Celebrating the History and Contributions of Arab Americans

On April 19, 2021, President Biden became the first sitting president to recognize National Arab American Heritage Month, which has been celebrated by states and cultural leaders since the 1990s. Let’s dive deeper into the many aspects of why we celebrate this important group.

Who Are Arab Americans?

Arab Americans come from a variety of countries, cultures and ethnicities. Geographically, they hail from countries that range from Morocco on the Atlantic coast to Oman on the Arabian Sea. Mirroring the geographic diversity, the wide variety of ethnicities and religions makes it tricky to easily categorize this group.

Perhaps the biggest common factor derives from Arabic culture, which benefits from the shared language that spreads over the territory from Western Asia to the Middle East to Northern Africa. An article in Arab America cites four cultural norms in Arab American culture:

  • Respect for elders/traditional family roles
  • Food
  • Education
  • Hospitality

While the Arab world is overwhelmingly Muslim, with Sunnis and Shiites being the largest Islamic groupings along with members of the Druze and Sufi communities, other represented religions include Christianity and Judaism.

According to the Arab American Institute (AAI), 63 percent of Arabs living in the U.S. are Christian.

How Arabs Became Americans

Perhaps not surprisingly, as a result of being minorities in their respective Arab countries, those of the Christian faith comprised the bulk of early immigration to the United States.

The first generation of Arab immigrants came to the U.S. in the late 19th century, partly because of religious persecution in their native countries, but also due to the economic opportunities that drove larger numbers of peoples from all over the globe to move to the “Land of Opportunity.” These immigrants were mostly from greater Syria within the Ottoman Empire, which now represents the countries of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.

Middle Eastern American Resources online provides a detailed lesson plan about this early immigration that focuses on accounts by two immigrants-one Muslim and one Christian-as they encountered new challenges and opportunities in the New World.

Restrictive immigration laws stemmed the influx from the Middle East and other countries through the early 20th century. As a result of general political uprising and unrest after World War II, the second wave of Arabic immigration began to settle in the U.S.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 loosened restrictions on immigrants from non-European countries and new citizens from the Arab world. While this wave was primarily made up of elites from affected countries, they were generally Palestinian Muslims who were escaping the turbulence between Israel and its neighboring countries.

Later inflows in the 21st century emigrated from countries in North Africa, particularly Somalia where the diaspora of Somalis was boosted by its decades-long civil war.

Gaining Political Power

With multiple generations of Arab Americans having resided in the United States since its founding, and successive arrivals to these shores, many Arab Americans are looking to increase their representation and influence in America.

Early Arab immigrants to the United States were required to check “White” as their ethnicity on official forms to gain admittance. As questions of identity and representation increasingly come to the forefront, many Americans are pushing to have Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) added as identifiers on census forms.

Notable Arab Americans

Whatever their origins or religion or ethnicity, Arab Americans have actively contributed much to the political, cultural and economic life of America.

Steve Jobs is one of the most notable figures in the 20th and 21st centuries, having contributed to the personal computer revolution and led two corporate giants: Apple and Pixar.

Perhaps one of the most interesting results of the diversity of Arab Americans is the range of political stances taken by various Arab Americans.

Congresspeople Darrell Issa and Rashida Tlaib might sit on opposite sides of the political fence, but they share Arab American roots. John Sununu governed the state of New Hampshire for one term among many other political positions, while his son Chris has already served three terms as governor for the Granite State.

Arab American Heritage Month

Recognition of Arab American Heritage Month has been a grass-roots effort, with the only official announcement on the federal level being President Biden’s proclamation.

Efforts to promote and formalize this celebration of Arab Americans has been supported by the Arab American Foundation. This foundation publishes information on Arab Americans, including educational resources and content.

The National Endowment for the Humanities published a Virtual Bookshelf of articles and films that aim to highlight the experience and cultures of Arab Americans.

Take time during this month to educate yourself and celebrate your fellow Americans!

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UC Berkeley Extension

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UC Berkeley Extension is the continuing education branch of the University of California, Berkeley. We empower learners to meet educational and career goals.

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