Arab Americans Divided Over U.S. Buildup in Gulf
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Jawad George was excited about his engagement party. But the family affair turned into a family feud over - of all things - Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Jawad, a second-generation Arab American, opposed the invasion; his father and uncle didn’t.
The invasion has been a wrenching experience for Americans of Arab origin, torn between reluctant pride at President Saddam Hussein for standing up to the West, and feelings of loyalty for their adopted homeland - America.
A new survey, one of the very few conducted among the estimated 2.5 million Arab Americans, found a community split between supporters and opponents of the Aug. 2 invasion.
Of the 692 respondents surveyed by The Arab American News, 41 percent said they supported Saddam’s move, 47 percent said they didn’t, and 12 percent were undecided.
The poll, conducted in Detroit, which has a large concentration of Arab Americans, also found 86 percent didn’t like the deployment of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia at all.
Some Arab American leaders dispute the findings - a survey conducted by the Arab American Institute, for example, found only 60 percent opposed the deployment and 70 percent opposed the invasion.
But all agree the crisis has presented members of the community with a painful conflict.
″When your government could be involved in war with Arabs, it causes great consternation,″ said George, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans, a lobbying organization which counted John Sununu, who is of Lebanese descent, as one of its most active members until he became President Bush’s chief of staff.
George, like a majority of Arab Americans, was born here. So were his parents. Their parents came here from Palestine early this century.
His father Fred, a retired carpet store owner from New Jersey, is rooting for Saddam. When George went home to his parents for his engagement party, a vehement argument broke out between the younger and older generations.
″My father feels pride. He thinks Saddam is standing up to the United States. He feels that very strongly,″ said George.
Many Arab Americans share that niggling pride in Saddam for, in their view, paying back the Western powers which humiliated the Arabs for decades.
Like many Arab Americans, Fred George also believes Saddam is championing the cause of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, his son said.
But George and many of his contemporaries, while sympathetic to such views, also feel Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait must be stopped.
The largest group of Arab Americans are descendants of immigrants from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. Arabs from Iraq, Kuwait or other Persian Gulf countries account for a small minority. The largest group among more recent immigrants are Palestinians, many of whom fled Israeli occupation.
″The newer arrivals distrust U.S. policy as blindly siding with Israel,″ said Tony Mansour, chairman of the American Arab Heritage Council, an anti- discrimination group in Detroit. Indeed, 57 percent of those polled in the newspaper survey said the decision to send American troops to the Persian Gulf would ultimately benefit Israel.
And 90 percent of those asked by the AAI, a lobbying group which encourages Arab Americans to run for political office, accused the administration of a double standard - one toward its ally, Israel, and another toward Iraq.
″There has to be a recognition that there’s no difference in Iraq occupying Kuwait and in Israel occupying the West Bank, Gaza″ and other lands it captured in its wars with the Arabs, said Mansour. ″Many feel it’s hypocritical to get riled up about one and not the other.″
The administration rejects such parallels, arguing that while Israel must eventually give up occupied territory in return for peace, the lands were captured in wars of self-defense.
Community leaders have encouraged debate about the gulf crisis and about worry that a war with Iraq will result in a backlash against Arab Americans. Many Arab Americans feel the discrimination they encountered in the past has been intensified by the conflict with Iraq.
″The issue is to feel comfortable with America,″ said James Zogby, executive director of the Arab American Institute. ″I keep telling people: this is your country, even if you disagree with what the administration is doing.″
Mohamed Hallaj, editor of the quarterly Palestine Perspectives, thinks most Arab Americans oppose the deployment of U.S. troops because ″they can’t understand what American interest justifies a possible catastrophic war.″
But that doesn’t call their loyalty into question, he says. Just like opposing the decision to send U.S. troops to Vietnam in the 1960s, he says, ″didn’t make those people any less American.″