Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania

Call me Arab, not MENA

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By Ray Hanania

No ethnic group in America suffers more than Arabs, even more so than African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans.

Why do I say that? Because all of the groups I mentioned, with the exception of Arab Americans, are protected by American laws against discrimination and included in the U.S. Census.

There is a small group of Arab Americans, working with Asian and other ethnic groups, who are pushing to replace the word “Arab” with “MENA” (Middle East and North Africa).

Americans don’t attack people because they are “MENA.” They attack them because they are Arab or Muslim.

RayHanania

Ray Hanania

Muslims are a broad identity in America. The majority of Muslims are African American, and African Americans have many legal protections from discrimination, including an entire array of civil rights laws.

The smallest group of American Muslims are Arab. So it is wrong to assume that when legislation is adopted to confront Islamophobia, or when American officials denounces Islamophobia, they are addressing discrimination against Arabs.

The majority of Arabs in America are Christians, who are often marginalized by both the Arab world and non-Arab Christian world.

Confronting the discrimination of Arabs by mainstream America is necessary because racism in this country targets Arabs and Muslims, not “MENA.”

Creating a MENA category on its own only derails efforts to protect Arabs, because Arabs are not defined in the MENA category that some activists want added to the Census.

Christian Arabs like myself are constantly criticized because critics perceive me as being Muslim. Personally, as a longtime activist for Arab civil rights, I always argue I am Christian by religion, but Muslim by culture, assuring Muslims I am not trying to separate Christians from Muslims.

Recently in Chicago, a small group of Arabs convinced newly elected State Rep. Abdelnasser Rashid (D-21st) to introduce a law that would direct the State of Illinois to conduct a study of discrimination faced by the “MENA” community. Once the study is done, legislation would be introduced to designate the MENA community as a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) category.

That means MENA individuals would qualify for a portion of the billions in contract set-asides for MBE categories that now currently include, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women.

But the move is more about politics than improving Arab rights. I think Rashid, who is a genuinely good leader, is being duped by a small group of self-serving activists.

State Rep. Cyril Nichols (D-32nd) last year introduced legislation to designate Arabs as an MBE class. It has the support of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, the Arab American Democratic Club, and the National Arab American Journalists Association.

Nichols has been a champion of fighting for the rights of Arab Americans, who are constituents in his district. He has frequently arranged for Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch to meet the leaders of mosques and Arab churches to stress that the rights of Arabs — not MENA — are a priority for the new legislature under his leadership and under the leadership of Representative Nichols.

Nichols’ district runs from Chicago to Bridgeview and includes, blacks, whites, Hispanics and Arabs.

“I represent them all fairly, equally and without any hesitation,” Nichols told me.

Nichols’ legislation also has the support of African American legislators who set aside concerns that opening the door to Arabs as an MBE category would dilute funding African Americans would receive. In other words, some feel the “pie” of state contract set-asides is already divided among at least four groups.

Nichols was concerned when he observed the Arab community “divide itself” and choose politics over MBE equality.

The MENA activists are buoyed by support from Gov. JB Pritzker, who has a rocky relationship with many Arab American and Muslim groups. Pritzker has a history of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab campaign rhetoric that began when he denounced a prominent Illinois Muslim group as being “terrorists” when he ran and failed to win the Ninth Congressional District election in 1998.

MENA is a political ploy to divide the Arab community and to empower a small handful of Arabs who want to be “the leaders.”

No one ever attacked me and called me “a dirty MENA.”

Ending anti-Arab racism won’t come from the vague term MENA. It will come when Americans are forced to recognize and respect Arabs as Arabs. But Arabs won’t get that respect if we empower ourselves using the diluted term of MENA.

Nichols’ legislation should be the focus of Arab American efforts in the southwest suburbs, and they should turn away from the small handful of activists who always ask for money, but do nothing but empower themselves.

(Ray Hanania is a former Chicago City Hall reporter and award-winning columnist. Visit his website at hanania.com.)

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