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Exploration of the Arab-American Muslim Community

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Arab-Americans comprise an ethnicity consisting of groups of people from 22 countries spread across south-west Asia and North Africa. Some refer to them as Middle Eastern. These people immigrated to America during the 19th century and continue to do so up to date, albeit in smaller numbers. The majority of the easily identified Arab-Americans are Muslims even though they are the minority of the community. The Muslim Arab-Americans mostly stand out because of their religious and traditional practices. The noticeable practices of the Muslim Arabs are: Ramadan fasting, attending of Mosque on Friday, among others. These people also commonly stand out because of their dressing especially the women who wear ‘hijabs’ or ‘burqas.’ The burqa is an enveloping and modest attire that covers the body from head to toe and is mostly worn by Islamic women in public. The men also sometimes spot long beards. Unlike other foreign cultures and ethnicities in the United States, the Arab American Muslims have maintained their traditions; consistently passing them onto their children. This being evident from the learning that takes place in open Islamic private schools (Samhan). These noticeable features coupled with the fact that these Muslim Arabs do not inter-marry, makes the community an easy target for discrimination and bigotry. Their distinguishing features have also formed the basis of the stereotyping of Arab Muslims living in America. Hamza, Yaseen, El-Houbi, Duncan and Diaz (18) explain that most media channels in the early years typecast Arab Muslims as billionaires, bombers with veiled harems and long beards. Most of these stereotypes have since been done away with but the image of a Muslim bomber or terrorist has remained. The US census classifies the Arabs as whites but some Arabs especially the Muslims have felt discriminated against. This has mostly been experienced since the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. There was however discrimination of Arab Muslims pre the September 11 attacks. The first wave of Arab American immigrants was confronted with discrimination on the simple ground that they were foreign but it was not that rampant. The Arab-Israeli conflict increased bias against the Middle Eastern culture owing to the fact that America supported Israel. Discrimination against Arab American Muslims was also experienced because of the war that America had been fighting in Iraq against Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was a dictator who had committed heinous crimes against humanity and was finally captured and hanged by the US government in 2006. These images of dictators and wars from Middle East had served as a way of stereotyping Middle Eastern people since that was the only way they were portrayed by the media. Discrimination against Arab-Americans was however not so pronounced as that of the other races and ethnicities such as blacks and Hispanics. Discrimination however increased with the images in the media and also terror attacks such as the 1993 bombing of World Trade Centre.

A new wave of stereotyping and extreme bias became evident following the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001. This discrimination was based on the fact that the terror gang in Afghanistan identified as Al Qaeda was said to be responsible for the twin attacks. The hijackers of the planes that crashed into the twin towers were all identified as Muslims. The attacks saw Muslim Arabs in America all pigeonholed as terrorists. This was mostly seen in the airports where some even refused to board planes with a Muslim passenger. There has also been closer scrutiny of immigrants from Middle East. In some airports, the Muslim Arabs have been subjected to stricter standards. Personally, I must admit that after the terror attacks, I became more alert and conscious about the Muslims around me. The terror attacks made Americans angry as many had lost their lives and some still suffer the adverse effects of the tragedy. In some States, it was reported that Muslims were insulted in public and attacked. Mosques were also vandalized and burnt in some places. Extreme hatred and contempt was also shown to anyone who associated themselves with the Arab Muslims. The attacks created an image of bloodthirsty, religious fanatic and animalistic Arab Muslims which saw their discrimination rampantly increase. The Council of American Islamic Relations reported that after 2001, hate crimes against Muslims tripled. The American government also closed down six charities belonging to American Muslims, following the attacks. There has also been unconscious discrimination in the criminal justice system where there has been detention and torture of suspected terrorists and this has mostly been applicable to Arab American Muslims. This was mostly seen in the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison.

The stereotypes of Arab American Muslims according to the findings of this research are not true. Other studies have also proved that Arab American Muslims are very different from the terrorists. There are also many Arab American Muslims who have spoken openly against jihad and other extremist behavior. Most Muslims advocate that Islam is a religion of peace. Arab American Muslims are also from various countries with various cultures. They do not all come from Afghanistan or war torn areas. It was however observed in my research that Islam calls for modesty and conservatism and that is why the women have to cover their heads. The men do not however have to spot long beards or look like Osama bin Laden. The Arab American Muslim community is as diverse as any other community and they do not all fit in one pigeonhole.

Having viewed movies and documentaries about the Middle East and especially the Muslim community, I had formed opinions and stereotypes about them. The September 11, 2001 also shaped most of my opinions about the community. I had not interacted with people of this community before, and there was no way of verifying the ideas and concepts that I had gathered from the media. This research has however helped me to interact with some members of the Arab American Muslim community. I have conducted interviews on their thoughts on racial bias in America and how at home they feel in America especially after the 2001 attacks. I have also visited websites such as alhewar.com which elaborate on the Arab American culture and dispels some of the myths held about the community in America. To fully understand the extent of the discrimination and the daily struggles of Muslim Arabs in America, I had to immerse myself in their culture. I decided to be one of the Muslims for a whole week. This meant telling people that I was Muslim and dressing like one. I also walked together with the Muslim group of people that I had chosen to help me with the research. This experience proved to be quite enlightening and challenging at the same time. It was also worthwhile and gave me the opportunity to be able to experience everything first hand.

