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Arab Americans

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"Who Are Arab Americans?"

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Helen Samhan

From Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia
© 2001 Groliers Multimedia Encyclopedia
Used by permission of The Arab American Institute.

Arab Americans


Arab Americans are as diverse as the national origins and immigration experiences that have shaped their ethnic identity in the United States, with religious affiliation being one of the most defining factors. The majority of Arab Americans descend from the first wave of mostly Christian immigrants. Sharing the faith tradition of the majority of Americans facilitated their acculturation into American society, as did high intermarriage rates with other Christian ethnic groups. Even though many Arab Christians have kept their Orthodox and Eastern Rite church (Greek Catholic, Maronite, Coptic) affiliations, which have helped to strengthen ethnic identification and certain rituals, their religious practices have not greatly distinguished them from the Euro-centric American culture. Roughly two-thirds of the Arab population identifies with one or more Christian sect.

Due to the steady increase since the 1950s, Arab Muslims represent the fastest growing, albeit still minority, segment of the Arab American community. Muslim Arabs in America have many more religious traditions and practices that are unique to their faith and may compete with prevailing American behavior and culture. The beliefs of Islam place importance on modesty, spurn inter-faith marriage, and disapprove of American standards of dating or gender integration. Religious practices that direct personal behavior - including the five-times-daily prayers, the month-long fast at Ramadan, beards for men, and the wearing of the hijab (headcover) for women - require special accommodations in such places as work, school, and the military, thereby making Muslims more visible than most religious minorities and thus often vulnerable to bigotry. Concern for retaining customs among their mostly U.S.-born children has prompted Arab Muslims in large communities to open private Islamic schools.

Another strong motivation for private schooling is so the Arabic language can be incorporated into the curriculum. Since the retention of any foreign language beyond the first U.S.-born generation is a challenge, and since Arabic is required to study the Qur'an, Muslim families look to private schools or weekend programs to keep the language alive. In 1998, the public school system in Virginia's Fairfax County joined Dearborn, Michigan, in offering Arabic as an accredited foreign language.

Print and broadcast media that carry Arabic or bilingual material are expanding in such large population centers as Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. In 1991, the Arab Network of America (ANA) became the first to produce and nationally broadcast Arabic programming. While bilingualism is disappearing in the most assimilated subgroups, nearly half of Arab American households report some Arabic use.

Politics is another area where Arab Americans are diverse. Party affiliation is evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Voter registration and education efforts in recent years have improved participation, with polls showing Arab Americans more likely to vote (69%) than the citizenry as a whole. Recognition of the Arab bloc vote is recent. Clusters in key battleground states such as Michigan and Ohio have brought attention to an otherwise invisible constituency. In 2000, both major presidential candidates held meetings with Arab American community leaders, and the Democratic and Republican parties each sponsored appeals to Arab voters in key states.

Arab Americans hold public office at all levels. Four have served in the U.S. Senate, including George Mitchell (1980-1995), of Maine, and six currently serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Arab Americans have served in the cabinets and other high offices of Republican and Democratic administrations, including Chief of Staff John H. Sununu under President George Bush, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala under President Bill Clinton, and and most recently, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Office of Management and Budget director Mitchell Daniels under President George W. Bush. Arab Americans have been governors of Oregon and New Hampshire and have served in state legislatures. More than thirty have been mayors of U.S. cities, among them Bridgeport, Connecticut, El Paso, Texas, and St. Paul, Minnesota. Most of the Arab Americans in public office, including scores on city councils and school boards, descend from the earlier wave of Lebanese/Syrian immigrants.

The shape and intensity of ethnic identity varies widely between the first and second waves of Arab Americans. For all generations, ethnic affinity is resilient in food, extended-family rituals, and religious fellowship. Those immigrating since the 1950s and most Muslim families are likely to relate less with the white majority culture and more with subcultures in which religious, national-origin, and language traditions are preserved. For those who live in ethnic enclaves, intra-group marriage, and family businesses often limit outside social interaction.

Although the U.S. census classifies Arabs as white along with the European majority, a sizable number believe they are not treated as whites, but more like such other minorities as Asians Americans and Hispanic Americans (see " Not Quite White: Race Classification and the Arab American Experience "). Not surprisingly, there is no consensus among all generations of Arab Americans on this question, nor is there yet a move in the federal government to measure Arabs separately. In some arenas, however, such as higher education, some health agencies, and even in market research, Middle Eastern ethnicity is classified separately, a trend that is likely to expand to other institutions.

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