Arab Americans have come a long way
This week I will be in Charlotte, North Carolina where I will be participating in my eighth Democratic Convention.
I will be joining some 55 other Arab American delegates and committee members from 21 states who have been elected by Democrats to participate in this year’s party gathering. This is a record number of Arab Americans elected to any national convention. It eclipses the 52 who participated in the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta—most of whom were elected either as part of that year’s Jesse Jackson for President Campaign or as delegates for Michael Dukakis, that year’s nominee.
In conventions before 1988, Arab Americans had only managed to send a handful of delegates to the national meetings, and so the ’88 total represented a real breakthrough for our community. In the years that followed, despite real challenges to our involvement in the party, there were consistently around 40 to 45 Arab American delegates. And so, this year’s total is quite remarkable—a tribute to the hard work of many activists and the acceptance of Arab Americans by all levels of the Democratic Party’s leadership.
In some ways this Charlotte meeting will not be as thrilling as the 1984 San Francisco Convention where Jackson electrified the nation with his “our time has come” speech—a theme that resonated not only for African Americans, but Arab Americans, as well. I had the honor of delivering one of the convention speeches placing Jackson’s name in nomination for the Presidency.
Nor will it be as exciting as the 1988 Atlanta Convention where we fought up to the last minute for the right to insert 13 minority planks in the party platform. That year, I once again had the opportunity to address the convention leading the first ever national party debate on Palestinian rights. It was so wonderful to be able to break the taboo that had made it impossible to even say the word “Palestinian” in American politics. I will never forget the thrill of looking down over the convention floor as I spoke, watching over a thousand supportive delegates waving banners and signs saying “Palestinian Statehood Now.”
This convention will be different. For Arab Americans, with our record breaking numbers, it will represent a “coming of age.” Our hard work and perseverance has brought us from exclusion to being respected and recognized as part of the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
In Charlotte, we will host an event for the Arab American delegates—enabling them to meet one another and prepare for the November election, and our Arab American Institute will co-host with J-Street, a Jewish peace group, a forum on the need for American leadership to push for a just solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I am looking forward to meeting some of the new Arab Americans who will be attending their first convention and being a part of the events my Institute has organized for delegates. There are some fascinating people to meet.
One of my personal favorites in the Arab American delegation is Majid Al-Bahdali. A refugee from Saddam’s Iraq following the Basra Uprising, Majid spent years in a prison camp, until he was given refuge in the U.S. He became a citizen and just a few years later he was elected as an Obama delegate in 2008. His is a great American story. This is Majid’s second convention. Hindia Ali from Minnesota has the distinction of being the first Somali American to be elected as a delegate. And Ferial Masry of California is the first American of Saudi descent to become a delegate.
They will be joined by a record number of nine Arab American delegates from Michigan, led by Ish Ahmed, Vice Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party and “rising star” State Representative RashidaTlaib. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, and St. Louis City Democratic Chair Brian Wahby will represent Missouri. And former South Carolina gubernatorial candidate State Senator Vincent Sheheen will join Rhode Island Councilman Michael Solomon and labor leaders Bill George (former President of Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO) and Tom Balanof of Illinois.
And so we go to Charlotte having realized the promise of 1984’s “our time has come.” But we also go to this convention knowing that real challenges remain. Arab Americans still face serious threats to our civil liberties and our voices are desperately needed in the national debate over America’s still one-sided and misguided foreign policy. We are better positioned today than we were a generation ago. For decades we have fought to form and protect our community, and we won. We fought against exclusion and for inclusion, and we won. Now we must fight to make a difference—to make America better, smarter, more respected, and stronger—and this is a fight we must not lose.
The writer is President of the Arab-American Institute.