These have been tough times, and our media deserves kudos in recent weeks for bringing Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans forward to humanize their respective communities, and to demonstrate that they are not the same as the alleged terrorists.
And while Arab-Americans are being singled out in this fight against terror, it might be interesting for people to note that the overwhelming majority of Arab-Americans are law-abiding and concentrate on achieving the ‘American Dream.’
People might even be surprised to learn that there are Arabs and Arab-Americans among their heroes. For the sports fan, there’s NBA star Rony Seikaly and NFL star Doug Flutie. If you like comedy, you may be familiar with the late Danny Thomas, Jamie Farr, and Tony Shalhoub. Maybe you like drama. . .there’s Salma Hayek and Omar Sharif. Maybe you’re into politics, and so you might be familiar with Republican John Sununu, Green Party founder Ralph Nader, and Democrat Nick Rahall é related to race car driver, Bobby Rahall. Do you like Latin pop? There’s Shakira.
When you write a check or count your dollars, you are using Arabic numerals. Are you putting away money so that your kids can go to a university when they grow up? The Arabs founded great universities, in particular the ones at Cairo, Bagdad, and Cordova. These schools preserved and taught Greco-Roman culture. Classical learning provided a foundation for further advances by Arab scholars, who were permitted to write with considerable freedom. History tends to jump from the Greco-Roman period and right into the Renaissance period. The period between them is known as the Dark Ages. But if these were Dark Ages, the Arabs were wearing sunglasses. It was during the so-called Dark Ages that Arabs made great contributions to science and mathematics.
They furthered the studies of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. They prepared chemical compounds such as sulfuric acid and alcohol; improved metal refining and cloth dying; and gained new knowledge about the relationship between light and vision. In terms of medicine, they used anesthetics; performed difficult surgery, particularly progressing in eye operations; and compiled medical textbooks.
The famous scientist-philosopher known in Europe as Avicenna was Ibn Sina, an Arab. He was the greatest writer of medicine in the Middle Ages, and his Canon was required reading throughout Europe until the seventeenth century. Have you been seeing a counselor or therapist? Avicenna did pioneer work in mental health, and was a forerunner of today’s psychotherapists. He believed that some illnesses were psychosomatic, and he sometimes led patients back to a recollection of an incident buried in the subconscious in order to explain the present ailment.
Did you grow up on a farm? The Arabs improved farming by methods of rotating crops and using fertilizer. The next time you celebrate with a glass of wine, consider this: Arabs were able to graft a single vine so that it would bear grapes in different colors, and their vineyards were responsible for the future of wine industries of Europe. From India, they introduced the cultivation of sugar, and from Egypt they brought cotton to European markets. Peach, apricot, and loquat trees were transplanted in southern Europe by Arab soldiers. The hardy olive was encouraged to grow in the sandy soil of Greece, Spain, and Sicily.
There was a time that people around the world thought the earth was flat. The Arabs believed the earth was round and it’s been said that Christopher Columbus’s navigator was Arab. The Arabs used the Mariner’s compass to determine direction at sea.
The Arab World gave the world its third monotheistic religion — Islam, which means “submission.” This peaceful religion, considered to be the fastest growing in modern times, was spread to lands more distant than North Africa and the Fertile Crescent, but it was in this area that a common Arab culture emerged. Being Arab means that one speaks Arabic and shares a world of common traditions, customs and values. The US is a melting pot of different ethnicities and religions, and so, too, is the Arab civilization, which brought together Muslims, Christians and Jews. It unified Arabians, Africans, Berbers, Egyptians, and the descendants of the Phoenicians (modern day Lebanese), Canaanites (modern day Palestinians), and many other peoples.
From tanning leather to the famous British bagpipes to literature to philosophers who worked closely with Plato and Aristotle, the Arabs have contributed in many ways to modern civilization. For so many unfortunate years, our fellow Americans have been subjected to stereotypes and misinformation about the Arab community, probably never realizing the true impact of Arab civilization in everyday life.
Sherri Muzher is a Palestinian-American activist, lawyer, and freelance journalist.