In an era where political correctness is the norm, there are few groups that are still legitimate targets for harassment and popular stereotyping — except for Arab Americans.
With the recent abominable tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., many in the Arab-American community are fearing retribution from fellow Americans, should the perpetrators be Arab. Already, violence has been reported on university campuses, and death threats have been called in to numerous Arab organizations.
When I was little, I remember being puzzled by all of the stereotypes of my culture. Whether it was watching Bugs Bunny or Charlie’s Angels, the Arabs were always the bad guys. In elementary and junior high school, there were the ignorant classmates who had an obsession with the words, “camel jockey.”
“Why are we such bad people?” I once asked an Arab adult. He was horrified by my question, and yet saddened that the images perpetrated by the media and pop culture could make me question a proud heritage that was once the cradle of the world’s civilization. Add to the recipe that I was of Palestinian descent.
I knew better, of course. I had heard enough personal testimonies from loved ones and Palestinian acquaintances to know that a huge injustice had been done to our people. Even now, every Palestinian group has condemned this tragedy, and yet some analysts are determined to make some sort of link to the Palestinians.
While footage of a very small minority of Palestinians were shown celebrating — most likely hardened by unconditional U.S. support for Israel — continues to be repeatedly shown, no footage was shown of the candle light vigils held by Palestinian Jerusalemites. The propaganda continues.
The memories of anti-Arab discrimination during the Gulf War are still vivid. I was a senior at Michigan State University. There were reports that the MSU Department of Public Safety had submitted the names of all Arab-sounding names to the FBI. Comments such as “We should nuke all the Ay-rabs in Dearborn” and “Kill the sand n—–s” were heard in the cafeteria at my residence hall. Fist fights were common. Uncomfortable stares followed us much of the time.
In 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing occurred. From Jerusalem, where I was then, I watched CNN and was dumbfounded to hear reporters’ attempts to link the bombing to Arabs, even though American anti-government militias and Timothy McVeigh were already nailed as the perpetrators.
The usual racial profiling awaited us at the various airports. I don’t think I have ever been on an international flight where I wasn’t separated at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport without having my suitcase searched and asked a number of questions. Days later, the vandalism of Arab-owned property and death threats became known to us.
When TWA flight 800 exploded a few years ago, the same speculations arose. Radio disc jockeys aired skits and made derogatory comments about the “guilt” of Arabs in the explosion. Yet, the cause is still undetermined.
And now, it’s starting all over again. There is good and bad in every culture, and every community has its radicals and extremists. Let’s not forget our own Michigan militia.
It is so important that we not hold entire communities responsible for the acts of a few. Even if the perpetrators of the latest outrage turn out to be Arabs, that is hardly a reason to vilify a community. The Arab community has worked hard to be contributing and productive members of the great American tapestry. Whether they are doctors saving lives, small business owners, engineers or human rights activists, they make a difference as Americans. The horrors of the latest tragedy affect us as fellow Americans and human beings.
It has always been difficult being an Arab American, especially at a time when people are understandably angry and need to take it out on someone. The dehumanization of Arabs in pop culture has made it easier to place Arab Americans, as well as Muslim Americans, as targets.
We understand that there is nothing worse than feeling helpless. A lot of our relatives in the Middle East feel this helplessness every day.
As Americans, we are outraged that innocent people were taken in this barbaric and uncivilized manner. Let’s be careful not to place our anger among those who are also innocent.
Sherri Muzher is a Palestinian-American activist, lawyer, and freelance journalist.