Essay: Arab Americans Racism Before and After 9-11

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Arab-Americans: Racism Before and After September 11, 2001

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Throughout American history, civil liberties have ebbed and flowed in response to times of national crisis and threats to its survival. For example, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and Franklin Roosevelt interred millions of Japanese-Americans following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. These extra- and unconstitutional approaches to ensuring national security, though, have not been without their detractors and such is the case today with the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act and other legislation intended to reinforce the nation's security at the expense of civil liberties in general and the nation's Arab-Americans in particular. This paper provides a review of the peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning racism directed at Arab-Americans both before and after the events of September 11, 2001, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many observers were heard to note that "nothing would ever be the same again," and in some ways they were right. For instance, according to Cole and Dempsey (2002), the terrorist attacks of September 11 have affected the entire world, but especially American society in ways that continue to erode civil liberties without providing the protections of national security that are actually required. Today, threats from Al-Qaeda continue to haunt the American consciousness and it seems that Osama bin Laden will never be captured despite promises from the country's leadership that he was "a dead man walking." The many heads of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization are manifesting themselves in more than 40 countries around the world like so many dragons, and it would seem that an increasing number of Americans are scared that so-called "sleeper cells" comprised of Arab-Americans are already amongst them. According to Sachs (2002), "Before September 11, 2001, Americans cared little about terrorism. Yet because the attack was on American soil, many Americans feared further terrorist attacks by people living within U.S. borders" (p. 1715). Furthermore, the fact that most of the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks were Arabs has not gone unnoticed by most Americans or the mainstream media. In this regard, Michael (2003) advises, "The fact that all nineteen perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were of Arab descent and were Muslims was not lost on the American public. Some people feared that the presence of a large number of immigrants constituted a potential fifth-column threat to America, while others took it upon themselves to strike out in 'revenge' against the Arab and Muslim communities" (p. 203).

In this culture of fear, it is little wonder that Americans might be willing to sacrifice some civil liberties in exchange for being able to feel a little more secure about their lives, but some observers suggest that the price being paid is far too high already. As Welch (2004) emphasizes, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government responded to the threat of terrorism with legislation that affords the government with even greater powers over citizens and non-citizens; a number of aspects of the ongoing war on terrorism have proved to be particularly controversial because they diminish individual freedoms, civil liberties, and human rights. According to Welch, "Regrettably, the government's initial response to the threat of terrorism has been fraught with civil and human rights infractions, especially in light of profiling and detentions concealed by a thick wall of secrecy" (p. 113).

This is not to say, though, that instances of racism, discrimination and suspicion of Arab-Americans did not exist prior to the events of September 11, 2001. In this regard, Akram (2002) reports that, "The demonizing of Arabs and Muslims in America began well before the terrible tragedy of September 11, 2001. It can be traced to deliberate mythmaking by film and media, stereotyping as part of conscious strategy of 'experts' and polemicists on the Middle East, the selling of a foreign policy agenda by U.S. government officials and groups seeking to affect that agenda, and a public susceptible to images identifying the unwelcome 'other' in its midst" (p. 61). Likewise, Fox (2001, p. 123) suggests that together with other peoples of color, Arab-Americans have been subjected to "indignities such as police harassment, anti-immigrant legislation, media stereotyping, lower expectations in education, ridicule (of an accent, of physical characteristics), fear and avoidance, questioning of abilities, and so on" even prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11. The portrayal of Arabs in American media prior to September 11 where characterized by stereotypical images of swarthy large-nosed characters for men, and.".. Arab women are usually shown in the harem and they're belly-dancing. Or they're in the chador and the hijab and they're so persecuted... Or usually, they're just the seductress" (Fox, p. 146). Indeed, Arab-American men were typically depicted "as terrorists rather than as the ordinary people most of them are" (Fox, p. 146). Moreover, even prior to September 11, it would seem that the mainstream media had plenty of ammunition to use in their campaign of racism against Arab-Americans and the impact of such stereotyping can be alarming. According to Dr. James Zogby, executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, "Each year at our children's school there is a Halloween parade. The kids wear a variety of imaginative costumes and receive prizes. This year (1980), eight were dressed as ugly Arabs, wearing exaggerated noses, carrying oil cans and/or bags of money" (quoted in Shaheen, 1984 at p. 23). Not surprisingly, though, September 11 made such stereotyping even more acceptable to many Americans. For instance, Sachs (2002) emphasizes that, "A new racism has surfaced in the aftermath of September 11. Rather than targeting African-Americans, or Japanese-Americans, perpetrators have committed hate crimes against Arab-Americans. Further, a recent study shows that sixty-four percent of Americans now trust the federal government to do the right thing almost always or at least most of the time" (p. 1715).

Clearly, these stereotypical perceptions of Arab-Americans are pervasive and longstanding, but they do not come solely from the media. For instance, according to Akram, "Anti-Arab racism does not emanate from a single source, and certainly is not limited to passions stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict" (p. 62). A number of different types of Arab-American racism can be identified, including the following:

The first, and most obvious, is the political violence of Jewish extremist groups, which is correctly viewed as emanating from the Arab-Israeli conflict;

The second is a more nativistic violence which is xenophobic and local in nature, and,

The third is a form of jingoist hostility and violence usually associated with international crises involving U.S. citizens (Akram).

Furthermore, racism against the Arab-Americans has typically assumed some different patterns from the racism directed at African-Americans in the past in ways that make it especially difficult to counter. In this regard, Babbitt and Campbell note that racism against Arab-Americans "does not characteristically take the form of declaring them to be inferior in order to account for and justify subordinate positions in society. Rather, nonsubordinate, vulnerable groups are the target of racism in the form of race- or ethnicity-based hatred, resentments, or horribly offensive stereotyping" (p. 93). As defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, hate crimes are "traditional offenses motivated by the offender's bias" (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2002, p. 3). According to Babbit and Campbell, incidences of hate crimes against Arab-Americans were evident well before the terrorist attacks of September 11:

During the [first] Gulf War, such an incident of anti-Arab persecution took place in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where an Arab-American family was driven from its home. Although active, actional anti-Arab racism was most prominent during that period, the widely held stereotypes of Arabs and Arab-Americans (the distinction is not clearly made in the popular mind in the United States) as terrorists and cutthroats are in some ways among the most objectionable ethnic and racial stereotypes of any group in the United States (emphasis added) (Babbitt & Campbell, p. 264)

While hate crimes were not confined to Arab-Americans prior to September 11 (Jacobs & Henry, 1996), they have become much more pronounced since that time (Chermak, Bailey & Brown, 2003). According to these authors, an increasing number of Americans believe that "the events of September 11 make it a necessary and effective deterrence to racially profile Arab-Americans and Muslims" (Chermak et al., p. 43). Likewise, Michael (2003) reports that, "In the aftermath of the attacks there was a marked increase in the number of bias crimes, including assaults and vandalism against Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans, and even those who were mistakenly identified as such because of their physical appearance" (p. 203).

It would seem that such hate crimes are intended to exact the retribution that some Americans feel is necessary in order to restore the balance in ways reminiscent of Jimmy Doolittle's attack on Tokyo following Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In the absence of an established target, though, Arab-Americans have been singled out for this purpose. For instance, Gokay and Walker (2003) note that, "Many examples of American public figures,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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