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Mis-Understanding Arabs - Revisited

Fall 2010 vol. 11, No. 3

By Gary Weaver and Dan Deming

Editor's Note: Part One of this article was originally pub­lished as a stand-alone piece by Gary R. Weaver in the Spring 2002 edition of IMQ, less than six months after the attacks of September 11, 2001. We have decided to revisit this article and update it with Part Two to examine how attitudes have (or haven't) changed in the intervening years.

Part One

Some Americans' anti-Arab reactions to September 11 were quick and terrifying. Taking the time to understand Islamic culture might have gone a long way toward speeding the healing process.

There have been numerous incidents of attacks against Arabs and vandalized mosques since September 11, particularly in the first weeks af­ter the tragedies.

These attacks struck such fear in America's Islamic com­munity that some Muslim women avoid wearing their traditional dress on the street to prevent any possibility of harassment. At least one very public instance of racial profiling took place when a commercial airline flight was stopped on the tarmac before it could depart because passengers were "uncomfortable" with their "Arab-look­ing" fellow passengers.

Arab Americans have been shot at and beaten since September 11. Dark skinned cab drivers in Manhattan have been bombarded with stones. Louisiana Congress­man John Cooksey even announced on a radio show in September, "If I see someone coming that's got a diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over." While he later apologized, he clearly felt secure making the com­ment at the time.

Fortunately these incidents are decreasing and it is un­likely that Arabs will be rounded up and put in intern­ment camps like the Japanese in California during World War II. However, it is important to remember that the U.S. did not arrest German or Italian citizens, take their property or transport their families to desert campsites during that war. What was the difference? Physical ap­pearance and cultural difference.

When Timothy McVeigh destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City, no one blamed young white Chris­tian men or stopped them at airports to question them. We knew that McVeigh was a deviant and a fanatic who did not represent all Christians or white males. We could even imagine him drinking with his buddies in some bar and devising a bizarre conspiracy theory about how the U.S. government was taken over by foreigners and actu­ally was the enemy of good American Christians. Lead­ers of various Christian denominations spoke out and denounce his zealotry. We saw him as an individual, a criminal, not as a representative of an entire group of people.

While all Americans have met white male Christians, very few Americans have even talked with an Arab. Many are not even sure what Arabs look like. Indians, Latinos and even some Italians and Greeks have been harassed just because they "looked" like Arabs. Many Americans assume that all Arabs in the U.S. are Mus­lims when, in fact, over 75 percent are Christian and they come in all shades with every hair color and texture in the human race. In fact, the largest Muslim popula­tions in the world are not Arab. Indonesia has the largest number of Muslims (170.3 million) followed by Paki­stan, Bangladesh and India. These three nations alone account for over half of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world.

Most Americans do not personally know Arabs and most have little understanding of Arab culture or Islam. This contributes to the prejudice that leads to racial harass­ment and profiling.

Prejudice is primarily a combination of "rule-of-thumb thinking" and "being down on that which you are not up on." These two aspects of prejudice are exacerbated and exaggerated in a crisis situation when we are afraid of those who are different.

We don't consider how irrational it is to assume that the Arab-looking gentleman across the aisle who is quietly reading his book is more dangerous than the three skin heads shouting at each other in the front of the plane. We notice that the Arab passenger doesn't even make eye contact with us— and we might conclude from this that he can't be trusted or is hostile. But, he may just be fairly traditional and therefore avoids making direct eye con­tact, especially with young females who may be the flight attendants. He thinks he's being polite, not threatening or dangerous. Instead of considering the possibility that the lack of eye contact may be a matter of cultural dif­ferences, we're ready to summon the pilot to stop from taking off.

Until very recently, most Americans had no under­standing of Islam. Some even referred to the religion as "Mohammedism," as if Muslims worship the Prophet Mohammed. In fact Islam is built upon many of the religious principles we find in Judaism and Christianity and all three religions go back to the Old Testament and Abraham. Muslims believe that Moses and Jesus were prophets but that the final prophet or messenger of God was Mohammed who was given the word of God in the Koran. Most interpretations of the Koran do not con­done terrorist violence and there is a profound respect for all religions and religious people in Islam. Because we don't know Arab culture or individual Arabs, it is easy to be down on them. We can easily dehumanize and deindividuate people when we don't see our brother or sister when we look in their faces.

