September 11th, the day the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
were pummeled by aircrafts-turned-missiles, changed America
forever, the analysts tell us. The shock of seeing a plot
(once thought unthinkable, even in movies in which Arabs are
usually the terrorists) unravel on live television or from
an office or apartment window, now means that life in America
will never be the same again. And those analysts are absolutely
right: even as the nation goes to war, other, more subtle
changes make themselves apparent in our everyday lives.
Parents tuck little notes saying "I love you" into
the lunchboxes of children who, the night before, woke up
crying from a bad dream about "bad men." Employees
at major corporations and institutions in landmark buildings,
afraid to come to the office, plead with their employers for
permission to work from home. Blood donation centers actually
have to turn people away because of overstock, while abandoned
churches are overwhelmed by returning parishioners. Teachers
in classrooms all over the country tread a fine line when
students innocently ask gut-wrenching questions like, "Why
do nice people die?" And when a tire screeches or a car
backfires in any American metropolis, nervous pedestrians
on city streets jump and duck instinctively, then spend the
rest of the day badly shaken. To say nothing of what happens
when spilt creamer is found on a counter
Yes, some things in America have changed. But other things
haven't changed a bit.
Racial profiling - the esteemed pastime of some of the nation's
toughest cops - has reached out beyond the Black- and Latin-American
communities to target Arab-, Muslim-, and South Asian-Americans
as well. A good friend of mine, a male in his late twenties,
with olive skin and dark hair (and an Arab name to complete
the getup), rented a car in Pittsburgh to visit his brother
in Philadelphia, one week after the tragedy occurred. The
employees at the rental agency chatted politely with him,
but called the police five minutes after he left. Within an
impressive span of twenty minutes, four police cars had flagged
him down on the highway, their sirens blaring and their lights
flashing brighter than a fireworks extravaganza. They searched
him and his car and, finding nothing incriminating beyond
his olive skin, they issued him a speeding ticket. Needless
to say, he'd been driving well within the limit.
I wasn't upset to learn that the cops had chased after him.
After all, they had received a tip about a "suspicious-looking
man" trying to rent a car. I felt angry, as I'm sure
my friend did, that being an Arab makes one "suspicious,"
because it seems that we Arabs, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Indians
(and anyone else who looks "suspicious") are the
ones most in need of protection.
If you need any evidence of this, simply skim through the
archives of any major newspaper in the weeks following the
September 11th attacks. In Huntington, New York, a 75-year-old
man tried to run over a Pakistani woman in the parking lot
of a shopping mall. She sought refuge in a store, but he followed
her in and threatened her with violence for, as he said, "destroying
my country." Furthermore, as of September 21st (ten days
after the attacks), 250 hate crimes had been reported on college
campuses alone throughout the country.
The most horrifying news of the backlash occurred the first
weekend after the attacks, when Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American
who wore the traditional turban, was shot point-blank and
killed at his own gas station by a misguided "patriot."
The murder occurred in Mesa, Arizona, and was followed by
another murder in Dallas, Texas, of Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani
grocer, a few days later.
The other incidents of hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims
(and anyone unfortunate enough to resemble them in the narrow
halls of some minds) are too numerous to list exhaustively
here, and it would be a futile attempt anyway, since many
victims hesitate to report them. The hesitation results from
fear that the authorities will show no sympathy, and skepticism
that they will be adequately protected.
Of course, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (as well as President
Bush) made a point of emphasizing that Arab- and Muslim-Americans
should not be targeted in any way; they argued it was actually
un-American to participate in a backlash of any sort. But,
sadly, my first reaction to Giuliani's statement was that
the New York mayor hadn't even been able to protect his African-American
citizens from his own police force. The horrible story of
Abner Louima and the killing of Amadou Diallou surged to the
immediate surface of my mind. If this can happen to other
immigrants and to people of color at the hands of the police
themselves, what would be the fate of the Arab and Muslim
community in New York?
Good to his word, Giuliani did provide extra security at
mosques, Arab- and Muslim-owned businesses, and ethnic centers.
But that act did not halt the wave of crimes in New York and
across the nation, even around the globe, as evidenced by
the stoning of a school bus of Muslim children in Australia.
What is the source at which all this hatred is tapped? Could
it simply be that the targets of these crimes resemble Osama
bin Laden in physical appearance, religion, or ethnic origin?
No, as many members of other minority groups in this country
will tell you, the intolerance of certain groups of people
is deeply embedded in the American psyche - it is a stain
on the fabric of our society, a stain that has not been bleached
out, but rather one that has been acknowledged, thus ignored,
thus accepted as a charming oddity of the fabric's design-which
poses an even more vexing problem, the general, national pretense
of tolerance. How quickly this veil was swept away.
