Arab America: Moving Forward and Going Back

by Miriam Qamar

Arab America coverArab America:
Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism

by Nadine Naber
NYU Press, August 2012
Paperback, 320 pp., $24.00

The concept of organization is central to any study of the contemporary history of Arab organizing in the Bay Area. Nadine Naber’s Arab America surveys the various forms of organization associated with immigration patterns, social rup- tures, reactions to state repression, identity, and religious-based liberatory politics within Arab and Muslim organizing from the 1970s to the early 2000s. With organization comes the concept of ideology. Through Naber’s attentiveness to the shifting political landscape both in the Bay Area and in the Middle East, the personal narratives she intertwines position themselves within a historical process that shows a shift in ideology and, thus, a shift in method of struggle.

Because Naber’s book is not entirely an historical text, and recounting the rise and fall of Arab nationalism is not a short-winded task, a thorough explanation of the Arab left as it was organized in the Diaspora is not given. Instead, the interlocutors Naber chooses to highlight give us intimate accounts of how individuals found their politics and their political homes in a very transitional time. Most activists interviewed were drawn towards organizing with people who shared a collective experience. Naber argues that many second-generation Arabs rejected their parents’ abstract regulations of “cultural authenticity” and found collective experience through a shared belief in Islam.

But there is an additional reason that this generation of activists turned away from “Arabness” in search of alternatives.

It became clear that common roots do not replace political unity. Although it is probably safe to say that a majority of Arab and/ or Muslim young people in the Bay Area today have no regard for the use of political theory, I believe that the challenges we face even within our concentrated milieu of politicized Arabs and Muslims are a result of precisely this lack of theoretical clarity. Theory and its practical applications were perhaps taken more seriously in the generations that preceded us. I would have liked to learn more about that period of overlooked history that spanned from North Africa all the way to isolated provinces of the Arabian Gulf, when Nasserism was abandoned and a rigorous class-conscious theory of liberation was adopted. What did local activists take from this time? If nothing, was that history completely forgotten by the activists of the 90s, or just severely repressed?

In Arab organizing today, theory does not guide our work in the same way as it might have in the generations before us. Nevertheless, the Bay Area is a very active place; lack of energy is not our problem. The challenge arises when trying to collec- tively reflect on our work and outline a collaborative long-term strategy. Loose social networks and email lists are especially unsuited for this task. Coalitions are somewhat more structured for this purpose, but coalitional relationships are frequently tacti- cal and short-term and reach serious roadblocks over objectives. Like other groupings of activists in America that are coming of age in a fast-paced immediate-result consumer society, we jump from rally to rally, event to event, and only act in reaction to things. Some groups, like PYM (Palestine Youth Movement), have attempted to challenge this by adhering to bylaws, and taking attendance, accountability and political development more seriously. Other activists have contended with this issue and found their platform for struggle through Islam rather than the “program-based” Arab Nationalism and Marxism of the past. As Naber presents in her explanations of “transnational Muslim politics,” many view Islam as a program, and a method for resistance in itself. Today, people are attempting to build a balance between collective experience and protracted struggle within the framework of Islam. There are tendencies within Bay Area Muslim organizing that romanticize the concept of community and Ummah, and there are those who are still committed to a national liberation struggle and see themselves as people who are considered internal threats to empire within the United States. This overlap is where many Arab and Muslim organizers see their politics within a broader struggle for liberation under capitalism and imperialism. There are also overlaps relating Is- lam with concepts of autonomous struggle. Naber quotes scholar Hamza Yousuf, who raises questions about how, through Islam, “Muslims can re-imagine new forms of living beyond capitalism and oppression.” His general message continues to be an active theory in current Muslim organizing circles, with a strong affinity to the Zapatismo philosophy and other conceptions of utopian autonomy and anarchism. (However, it is to be noted that Hamza Yousuf has lost political credibility in the eyes of the more radical Muslim activists for various reasons.)


