Monday, July 24, 2006

Chicagoland's Arab Community needs leadership, not religious fanaticism

Chicagoland’s Arab American community needs leaders
By Ray Hanania

When you review the roster of government services, representation and community institutions, the Arab American community sits at the bottom of the list behind everyone.

Part of the reason is that our community lacks true leaders who are willing to set aside their personal gain in favor of helping our community, but more importantly, we lack leaders who understand the importance of the word “Arab.”

It’s not a religion and it’s not a political movement. It is a very proud culture that is slowly disappearing as the leadership void grows.

Instead of an Arab community, we see fragments of our community drifting towards religious fundamentalism, political extremism and people who support government institutions in order that they can get grants, awards and jobs for themselves and their own children and relatives.

You can’t blame these opportunists for trying to take care of themselves first, if the majority of Chicagoland’s Arab Americans remain apathetic, silent and inactive.

We have the “Arab disease,” which is basically the urge to only do something when you are angry and driven by emotion, rather than out of strategic planning and calming and more successful long term planning.

Emotion forces us to act now, sometimes in great numbers, but most often in few numbers.Strategic planning forces us to view the challenges long term and plan out strategies to overcome and then improve them.

The downside of the emotional response is that it doesn’t last long and it transforms from energy into hatred. We end up feeding our despair with hatred. One day, we see a hundred or even one thousand people chanting for justice in Palestine, and then they go away for months with no sustained strategic action.

Worse, because these “flare-ups” of activism which are not substantive activism at all only last a few days or during the height of crisis, we turn away from the challenges and the groups and organizations that cause our suffering and instead focus on ourselves as a community.

We prey on each other, individually, instead of standing together as a community. We start talking about others in derogatory terms. Instead of viewing the efforts of others as small steps forward, we tear each other down.

In reality, the only way a poor leader can look good is to bring someone else down. Attack others and push them down to make ourselves look good. So we find leaders in mosques and churches railing against people and individuals because they have dared to ask questions or wonder why our leaders act the way they do.

Leadership is not only about leading. It is about doing what is right, doing it fairly and doing it strategically.

It is also about recognizing differences of opinion and being “tolerant,” which is probably the one characteristic of leadership missing from those who claim to lead us today.

When I was younger, I recall a true leader in Professor Imbrahim Abu-Lughod. Professor Abu-Lughod was a Muslim, who happened to be married to a woman who was Jewish. He was probably the most effective spokesman for the Palestinian and Arab cause.

Why? Not because he was the most eloquent. But because he recognized that the real answer to our challenges in this society rested on strengthening the secular spirit of the community in order to bring Christian and Muslims together, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis and others. There are 22 Arab countries and these days we act as if only one of the 22 count. Ourselves.

We hide behind religion as an excuse for our failed leadership, putting our faith in God as if God did not want us to be responsible ourselves. Instead, we should cherish our individual faiths and respect our traditions and apply that morality not only to our enemies but to ourselves.

The God of the Muslims and the Christians is the same God. Both communities refer to him as Allah. And according to Allah, it is wrong to slander and gossip about others in our community, to support suicide, to support violence, to use the pain of others as the reason to launch movements.

Professor Abu-Lughod understood this and preached this. And under his leadership, our Chicagoland community was stronger, even though there were fewer Arab families then than there are today.

Over the past 10 years, we have seen newcomers who have no history in our community using their religion to force everyone to follow their dictates. They lash out those who are different, of different religions and different political views and of different Arab nationalities, because they view the challenges not in the broader perspective that Professor Abu-Lughod recognized, but from a narrow perspective that suits their personal goals.

We need to get past these losers and we need to do it quickly. We need to strengthen the bond that brought most Arab Americans to America. We are American and we are proud of being American. We are not visitors here. We fled the persecution and the insanity of the monarchs, mullahs, dictators and tyrants to experience the true meaning of freedom.

When the silent majority of Arab Americans find the courage to stand up and push the cowards aside who exploit our anxieties and suffering for their own selfish gain, then once again will our community be able to speak to Americans about the justice of the Palestinian cause, the righteousness of Lebanon’s needs to defend itself against Israeli government terrorism, and remind Americans that the Arab World is a just and moral World that deserves their friendship and support, not animosity.

That was Professor Abu-Lughod’s dream. And it was his dream that drew deep into the activism of the Arab American community in 1975, long before some of today’s so-called leaders ever even heard of Chicago.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning journalist, author of the book Arabs of Chicagoland and the host of the Internet TV program “CounterPoint.” You can reach him at


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