Methodology

The cyberspace has a lot of information on the Arab American Muslim community. This is where most of the information on this research was obtained from. The interviews with the Muslims were also a reliable and first hand source of information on the group. The research also relied on journal articles and television interviews and popular shows. As has been mentioned above, I researched about the Muslim Arab community by becoming one of them. The Muslim group of people who were my interviewees also served as my guides in order to make the experience more real. Everywhere we went, people understood that I was one of the Muslims and treated me as one. The Muslim community treated me with utmost hospitality even though they understood that I was not one of them. There were however stares from strangers on the streets and a shopkeeper once refused to serve us on the basis that he did not support terrorists. The discrimination was disheartening as it felt like an ambush on me even though I knew I was not a Muslim. This was the part that brought some apprehension on my part. This is because no one likes to be attacked or be discriminated against. The anxiety was also heightened by the outright confrontations from some members of the public some of whom clearly showed their disapproval of Islam. There was also anxiety at first about how the Muslims would respond to the issue of segregation, given the fact that it is still an emotive issue. I also had my doubts on the consequences of posing as a Muslim in America. The immersion however helped me get closer to the Muslim community and it helped develop a sense of trust between me and my Muslim colleagues. The Arab Muslims that I had interacted with also helped to point the places where they faced acute discrimination and emphasized that that was their daily struggle. During the interaction I found a peculiar thing that I did not expect. There were some Arab Muslims who had chosen to completely abandon their culture as a way of avoiding stereotyping and discrimination. There were also others who wished to go back to their countries of origin as they were afraid of profiling by the government. There were others who also secretly wished they were born in a different race as they were completely disgusted by the terrorists. This presented an issue of hatred of one’s own race or ethnicity. I also asked the research group if they ever thought that the discrimination would come to an end eventually and if the law against discrimination was working in their favour. Most of them were of the idea that the discrimination was unlikely to end in this decade and that anti-discrimination laws did not seem to protect them from outright bias. They felt that the government had removed civil protection of Arab Muslims in America since the September 11 attacks.

Findings

My observations and interviews led me to the conclusion that the Arab American Muslim community has faced tremendous discrimination since 2001. The discrimination has been open in most cases and has led to serious psychological problems for some, for example the case of the man who disowned his ethnicity and Islam. Most of the Muslims would want to dispel the myth that they are all terrorists and extremists. My research on the Muslim culture also revealed that some of the Muslims were fourth generation Americans who had lived in America for a long period of time. They knew America as their home yet when they were seen on the streets people misconceived them as foreigners and worst still terrorists. The discrimination has had impact on the identity of some of the Muslims. Cainkar (23) states that some have preferred to conceal their identity by changing their names, for example one could change from Farouq to Fred. Others have also gone as far as disowning their families in order not to be identified with them. This has been made possible by the fact that Arab American Muslims without any other distinguishing features are considered Caucasian. The interviews and internet research also revealed that the government did not have a strong enough policy to curb the hate crimes and extreme discrimination against the Arab Muslims in America. This has mainly been attributed to the fact that in some cases, the government has been the biased party. The Muslims also revealed that they felt that the government viewed them as the enemies or relatives of the enemies. I also interviewed some members of the public on why they stereotyped Arab American Muslims as terrorists. Some people answered that even though they knew some of the Muslims were not terrorists, then maybe a brother or other relative back home was, making them equally terrorist. This reasoning appalled me because it seemed that going by this, then the families of the millions of criminals in America would also be considered as criminals.

The investigations also revealed that airports have been worst sites of discrimination for Arab American Muslims. This is because of the fact that the September 11 attacks were as a result of two planes that had been hijacked. The presence of a Muslim has therefore heightened anxiety at the airport and in some cases there are special security checks for them. Some are even removed from planes to be given thorough checking. This has culminated to less Muslim Arabs travelling into the country and within the country. The US Department of Justice issued an internal memo to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and US Customs in June 2002. This memo requested that Yemenis entering the US should be sought out in the airports and searched thoroughly. This requirement also applied to Yemeni Americans, and it saw many Yemeni travelers removed from planes and prevented from boarding. No stereotypes that I had before were confirmed during my exploration of the Arab American Muslim community. I realized at the end of the day that no human being is exactly the same as the other. Regardless of the many factors that bind people in a particular ethnicity or race, there were many other different characteristics distinguishing each individual. To work from further judgment of the Arab Americans more so the Muslims, I have decided to access websites and read books to know more about the culture. The colleagues I made from the investigation have also immensely helped me understand many of the things I did not.

Conclusion

This exploration project has helped me to find out a lot more than I could write in this paper. It has also helped me discover more about myself and my own culture. I learnt that discrimination can have far reaching consequences that society does not contemplate. I also learnt that stereotyping and segregation is painful and I understood civil rights movements such as that of Martin Luther King much more clearly. The discrimination of Arab American Muslims has been under-addressed unlike that of blacks in the earlier years. This is mainly because of the terrorist attacks and this has generated pain and suffering. It is clear that many Americans died during the September 2001 attacks, but hatred and segregation of innocent people will definitely not solve the problem of terrorism. The real terrorist culprits should be captured, investigated and sentenced. This was exercised during the Oklahoma City 1998 bombings, where the real culprits were captured. Whidden (2829) states that the Oklahoma City bombings were the worst in America’s history. He also states that Arab American terrorists have been responsible for only a few bombings in American soil since 1984; most terrorist attacks being executed by Americans themselves. This is not to condone or promote terrorism but what I learnt is that in the same way one would not want to pay for the mistakes of another person, Arab Muslims in America would not want to pay for the mistakes of the Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group. Justice should be afforded to all American citizens regardless of their race or ethnicity. There have however been some positive changes since the 2001 attacks and Americans are trying to learn more about Islam. We have to look for the commonalities that unite as Americans instead of erecting differences and tolerating each other (Jamal).

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