once-marginal websites that have long spewed propaganda against Arabs and Muslims have now become mainstream, finding their hate echoed on Fox News or in the rantings of some presidential candidates. They paint all Muslims as a danger and make no distinction between "Arab" and "Muslim". Targeting an entire community, they promote intolerance and fear.

While Arab Americans have relied on law-enforcement agencies to defend against violence, threats of violence and acts of discrimination, all is not well on that front either. CNN has reported that training manuals used by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies are filled with gross misrepresentations of Arab culture and Islam, and other recent reports (in a series of AP articles that just won a Pulitzer prize) show that the New York City Police Department has implemented a massive domestic-spying operation targeting Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians and Muslims in general.

Arab Americans have drawn on their resources and their allies to fight back. One of the groups honoured with the Gibran "Spirit of Humanity" award was the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights organisation born in the Deep South during the struggle for African-American rights. Today, the Center has become a leading voice speaking out against Islamophobic hate groups and discrimination in all forms.

Also honoured was a remarkable initiative launched by an Arab American, Dean Obeidallah, and an Iranian American, Negin Farsad. Their effort, "The Muslims Are Coming" comedy tour, last year travelled across the South, even to communities that had tried to block the construction of mosques. The tour relied on comedy to educate and break stereotypes.

The awards also recognised the work of the Arab Thought Foundation, an institution that promotes learning, cultural pride and self-reflection.

Each year the Gibran awards recognise an Arab American who has made an outstanding contribution in the area of public service. The Najeeb Halaby public service award was presented to former US ambassador Ted Kattouf for his three decades in the foreign service and his leadership of AMIDEAST, one of the largest US NGO's serving people in the Arab world.

The award was presented by US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, himself a former recipient. As unremarkable as all this might appear, the fact that a Lebanese American presented an award named after a Syrian American to a Palestinian American makes a statement itself about rising above divisions.

The night concluded with a tribute to Anthony Shadid, whose untimely death in February took a writer who had devoted his life to serving as a bridge between Americans and the Middle East.

Despite the challenges Arab Americans have faced and continue to face, the community remains proud of its heritage, and prouder still of its accomplishments in America.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa
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