Of course, many will say, "But CNN did dozens of segments
about the backlash against Arab-Americans. And George Bush
even visited a mosque!" The first claim is partially
correct; yes, CNN and many other media did a "bite"
or took a quick look - though rarely an in-depth examination
- of the fierce tsunami of anger and hatred that hit the Arab-
and Muslim-American community. However, these seemingly altruistic
appeals for understanding were neatly compartmentalized and
then isolated from other coverage of the events; thus, it
was not rare that a CNN anchor would shake his or her head
at the sheer "un-Americanness" of vandalizing a
mosque or spitting on a veiled woman, but in the next interview
segment pose a question to a military officer or a political
science guru to the effect of, "Don't these people believe
that dying for God is the best way to get their 70 virgins
Likewise, George Bush stood in his stockinged feet between
the ornately decorated walls of a mosque and said, in his
direct and simple manner, "Islam is peace." The
effort meant a lot to many Muslims, but his speech on the
White House lawn the day before had referred to the U.S. military
retaliation as a "crusade." And he spoke clearly
about punishing any nation that harbors terrorists, which
has catapulted the much-beleaguered, innocent people of Afghanistan
into a catastrophic refuge crisis. Bush also spoke plainly
about the secrecy of many governmental operations, which will
probably result in phone tappings and a general invasion of
privacy on the part of many in the Arab and Muslim community.
That is the dualism of the media coverage and government's
current attitude towards Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Perhaps
this community is surprised and disappointed; and why should
anyone who belongs to this community be surprised? We have
long been accustomed to this intolerance-it's just out in
the open now.
For example, after the Gulf War, I had learned to keep quiet
about my "heritage" and my Middle Eastern culture.
Even though I am a Christian, I found myself studying and
reading about Islam in order to defend my fellow Arab friends.
I regularly had to correct people's assumptions that Allah
was a God separate from the God of Judaism and Christianity.
I had to clarify that, yes, Muhammad had allowed each man
four wives, but to explain that the phrasing of that allowance
made it impossible for any man to love four women in exactly
the same way, and, besides, nobody took multiple wives anymore.
And, of course, the hijab question (a popular one from my
feminist friends): why did "all those poor women"
in the Middle East "have to" veil themselves? It
was "unfair" and "a clear sign" of the
oppression of women at the hands of Islam, but never a question
of whether or not "those women" chose to veil themselves
as a sign of their faith, much as a Christian woman would
wear a crucifix around her neck, a Catholic nun a habit, or
a Jewish man a yarmulke. I really had my work cut out for
Again, I am an Arab Christian, but I was the only Middle
Easterner that many people knew. And while I was happy to
talk about a lot of these issues, in the days during and after
the Gulf War when these issues were "hot," at times
my frustration climaxed and I felt like snapping, "Why
don't you go read the Qur'an yourself, or ask someone who's
actually Muslim? I can't be the only Arab you know!"
But I often was. Not that there weren't plenty of Muslims
in my southern New Jersey community, but many Americans were
content with knowing only me because they already knew me
and wouldn't have felt comfortable reaching out to an "other,"
unknown person. They had one Arab friend (a Christian, but
that would do), and I quickly became a token. I have often
felt repulsed when people begin a sentence with, "My
" or "My Chinese friend
or "My Puerto Rican neighbor
," because it
implies, of course, that this lone person is the token Black/Chinese/Puerto
Rican the speaker knows. Now, I imagined myself being spoken
of as an adjective as well: "My Arab friend
This is the sort of pretense I am talking about, the same
kind that nods approvingly in support of Black History Month,
but moves to acquit four white police officers of killing
a young black man in the doorway of his New York apartment
building; the kind that smiles encouragingly at the "Latin
revolution" of singers like Ricky Martin and Jennifer
Lopez, but refuses to really change even when Latin-Americans
are forced to stage "brownouts" of the entertainment
If America wants truly to accept the "other" and
incorporate them into the "self" ("American"
culture), then a lot of things will simply have to change
- really change. It's that pesky "c" word that strikes
fear into the hearts of many. And why are we so afraid of
"real" social change anyway?
I should add that many segments (usually isolated pockets)
of the American population have changed. I have witnessed
this myself over the years. For example, many co-workers,
friends, and neighbors have, throughout the years, showed
a genuine interest in my culture - in the food, the language,
the dress, the geography, and especially the politics. After
the tragedy of September 11th, these people's letters flooded
my email inbox; alarmed by news reports of hate crimes, these
friends expressed their concern for the safety and well-being
of my family. The seemingly endless receipt of these emails,
some from people I hadn't spoken to in years, accompanied
by phone calls from many others, made me sign in relief -
and smile at the great, though rare feeling that acceptance
can inspire in a lonely person's world.
For it is truly lonely being an Arab-American in these dark
days. As the nation mourns, we desperately want to mourn as
well, though we are viewed as the "bad guy" no longer
only in Hollywood blockbuster flicks, but in everyday life
From guest contributor Susan Muaddi Darraj