The mass media has helped us perpetuate this prejudice with the continual portrayal of Arabs in the entertain­ment and news media as inhuman caricatures of "sheiks" or "terrorists." There are few media images of Arab par­ents playing with their children, families living average lives— loving each other, sometimes arguing, with teen­agers who want to be like other teenagers.

If the image of African Americans in the mass media was as inhuman and negatively stereotyped as that of Arabs, we would all be protesting. It is difficult for Americans to empathize with Arabs as human beings when the roles they play on television and in the movies are demonic, less-than-human, terrorists. The point is not that Ar­abs should be portrayed as heroes rather than villains. Rather, it is that Arabs ought to be seen as human beings with whom we can empathize. The film Executive Deci­sion was the second highest grossing movie in the U.S. for 10 days in March 1996. In that film Palestinians hi­jacked a 747 en route to Washington, DC and intended to drop enough nerve gas to kill everyone on the East Coast. One of them held the Holy Koran in one hand, and before killing passengers, he prayed and then shout­ed out, "It's the sword of Islam...sent to deliver a blow to the belly of the infidel!"

This is but one example of how Arabs and Muslims are routinely linked to insane terrorism in the mass media. There have been dozens of other such movies in theaters and on television.

Until we understand Arabs as human beings—good and bad—it will be easy to perpetuate the racial harassment and even killings. Until we understand that Islam is not inherently violent or hateful, we will never be able to overcome the fear that caused many Americans to lash out in rage at Muslims.

Part Two

More than eight years after Mis-Understanding Arabs was printed in this publication, Amer­ica is still grappling with many of the same issues. The article describes the fear and harassment that Muslims in America faced in the weeks and months following September 11, when a rash of beatings and threats occurred against people who "looked" like Mus­lims. They were seen as "others" to be feared, and there was little understanding of Islam or Arabs in the United States.

At the time, the long-term effects of this fear and mis­understanding could only be guessed. American pub­lic opinion became stretched between insularity (close down the borders and don't let any of "them" in) and calls for global unity (using the tragedy as a galvanizing force to end violence and increase understanding). Now, the national conversation has reached a point where those who speak the loudest and simplest garner all of the attention.

It's often said of Americans that we prefer to keep things simple in our national debate, that we tend to eschew nuance in favor of a more stark "either/or" mentality. This generalization, while not universally applicable, is a fair one: it's reflected in many American sayings. "You're either with us or you're against us."

This reductionist or Manichean perspective is clearly reflected in American media. Everyone knows which cable news channel is the "liberal" one, and which one is "conservative." This is also true for our blogs and web­sites as well as most newspapers and magazines. It often seems like most of the space or time allotted is taken up by displaying and subsequently berating the views of the "other side."

The tendency to reduce and simplify has been particu­larly damaging to the hope of progress on the issues dis­cussed in Mis-Understanding Arabs. This can be seen in the recent controversy over what has come to be known as the "Ground Zero Mosque" in lower Manhattan. The name itself reflects a false simplicity: it is not at ground zero, and it is not a mosque. The proposed facility is an Islamic cultural center, several blocks away from where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Certainly, there is space for prayer in the building; an art gallery and culinary school are also planned. One cannot see the building from anywhere on "ground zero," but still the name persists. There are other, actual mosques in the area, but still the name persists. The building which is to be converted into the cultural center has been peacefully used as a place of prayer for many years already without any objections from the local community.

The reason why "Ground Zero Mosque" sticks, when "Islamic cultural center" doesn't, is that the former re­quires no further explanation to pass judgment. Split­ting these ideas apart neutralizes the negative impact: a "Ground Zero Hot Dog Stand" (of which there are many) sounds comically harmless, and an "Upper West Side Mosque" raises few eyebrows. But once those ideas are joined, it is no longer necessary to examine them in depth. You're either for it or you're against it.

On October 14, 2010, on the popular daytime televi­sion show The View, cable TV host Bill O'Reilly dem­onstrated the immense danger that this way of thinking poses. When pressed as to why building the Islamic cen­ter at the proposed site was "inappropriate," he respond­ed, "Because Muslims killed us on 9/11!"