Some of these aforementioned conceptions of organizing do not necessitate or call for Organizations with a big O, and often remain in the abstract and spiritual realm. Nevertheless, the Bay Area is not lacking in formal Muslim organizations – and thus, the next set of obstacles facing Arab and Muslim organizing in the Bay Area today: identity politics, representation, and liberal- ism. Naber may have included many of these organizations under the movement of a “Global Muslim Consciousness,” including Zaytuna, an Islamic college, championed by the popular figure Hatem Bazian, and Ta’leef Collective, which attracts Muslim converts and middle-class youth from Fremont. Additionally, there are education and advocacy organizations like ING (Islamic Networking Group) and CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) (the “legal” groups warrant much more discussion than we can have here, but they are a response to the volume of FBI harassment cases that arise within Arab and Muslim communities at present).

Alternative spaces and groups have also been created to both serve a different purpose and to develop critiques of these formal organizations. Some of these formal organizations are openly associated with contradiction and opportunism in the hardcore activist realm, and are charged with accusations such as normalization (with Zionist discourse, projects, or funds), false community representation, legalism, messed-up racial politics, and liberalism. Alternative spaces include the San Francisco Halaqa, intended to empower non-Muslim and Muslim inner city youth, Occupy Oakland Muslims, Radical Muslim Zine/Fabulous Muslims, Autonomous Afghans, etc. These groupings have proved to be much more diverse in ethnic and racial identity while much more homogeneous in political association. Another attempt to build organization and affiliation beyond sin- gular identity is through the acronym, and immigrant rights coalition, AAMEMSA (African, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, South Asian). Initially, this acronym and reference point was solely tied to the funding sphere, but activists tried to bring it to the streets on May Day 2012 in conjunction with Occupy Oakland Muslims Committee, Intifada Tent, Autonomous Afghans, Islamic Labor Council, Lighthouse Masjid (a majority African-American and convert mosque in Oakland), and a diversity of individuals and families who wanted to shed light on the militarization of their home countries and their hoods.

Last but not least, there is the non-profit. Before we can go into a straw-man critique of the Arab/ Muslim non-profit, we must first understand and give justice to the history which birthed it. As Naber explains, the Oslo Accords and the designation of (Palestinian) political parties as terrorist organizations on the State Department website frightened people, and made it dangerous to continue to support these parties financially. This void was quickly filled by the foundations, who were ready and willing to give money, which inevitably shifted much of Arab organizing from the grassroots to the non-profit industrial complex.
Is this not reflective of Palestine, where nearly all economic, civil and social organization that used to account for peoples’ needs and be a vehicle for collective resistance was destroyed and replaced by an eternal reliance on foreign aid and NGOs?

Our parents, the OG’s and the older generation of activists were the ones that salvaged the political organization of the 70s and 80s and funneled the energy into “LAM” (Left Arab Movement). I commend their work, as the 1990s and 2000s were a very real time for repression against Arab and Muslim organizing in the community, workplace and campus. LAM’s Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaigns of the 2000s were solid examples of internationalism that we can look to today. The organizational change from LAM to AROC (Arab Resource and Organizing Center) was an important political and methodological shift that attempted to move beyond the middle-class, college educated, activist constituency. More funding has introduced vital services to the community such as immigration help in Arabic, and AROC has attempted to follow a historical precedent in connecting direct services with political organizing. But the natural ebb and flow of struggle, the times of continual action and the times of serious reflection, have been replaced with synthetic timelines based on funding cycles. Unlike the previous generation of activists, I have had the privilege of growing up in the post-non-profit boom and my activist generation is increasingly critical of the non-profit as a political entity and its proximity to the state.

LAM, AROC and the corresponding joint projects that followed Oslo took up a political ideology that retained in it a vague Marxism, but curricula for political education were underdeveloped and the role of membership was unclear. The onus is not just on all of us hard working non-profit workers; I believe we are also in a transitional time, trying to salvage political organization, mass-based struggle, and cadre building with a generation that refuses to acknowledge the past. “The Party” seems like an anachronism in the eyes of today’s young organizers. And yes, it is necessary to both desert and reform aspects of the ideologies of the 70s, but these structures also had a program for horizontal development and consistency in organizing work. Everyone who was a member was expected both to develop politically and to make practical contributions. Our history is not linear. What preceded us is not a static series of events that have historically exhausted themselves. It is our responsibility to have deep, critical reflection of our work today and assess the effective in addition to the objectionable methods from every attempt that came before us. Let us not internalize Oslo; we are not in the 1990s anymore.

Miriam Qamar grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where she currently resides and works. She studied His- tory at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the American University in Cairo. She is a collective member of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in addition to another Bay Area collective called Advance the Struggle.