Saturday, July 7, 2007

Where Do Arab Americans Fit In?

Jack Shaheen, a renowned scholar and retired professor from Southern Illinois University, has recently become famous for his book and subsequent documentary, entitled "Reel Bad Arabs." Both highlight the ways in which Hollywood and American media have long presented stereotypical views of Arabs. while it is true that Hollywood villifies Arabs to a much greater extent than any other minority group, Shaheen's work brings much-needed attention to the underlying issue: how do Arab-Americans fit into American society, especially in the post-9/11 era?

While we have seen a dramatic increase in negativity towards Arabs in American since 9/11, this is not, by any stretch of the mind, a new phenomenon. In his book entitled "The Arabs," veteran journalist David Lamb tries to understand the Arab people and make sense of where Arab-American relations went wrong. He explores specific decisions in history that have had a much more significant consequences than our leaders at the time could have ever predicted.

For instance, he elaborates on how President Roosevelt, after World War Two, promised that he would not make any decisions on the critical Palestinian issue without consulting King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia. However, this promise was quickly forgotten as Roosevelt's motives changed. "The irony," Lamb says, "of the uneasy course that Arab-American relations have taken is that the Arabs were America's first real friends in the vast Islamic world." And it is a friendship that dates back to the end of the American Revolution, yet somehow disintegrated in the twentieth century. When Roosevelt died and Harry S. Truman succeeded him, he was asked to follow through with the American commitment to consult Saudi Arabia before deciding what to do with Palestine. His response? "I am sorry, gentlemen, but I have to account to hundreds of thousands of people who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents." American foreign policy has long ignored the interests of Arabs, and thereby increased tensions and misunderstandings between Arabs and America -- and worsened the situation of Arabs in America.

But Truman's statement may be inaccurate; Arab-American immigrants have desperately sought to assimilate. Many Arab immigrants in the twentieth century "anglicized" their names in immigration; many were Christian, and could easily fit in and celebrate the same holidays as everyone else in America; and most importantly, they were white, or at last considered white by the US census, so in the immigration and assimilation a part of their heritage was lost and today it is not always easy to differentiate Arab-Americans from the rest. However, according to No Snow Here, "Several decades later, a new wave of immigrants arrived, “fresh off the boat” with funny names and different religions. Assimilation was not as easy for this wave of immigrants, nor was it necessarily desirable or vital to survival."

And yet, they are still here, and often overlooked, simply because America just can't figure them out. They follow a different, foreign religion that most of America doesn't agree with and doesn't understand, they pray on Fridays, their women cover their heads, and many of them are terrorists--right? Think of every instance in which you've seen Arabs in the media. They're either a) terrorists, such as in one episode of 24, b) portrayed in a very exoticized manner that caters to American stereotypes what what the Arab world must be like (think Aladdin) or c)they're on the news everyday for a new suicide bombing somewhere in the world.

Like many minority groups that have come to America, Arab Americans are misunderstood, they're highly critical of American government and how our policies have affected their homelands, and they aren't always ready or willing to assimilate. Arab Americans have been villified, stereotyped, and been treated worse than any other minority group in America. A report from the US Commission on Civil Rights details how innocent Arab Americans have been subject to racial profiling, extensive searches at airports, and employment discrimination. Under the Federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Arab Americans have been detained and sometimes deported by the American government without knowing the charges or evidence against them, and have been denied their right to due process of law. When will it end? And what does it take to put a stop to this?


Anonymous said...

A thought-provoking post, Nisha. I think you are right to point out the role the media has in mediating the extent to which Arabs can, or indeed, even want to, assimilate into American culture.

Another interesting aspect of this issue is all that fuss that cultural and foreign policy conservatives like Lieberman have made about the "radicalization" of Muslim youth in America (obviously not entirely coexstensive with the Arab Americans, but there is great overlap). The more Muslim youth engage with the American media and political system, the less appeal radical Islam will have. But it will also mean the rise of a consciously pro-Arab pro-Muslim political bloc, which appears to be highly critical of US foreign policy, demanding of stronger environmental policy, and convinced that universal health care is a critical need. Not exactly what conservatives have in mind, eh?

I look forward to more Arab and Muslim participation in the system, but conservatives should not think they can woo the Muslim youth of this country without listening to their real political demands - which will include foreign and domestic policies that treat Arabs as people, not cartoon villains.

nosnowhere said...

to say that we have been treated "worse than any other minority group in America" is HUGELY problematic. number one, because it's just not true. number two, are we trying to win some sort of contest here? i am really opposed to this re-writing of history.