In the wake of the riots and killings apparently prompted by a schlocky video about the Prophet Muhammad, American officials seem either enraged or puzzled about how a symbolic cultural product could so powerfully interfere with American policy in the Middle East and North Africa.
Yet, in an era when mass media is ubiquitous globally and the United States has chosen to involve itself rather "intimately" in Arab and Muslim countries, it seems inevitable that numerous cultural narratives, including the notion of an American war against Islam, will compete incessantly to explain the rather strange train of events of the last eleven years. The worst reaction would be to become cynical and simply dismiss the pent-up emotion released by the video as an uncontrollable expression of immaturity: instead, it is a deadly serious indication of foreign policies and cultural messages gone awry.
The Arab Spring, in the early phases, clearly resonated powerfully with many Americans who saw their own aspirations and their own national history in the revolutions, and in turn it was striking how little anti-American sentiment we saw in the first iterations of revolt. At that moment, American leaders had, and perhaps still have, an extraordinary opportunity: if they were able to process and then communicate how the Arab Spring connected to underlying frustrations that led to terrorism in the first place, an forward-thinking leadership could potentially escape the nightmares of the last decade and pursue an authentically American policy based on symbolic support for liberation and freedom that would resonate powerfully with the Arab world at this historical moment. Indeed, this is what the founders of the United States explicitly encouraged and what Americans have historically favored: a foreign policy based on cultural contact, education, and unshakable commitment to one's ideals.
By introducing House Resolution 608 to celebrate 100 years of the Arab-American novel in English, Representatives Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Charles Boustany (R-LA) recalled an early, authentically Arab-American vision of cultural contact presented by Ameen Rihani (1876-1940) in The Book of Khalid (1911). In the novel, two young men from Baalbek, Lebanon migrate to the "Little Syria" area of Manhattan to work as peddlers, but, after several years of exposure to American culture, return to become spiritual-cultural-political revolutionaries in Syria and in the Ottoman Empire, with Khalid announcing "the beginning of Arabia's Spring, the resuscitation of the glory of Islam!" Rihani, who immigrated to New York himself at age eleven, cautions that revolution is a dangerous proposition that requires broad individual transformation to succeed in the long term, and he tries to find compatibility between crucial American philosophical trends of transformation - within Emerson, Thoreau, Irving, and Whitman - and emerging political and religious ideals in the Ottoman Arab territories.
Throughout the last two years, many Arab intellectuals have spoken about the contemporary relevance of Rihani and his cohort of intellectuals within the Nahda, or renaissance, movement. Their fierce commitment to intellectual freedom and anti-sectarianism seems crucial for the Arab Spring to succeed. Well-known Libyan writer and novelist Mohamed al-Asfar even wrote a powerful piece during the revolution about how he imagined Rihani, and his young Khalid, visiting Free Benghazi in the liberating moment. Because of Rihani's fierce opposition to British and French imperialism, his "apostleship" for ideal Arab-American relations, and his friendly and assertive engagement with Arab leadership after World War I, his contemporary appeal uniquely bridges religious barriers that one might assume exist due to his parents being Maronite Christian.
Now, this resolution, which has strong bipartisan support from ten congressional sponsors, has been widely acknowledged in the Arab media, including by al-Jazeera. However, new restrictions against most honorary resolutions in the 112th Congress have restrained its full passage, and, thus, a thoughtful resolution honoring Lebanese-American literature has languished for six months in Rep. Darrell Issa's Oversight Committee.
While we can understand Congress being wary about excessive, time-wasting honorary resolutions and about making exceptions for one group over another, passing House Resolution 608 at this moment would send the powerful message that the United States has other cultural narratives that overwhelm this film in interacting with the Arab and Muslim worlds. This resolution does not celebrate a high school football team's state championship; it celebrates a foundational cultural product of an Arab-American community whose stories and historic role in American society need to be affirmed at the highest political levels. Moreover, the Republican leadership has already made exceptions to the ban on honorary recognition: when Bin Laden was killed, an amendment was added to the Intelligence Authorization Act "honoring the members of the intelligence community for their role in the mission that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011."
The recent Sikh massacre revealed the dangers for ethnic groups whose cultural stories are not adequately communicated in American society, and the United States urgently needs to communicate alternative cultural narratives in the Arab world, while it internalizes their meanings and implications on policy. Congress should pass House Resolution 608, and Arab-Americans and their friends should continue to call their members of congress to ask them to support this resolution and push for passage.