Resisting Invisibility: Arab-Americans and the Challenge of Political Activism

Lanouar Ben Hafsa


Even though they spoke Arabic and came from a predominantly Arabic culture and heritage, the early Arab immigrants who arrived to the New World in the 1870s did not think of themselves as “Arabs”. They did not even constitute a distinct ethnic entity and their main bond of solidarity and interaction was rather based on close familial, sectarian, and regional ties. The lack of a “national” identity - synonymous with group power and solidarity - not only increased their “marginalization” and invisibility, but also posed a real problem as to their classification among other ethnicities. Instead, they were referred to as Turks, Syrians, Arabs, Arabians, Syrian-Lebanese, Asians, Caucasians, White, Black, etc.


As World War I marked a watershed for the early Arab pioneers who, after they decided to settle permanently in their host country, became part of the American society and the American body politic, World War II produced a much deeper impact, opening the door much wider to a new variety of Arab immigrants, educated, politically articulate, and with a better sense of nationality and identity.  But the idea of an ethnic Arab community, capable of taking its own affairs in hand, really began to grow in the 1960s, and especially after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when both newcomers and third-generation descendants of the first stock came to discover how one-sided and pro-Israeli the American media and the American policymakers were.


Despite the fact that the newly-arrived immigrants were mostly Muslim and were exceptionally keen on their cultural heritage, the political activism this paper seeks to address is expressly secular and includes people of all faiths and of no faith at all. This is first and foremost an attempt to scrutinize a mode of thinking of a community, still in search for a sense of identity, but firmly determined to participate effectively in the decision-making process. How could it overcome its “identity crisis” and achieve political cohesiveness? In other words, how could it reconcile its internal differences with the pragmatic need to unify for political efficacy? Such questions and others are worth tackling.



Arab Americans, political exclusion, identity question, elections.

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