In a series of unprecedented moves, President Joe Biden took steps seen as helping to politically and socially integrate the Arab American community. He included six Arab Americans in his administration in his first week in office; declared Arab Americans as partners in the nation and committed himself to ending bigotry against them; increased the refugee admission cap, which is likely to open the door to desperate refugees from Syria and Yemen; and ended the Muslim ban, which affects many Arabs wanting to travel to the United States. Yet, rather than quickly deeming these as “victories” for Arab American communities, the task is to look beyond individual policy stances or political slogans.
There is a need to explore the root causes of the problems that Biden claims his partnership with Arab Americans will address, and to ask about the extent to which his administration is committed to unraveling the underlying systems that maintain anti-Arab bigotry or the structures that make policies like the Muslim ban possible. A “root-cause” approach allows envisioning structural changes that can ensure not only an end to anti-Arab bigotry but also a world where anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism become unimaginable.
A root-cause approach to explore the systems that perpetuate anti-Arab bigotry is essential. For instance, it is well established that the problem of racism against African Americans in the United States is rooted in the systems of policing and prisons and that the disenfranchisement of Native Americans rests on a history of land confiscation. This explains why, in 2008, most Black racial justice advocates understood that as long as these systems remain intact, the election of a black president was not going to end anti-Blackness. This also explains why indigenous advocates affirmed the important election of two indigenous women to the US Congress after the Standing Rock sit-in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, despite the fact that this will not stop the US government’s trespassing on indigenous land.
Indeed, the root cause of anti-Arab bigotry, or what may be more precisely described as anti-Arab racism, is actually a war of domination and power. The post-Cold War period was one when anti-Arab racism developed in the United States, a country that had committed itself to an imperial expansion in the Arab region. This enabled and facilitated Israeli settler-colonialism through military and diplomatic support. To justify US-led wars in the Arab world, a “terrorism” framework was created and implemented to portray all Palestinians and Arabs as Muslims and all Muslims as potential terrorists. In this sense, the global reach of anti-Arab racism is intertwined with the policies impacting Arab Americans.
Moreover, militarist agendas in the Arab region, such as bombings or sanctions, rely on the same “terrorism” framework to be deployed against Arab Americans, such as surveillance, FBI entrapment, or No-Fly lists. Thus, now the question is: does the Biden plan of inclusion offer a vision for ending the global war on Arabs and the domestic war on Arab Americans? If not, what does it mean for the community to be included while, at the same time, be held responsible in a system that structurally, institutionally, and politically not only devalues its members but also justifies the detention, deportation, displacement, surveillance, and in many cases, the killing of Arabs or Arab Americans through the racist “terrorism” framework?
A critique of the neoliberal politics that guides the Democratic Party can also help inform an analysis of the significance of Arab American inclusion within the Biden Administration. Neoliberal politics appropriates the discourse of multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion to cover up the violent systems of racial inequality, US settler-colonialism, and white supremacy. In other words, multicultural “inclusion” obscures the centrality of racializing Arabs and Arab Americans as “potential terrorists” within the neoliberal economic agenda of the war on terror. It would then be legitimate to ask whether, and to what extent, the inclusion of Arab Americans in the Biden Administration falls short in realizing systemic changes many Arab Americans hope to see. How does such inclusion help to normalize the system of capital accumulation through the war-mongering that allows the United States to maintain global power?
Indeed, celebrations of Biden’s plan to partner with Arab Americans obscure not only his past support for the American wars on Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s but also the future that many progressive scholars and activists are projecting. Analyst of domestic counterterrorism policies Nicole Nguyen believes that the Biden Administration may not only continue but probably expand the war on terror through the “domestic terrorism” framework. Biden has announced the expansion of the Trump Administration’s Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention program that was originally directed against Arab and Muslim communities, which are always accused of violence and terrorism.
Given Biden’s career-long history of supporting Israel’s aggression toward Palestinians, there is also little hope that he will end Trump’s 2019 Executive Order “Combating Anti-Semitism,” which conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and enforces the repression of Arab American activism. To that end, the Biden Administration has endorsed the new International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism that is likely to limit Americans’ First Amendment-guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
While Biden publicly pledges to protect the free speech of all Americans and repudiates efforts that criminalize free speech, he simultaneously rejects the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and, by extension, supports the criminalization of free speech for Arab Americans. Laws used in federal terrorism prosecutions have a similar chilling effect, creating a culture of fear around community-based activism, social service work, and philanthropy. This explains why Arab American progressive scholar Noura Erakat told this author she is not quite optimistic about seeing a Palestinian in office or an African American woman as US ambassador to the United Nations, given her opposition to BDS and Palestinian rights. Similarly, Columbia University Arab American professor Rashid Khalidi doubts that the presence of Arab Americans in the Biden Administration will make much difference because Palestine remains the third rail of American politics.
To be sure, Arab American inclusion represents a shift, even if tokenistic or symbolic. At least the Arab Americans Biden appointed are not explicitly pro-war. Yet no one can expect Biden’s agenda to scratch the surface, let alone attend to the root causes of anti-Arab racism which can help to unravel its many effects. Biden’s opposition to the International Criminal Court’s war crimes probe of Israel, and the strike he authorized in eastern Syria, may indicate that the inclusion of Arab Americans serves as a marketing strategy or brand, rather than a sign of systemic change.
This does not mean that Arab Americans should opt out of electoral politics altogether. Indeed, opting out is a privilege the community cannot afford. The hope is that the Arab Americans who have been included in the Biden Administration follow the lead of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who has opened up new possibilities for an integration of electoral politics with grassroots movements that represent communities impacted by unjust racial, gendered, and socioeconomic policies.
Through the integration of social movements and policy agendas, Arab Americans need a collective vision far more radical than neoliberal multicultural inclusion. They need to affirm the expectation, the hope, and the possibility of a society rooted in the principles of collective care and dignity for all, one where no one is disposable and where any and all forms of containment, racism, colonization, and war become truly unimaginable.
Nadine S. Naber is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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