Photograph by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Celebrating National Arab American Heritage Month in 2024

April 30, 2024

The National Arab American Heritage Month initiative was launched in 2017 by the Arab America Foundation. After five years of intense grassroots work, in 2021 the president of the United States issued a proclamation acknowledging Arab American Heritage Month. Furthermore, Congress, the U.S. Department of State, and 45 state governors issued proclamations commemorating the initiative.

This provides an opportunity to highlight the history of Arab migration to America, the geography of the Arab world, Arab American diversity in faith, language, customs, and traditions. Some notable Arab Americans, to mention just a few, include Edward Said, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, a literary theorist and former professor at Columbia University; Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple; Gigi and Bella Hadid, models, Mona Haydar, a poet, activist, and rapper; and Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Most Americans are also unaware that historically, Arabs made breakthrough contributions in mathematics, geography, science, and literature. While the West is often described as a “Judeo-Christian” civilization, without Arab discoveries and contributions it would not exist in its current shape.

One of the important issues that community activists have been campaigning for was recognition of Arab Americans in the census. The absence of an appropriate category caused the communities to be invisible, advocates said. Official population counts in the U.S. have far-reaching significance, because they help politicians determine how congressional districts are created, how government funds are distributed to address the needs of certain regions, and how federal anti-discrimination and racial equity laws are implemented.

Anti-Arab racism has been a serious problem in the United States, and the absence of official census recognition has hindered authorities from appropriately classifying hate crimes against this group. Prejudice has led to verbal and physical attacks in public spaces, online harassment, employment discrimination, and negative media portrayals of the community. Spikes in anti-Arab hate crime coincided with the first Gulf War, 9/11, and the “Global War on Terrorism.”

“Arab Americans wonder, often in revulsion, as they witness decades-long American induced atrocities against millions of people from Iraq to Palestine. We assert that there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans on the fronts of war,” wrote Doris Bittar, a Lebanese-American civil rights organizer, in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

While the establishment of a national heritage month for Arab Americans was a big success for the community who had fought for a long time for recognition, the handling of the Gaza war by the Biden administration raised questions about how genuine American authorities’ professed care about the Arab American community is.

“The Middle Eastern Christians have been always open and diverse, and culturally engaged, both with the West and with the East and with the local people. They can be bridges and communicate things from different perspectives, besides sharing their own perspective.”

This administration’s unapologetic support of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza is seen by many in the Arab American community as complicity in the deaths of almost 40,000 Palestinians in Gaza. Widespread (and now debunked) Israeli propaganda about “beheaded babies” has preceded the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy, Wadee Alfayoumi, and shooting of three Palestinian students, one of whom was left paraplegic.

“I’m very proud to be Palestinian American. But it’s very hard to celebrate at this time, when there’s a war and genocide going on in Gaza, Palestine, and the US government is supporting it.” said Alma Hazboun, controller at the American Baptist Home Mission Societies. “On one hand, they are providing the weapons to kill people and culture of that heritage, and then they tell us to celebrate.”

Hazboun commented on the perception among Arab Christians that Western Christians abandoned Palestinian Christians: “It is really sad to see Christian communities all around the world, not supporting Christianity in Palestine. Many people in the US don’t know even that there are Christians and Christian sites there.”

To illustrate the problem of Western Christian indifference to Palestinian suffering, Hazboun shared two quotes from powerful theologians. Reverend Munther Isaac, the academic dean of Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine and director of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, said on February 18, 2024: “When churches justify a genocide or are silent watching from distance, making carefully crafted balanced statements…..the credibility of the Gospel is at stake.” Many years before, Bishop Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor.”

“Middle Eastern Christians who are in direct contact with Muslims, and with people from Palestine, hear more than what the news says,” said Aram Haddad, a Jordanian American and a PhD candidate in systematic theology at Trinity International University. “We feel flesh and blood suffering, hear personal stories. And this makes it harder to listen. Yes, there’s sadness, there’s disappointment, especially when it comes to how the American church is situated in the political situation, and how it is responding to this, to what is going on in the Middle East.”

Haddad believes that Middle Eastern Christians are uniquely positioned to connect various perspectives. They can be cultural “bridges”: “The Middle Eastern Christians have been always open and diverse, and culturally engaged, both with the West and with the East and with the local people. They can be bridges and communicate things from different perspectives, besides sharing their own perspective.”

In the United States, there are many misconceptions about Arab Americans and Arabs more broadly. Often, all Arabs are assumed to be Muslim, but in addition to Arab Muslims, there are also Arab Christians: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Most Arab Americans (an estimated 63 to 77 percent) are, in fact, Christian. (Some Middle Eastern Christians may not identify as Arab but prefer labels such as Egyptian Copts or Assyrians.)

A new category will be added to the 2030 census form for those whose roots are in the Middle East and North Africa. This is a big win. However, there is much to be done to ensure that Arab and Middle Eastern Americans are suitably acknowledged. Politicians must listen to their concerns about educating the mainstream society and about American involvement in wars in which Arab and Middle Eastern people die. Only then will a true celebration of an Arab American Heritage Month be possible.

Rev. Dr. Anna Piela is an ordained American Baptist Churches USA minister. She is associate editor, The Christian Citizen, senior writer, American Baptist Home Mission Societies and co-associate regional minister for White and Multicultural Churches, ABC Metro Chicago. A Polish immigrant and a scholar of religion, she holds a doctorate in Women’s Studies from the University of York, UK. Her second book, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US, was published in 2021.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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