Arab Reality Check (12/01)

Do Arab Americans really deserve being bashed about as they are today? It’s a sorry sight: pushed off airlines because other passengers are frightened by our looks. Our scarves yanked off us, our children bullied, our people blamed for heinous crimes, insulted, eyed with suspicion. Customers at our stores gone, our mosques firebombed, threats left on phone machines, and hate words sprayed on our cars and shops.

It’s ugly. Shocking. Frightening. No, we don’t deserve this. But then, nobody deserves it. There is plenty of racial hatred in this land – against Asians, Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics. At long last, welcome to the Arabs, they say.

Today, many African Americans in particular are smiling, whispering to each other, “What’s the big deal? We’ve been experiencing this for centuries. In fact,” some say, “it’s a relief to have the cops busy stopping and rounding up other people for a change.”

How did Arabs avoid getting profiled until now? Because we never immersed ourselves in the fundamental struggle for justice. In fact, we systematically avoided it. So we never developed the moral backbone needed to change the US. Maybe this is our chance to face it.

I’m a fair skinned Arab and, like many others, for most of my life, eluded any racism that might have been directed at me. We changed our names from Mohammed to Mike, Khalil to Kelly, Rahijha to Rose, Nimri to Norma. I didn’t wear a head scarf to distinguish my religion, and I worked hard to get rid of my accent. If people thought I was Greek or Jewish, that was OK. Immigrants adapt remarkably quickly – if they can.

Most light skinned Arabs, here now for more than a century, managed to avoid issues of justice. Unlike Chinese, Japanese, Indians, or North Africans, those of us from the Levant slipped through. We bask in the knowledge that Dr. DeBaky, Ralph Nader, George Mitchell, and Helen Thomas are Arabs and celebrated US citizens. If there was distaste and suspicion directed against us, we pretended not to notice. How could Danny Thomas be so loved if Arabs were loathed?

So, we slipped along – until 1967, when we were compelled to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Then came the Iranian hostage crisis, the iconoclast Salman Rushdie, and a series of wars in the Middle East. Some of us couldn’t hide our ideologies, so we began to be identified with things un-American – our religion and opposition to Israeli policies. We shouted and we wrote. And when the violence passed, we slunk back into our hole. We told ourselves that the antagonism newly directed at us was due to a political crisis, or Zionist campaigns, never to some defect in US society. Thus, we passed the crisis, never identifying the wrongs we experienced with those of others, namely darker skinned people and Asian Americans. It was just a nasty historical incident, not something basic to the US, or to us.

Thus, Arab Americans never really came to terms with basic injustices rampant in this country, nor with the racist nature of US society. We may have become activists around a particular event, but we never became political creatures, never risked our jobs and our status – never mind our lives – to fight for fundamental rights for all.

The painful, long, long struggle for justice can produce great leaders. Arabs and Arab Muslims have not joined those ranks because we really have not joined that struggle.

To put it mildly, it troubles me to see our Arab and Muslim community leaders join so heartily with the government in its call for war. When Bush Sr. launched his war on Iraq in 1991, we managed to utter only the advice, “Don’t bomb during Ramadan.” In other words, we endorsed the bombing before and after Ramadan! Who could respect us for that?

Although some Arabs belatedly joined the anti-sanctions movement six years later, when Washington was consolidating its plans for Iraq, every major Arab organization, including Islamic institutions, heartily supported the US administration. In 1991, one heard almost no Arabs or Muslims daring to protest, even while we sustained verbal and physical attacks on the street for our Arabness. At school, kids taunted our boys with “Hey Saddam!”

Apparently, nothing has changed since then. And here we go again, obliging our freedom granting government with a show of solidarity against its declared enemy. By appearing on TV with Bush Jr. and taking coffee in the White House, we delude ourselves that we are somehow protected. How gleefully we line up behind the commander in chief. “Terror must be eliminated,” our Arab and Muslim leaders say at these photo opportunities.

Even if it isn’t necessary, a degree of alliance with the US leadership might be understandable. But that is not matched by serious dialog behind the scenes, in the smoking room, where we put the cards on the table. “Look guys,” they might say, “this is a bad situation. While we publicly support you, you have to change your foreign policy. You are wrong, and we (all Americans) are reaping what we have sown.” Not a chance.

As far as I can discern, Arabs and Muslims remain totally out of the loop in terms of policy reform or influence on public opinion – in schools, the media, and public debate. Surely, it is this moral ambiguity or outright moral weakness that lies behind our vulnerability to the kind of attacks we see against Arabs today.

I never changed the color of my skin or wore a hijab to show I am a Muslim. But through my political work with other minorities and my assignments overseas, I now recognize and feel the deep roots of racism here and comprehend the terror perpetuated on others by US foreign policy, not just in the Middle East, but everywhere. I’ll never be a CNN anchor or a New York Times columnist, in part because I know that’s not where real change will begin. This knowledge, in itself, is a source of empowerment.