Arabs won’t win America’s respect by rebranding as MENA

Ray Hanania

No ethnic group in America suffers more than Arabs. Why do I say that? Because all other groups – such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans – are protected by anti-discrimination laws and are included in the US Census.
There is a small group of Arab Americans, working with Asian and other ethnic groups, who are pushing to replace “Arab” with “MENA” – people from the Middle East and North Africa – as a compromise to get their ethnicity added as an option in the census. But MENA represents discrimination that goes far beyond Arab. If MENA truly represented Arabs, why not just propose that the word “Arab” be the focus of these efforts? Arabs and Muslims are not attacked because they are “MENA.” If they are attacked, it is because they are Arab and/or Muslim.
Muslims have a broad identity in America. The majority of ethnic minority Muslims are African American and African Americans have many legal protections from discrimination, including an entire array of civil rights laws. Relatively few are Arab, so it is wrong to assume that, when legislation is adopted to confront Islamophobia or when American officials denounce Islamophobia, they are addressing discrimination against Arabs.
Confronting discrimination against Arabs by mainstream America is necessary because it is Arabs and Muslims who are the targets, not “MENA.” Creating a MENA category in the census would only derail efforts to protect Arabs, because their actual ethnicity would still not be defined. However, I understand why some people are pushing for MENA over Arab, as it is a broader category that is interpreted as including Africans, Asians and others.
Recently in Chicago, a small group of Arabs convinced newly elected Illinois State Rep. Abdelnasser Rashid to introduce a law to direct the state to conduct a disparity study into discrimination faced by the MENA community. Once the study is done, and if MENA is added to the legal definition of minority persons, it could allow MENA individuals – whatever that term means – to qualify for the Minority Business Enterprise scheme. That means they would be eligible for a portion of the billions of dollars in contracts set aside for various minorities, currently including Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women. But the move is more about politics than improving the rights of Arabs in Illinois.
State Rep. Cyril Nichols last year introduced legislation to designate Arabs as a Minority Business Enterprise category. It has the support of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, the Arab American Democratic Club and the National Arab American Journalists Association. It also has the support of African American legislators, who put aside any concerns that opening the door to Arabs would dilute the funding African Americans would receive. However, Nichols was concerned when he saw the Arab community “divide itself” and choose politics over Minority Business Enterprise equality.
Anti-Arab discrimination and political rhetoric happen often, as has already been documented in several studies conducted in Illinois. Another study is not necessary. It is merely a political ploy to divide the Arab American community and separate its members from the word “Arab,” which is considered more offensive to Americans than the milder, more innocuous “MENA.” No one ever attacked me and called me a “dirty MENA.” Anti-Arab racism will not be ended by rebranding Arabs as MENA. That can only happen when Americans recognize and respect Arabs as Arabs. But Arabs will not get that respect if we attempt to empower ourselves using the diluted term MENA.