This jaw-dropping statement, which caused two of the show's hosts to walk off the set, perfectly encapsulates the American predilection toward simple, irreducible answers. In that simple sentence, there are no qualifi­ers, and we are not invited to supply our own. There is a "them," and there is an "us." O'Reilly's assertion that a religion, rather than a particular group of people, killed "us" prompted Whoopi Goldberg, one of the hosts, to ask: "What religion was [Timothy] McVeigh?" (Perhaps Ms. Goldberg is an IMQ reader?)

This is not just parsing words: Bill O'Reilly is one of the most recognizable media personalities in the country, and hundreds of thousands of people watch his show ev­ery day. He clearly understands how to attract the atten­tion of American viewers. O'Reilly later clarified that he meant "extremist" Muslims, and gave an artful pseudo-apology: "If anybody felt that I was demeaning all Muslims, I apologize." But he did much more than simply demean all Muslims. He created an enemy image of one-fifth of the world's population.

O'Reilly also factored in another recent and relevant in­cident, the firing of NPR political analyst Juan Williams. On O'Reilly's show, Williams made the following com­ment: "You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are iden­tifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." It's unlikely that a real terrorist would wear clothing that might appear to be "Muslim garb" when boarding a plane, and his remark reinforced the fear that many Americans have of all Muslims. With­in hours of Williams' firing, he accepted a three-year, $2 million contract with Fox News, reinforcing the notion that such ideas can go safely unchallenged.

Regardless of whether Williams' firing was justified, or whether he should or should not have made the remarks, it is clear that this view that all Muslim-looking people are a threat remains prominent in the minds of many Americans. The American media went into a frenzy over whether or not Williams should have lost his job, but there was little to no examination of the cultural atti­tudes that underlay his remarks. Our failure as a nation to deal with these issues can only perpetuate the prob­lem.

It is so easy to demonize and dehumanize those who are different. When we look in their faces, we don't see our parents or siblings. We don't identify with "them" as fel­low human beings but rather as threats to our way of life. The problem is that paranoid or irrational fear of others leads to misunderstanding and prevents us from finding peaceful ways of dealing with them. The only path is often defensive aggression.

Cultural misunderstanding and paranoid fear persist and are perpetuated by many in the popular media. Pundits and personalities take extremist positions on talk shows to gain more listeners and viewers and to ultimately sell more products. Over 500 years ago, Machiavelli advised the Prince to use fear to maintain popular support—fear not of the Prince but rather fear of some external threat. Some politicians today use the same tactic to gain sup­port from their followers and to defeat their opponents.

At times we seem to take two steps forward and three steps backward. There is also no question that we have come a long way since 9/11 and the earlier article. The American people elected a president whose father was a Kenyan Muslim. Although Obama is a Protestant Chris­tian, he can recite verses from the Islamic Call to Prayer and he has spoken to Muslim audiences around the globe. There are two Muslim members of Congress and today most Americans know much more about Islam. At American University, the most popular language course is Arabic.

There are indications that there is greater understanding of Islam and resistance to bigotry, ethnocentrism and in­tolerance. The mayor of New York and the majority of people of Manhattan near the Islamic center, welcome its opening. Two of the hosts on The View challenged O'Reilly and walked off the set in protest. There are nu­merous videos posted online along the theme of "I am a Muslim," in which people who all look and sound quite different from one another speak those words. Many of these videos are produced by various American col­lege and university groups, and contribute greatly to the idea that the Muslim community in America is not the monolith that people like O'Reilly try to reduce it to.

The immediate, reactionary anger caused by Septem­ber 11, and chronicled in Mis-Understanding Arabs, has transitioned into a more insidious form of discontent that seems to simmer just under the surface at all times. A fringe preacher in Florida can garner national media coverage by threatening to burn the Koran. President Obama, nearly two years after his election, is still asked to "prove" that he is a US citizen, and to "prove" that he is not a Muslim, as if there's something inherently wrong with being one. The warning that ends the original arti­cle is still very relevant. Fear of the "enemy" makes us far more susceptible to simplified arguments and demonic perceptions of others. Diversity is one of America's great­est calling cards—why be afraid of that?

Gary R. Weaver is the Executive Director of the Intercultural Management Institute and a profes­sor of International Communication at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C.

Dan Deming is the Director of the Intercultural Management Institute and the former Managing Editor of IMQ.