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Crossing Continents Thursday, 1 November, 2001, 10:51 GMT
The Arab-American community
Arab American waving USA flag
By George Arney

Everybody has heard of Irish-Americans. Italian-Americans. Hispanic-Americans. African-Americans. But what do you know about Arab-Americans?

The chances are, not much. And yet there are more than three million people of Arabic descent living in the United States. The first Arab immigrants arrived more than 150 years ago. Some went down with the Titanic on its maiden voyage.

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Historically low profile

There are good reasons why such a long-established community has kept such a low profile. Most fled to the sanctuary of the United States from the political turmoil of the Middle East. Such people -refugees from political or religious persecution - tend to keep their heads down.

President George Bush
President George Bush tries to limit backlash against Arab-Americans

And then, there's been the attitude of the US media to contend with. For decades Arabs have been portrayed as the bad guys - a tendency which has grown since the end of the Cold War. Remember how Arabs were the first to be blamed following the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995?

That's why President Bush felt compelled to move fast after 11 September to try to limit any backlash against the Arab-American community. And yet backlash there has been.

The backlash

Travel to Dearborn, a gritty industrial suburb of Detroit and the unofficial capital of Arab America and the community's concerns about violence, intimidation and racial profiling are immediately apparent.

I thought racial profiling was something to do with math

Jihad Hiazi

At a meeting to discuss racial profiling, speaker after speaker poured out their woes. The mild-mannered Yemeni welder Ahmed Esa who was sacked on 12 September , after 15 years in the same job - and told to go home because his religion "breeds terrorism".

Leila Habro, ejected from the board of her housing association, and told, "we don't need you no more."

Khalil Beydoun
Scout leader, Khalil Beydoun, with scouts

And Khalil Beydoun and his troupe of scouts, detained for several hours by the FBI during an outing near the Canadian border because they looked "suspicious". "I thought racial profiling was something to do with math," says Jihad Hijazi (15). Although born and bred in the US, he says he is not sure he feels part of American society any longer.

For the younger generation in particular, being Arab, being Muslim and being American is a difficult juggling act.

Jim Zogby
Jim Zogby, President of Arab-American Institute

At the Young Muslims Association, teenage girls dressed in headscarves sit separately from the boys as the local imam conducts a question and answer session before the Friday evening basketball session. They do not seem entirely convinced by the imam's attempts to justify the Islamic tenet that a woman's evidence is worth half that of a man.

And yet, there are signs that a new understanding is being forged. Alongside the messages of hate following September 11th, Arab-Americans have also been deluged by messages of sympathy and support. Muslim religious leaders are being invited to speak in churches and synagogues. Interest in Islam is at an all-time high.

Abed Hammoud
Abed Hammoud (right) and his campaigners

Najah Bazzy - a fourth generation American and a devout Muslim - is hopeful that good can come out of the evil of September 11th. Najah believes that Islam's strong moral code and family values can influence America for the better.

Najah also believes that America's best values, like tolerance, freedom and open-mindedness - can positively influence Islam, thereby creating a unique synthesis, and turning the United States into one of the strongest bastions of true Islam in the world.

A political identity

The gradual maturing of the Arab-American community can also be seen in the political arena. Arab-Americans are registering to vote in record numbers, and are using their votes to promote their community's particular interests.

The one thing that unites the disparate elements of the community - Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, recent arrivals and long-established immigrants - is the desire to see a shift in US policy in the Middle East.

Jim Zogby, President of the Arab-American Institute, is one of a growing number of Arab-American lobbyists operating in Washington DC whose eventual aim is to help redress what Arab-Americans universally perceive as a pro-Israeli bias in US foreign policy.

In the wake of September 11th, though, there are more immediate concerns. Jim Zogby and his fellow lobbyists are currently campaigning on issues like racial profiling, employment discrimination and the curtailing of civil liberties.

The local community

At the local level too, the community is dipping its toes gingerly into politics. On November 6th, the town of Dearborn goes to the polls. The incumbent , an Italian American who has held the post for the past 16 years, is being challenged by a Lebanese immigrant called Abed Hammoud.

Hammoud is young and dynamic, but his chances of victory have lessened since September 11th. Out canvassing with the candidates, we found some residents of Dearborn not even willing to give an Arab candidate the time of day.

Arab-Americans - and particularly Muslims - clearly still have some way to go before gaining the full acceptance of other Americans.

And yet the seeds of a better future are also visible: in which they will not feel the need to conceal their Arab origins, their names or their religious beliefs. And in which they will be able to hold their heads up high, alongside the multiplicity of other ethnic communities which together make up the United States of America.

Barbera Aswad
Anthropologist and Arab specialist
Shereef Akeel
Lawyer acting for Ahmed Esa who was sacked on 12 September
A Marriage Proposal
Adaptation of Chekhov's "A marriage proposal" in rehearsal


Political uncertainty






See also:

21 Sep 01 | South Asian Debates
19 Sep 01 | Correspondent
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