On November 9 our President asked us to be vigilant.
A few days ago, a piece in the Los Angeles’ Orange County Weekly under the heading “31 Scariest People in OC,” listed “The Arab Who Lives Down the Street” as the 11th scariest. Some quotes: “Darker than most, always looks like he’s got something to hideéGod knows what he’s really doing when he’s ‘praying.’ I heard all that bowing was some kinda Morse code that only other Gee-hide-y types understandé[When] they’re not wearing turbans, they’re trying to hide the fact that they wear turbans because that’s what your Arab is: a sneak. Now, that’s not just us saying it, people; that’s science. Read your BibleéThey are an evil, evil race, and they need to be watched day and nighté [If] they have the right to be here, then we have the right to watch them and maybe hand out a beating every now and then just to keep ’em honest.”
I have been more than vigilant since this publication in the LA OCW.
The article that screamed “FIRE!” in my mental theatre, was undoubtedly written tongue in cheek, mimicking American stereotypes of Arabs. I am the OCW’s Arab who lives down the street from all those non-Arabs–Anglos, Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, Native Americans and combinations thereof, members of ‘races’ who, we presume, are not inclined to harbor ill will against the U.S. So, I wrote the OCW complaining about the article’s content and criticizing the timing of its publication, conscious of the fact that the entertainment industry and the US media have done much over the past century to denigrate Arabs and Islam. The article was too much of an insult to let pass without response, though I am tired of challenging entertainment and media image of the Arab. Fifty years are enough, I thought to myself, but obviously I still smart at their grotesque literature hiding beneath the shroud of humor. I had just written to Congressman John Cooksie (LA) who, on a radio show, referred to my people as those who wear “a diaper and a fan belt” on their heads, reminding him that a person of his stature should use more appropriate language to describe my people’s headdress. The Honorable Congressman apologized, but the damage was done. The gentleman at the OCW also apologized. Others, like syndicated cartoonists Lurie, Ramirez and Oliphant are harder to reach. They drop their 15,000 lb bombs in my lap and call the consequences collateral damage, the ethnic-cultural-religious type of damage.
The OCW editor squelched my criticism of “The Arab Who Lives Down the Street” with a response that qualifies as chutzpah: “You are deaf to irony,” to which statement I responded: “I may be deaf to irony, but not to the importance of timing in comedy.” But I object to insulting intelligent beings. I accepted his apology knowing full well that he didn’t fathom the depth of his insult, or what he called “hurt.” “Your Arab,” I wrote him, happens to be “a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, a recipient of a Congressional Citation for work on the Americans with Disabilities Act, a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, a holder of the Eagle Feather, a long time civil servant, an educator, and an author.” I did what I have never dreamed of doing: justify my place in my own society, my culture–a humiliating act. One reporter noted that in the aftermath of the WTC 9/11 disaster, one could easily differentiate between New York Arab and non-Arab shop-owners: the former displayed more American flags on their store fronts than the latter, an act that did not serve its intended purpose. Similarly, it was ridiculous for me to recite my credentials to someone who has proven to be insensitive to human behavior, to cultural differences, or to the nature of democracy to which we are all committed. The words of others, their naiveté, stripped me of all human qualities and subjected me to the threat of abuse by those who may be truly deaf to irony and who, consequently, accept their advice and “hand out a beating every now and then just to keep [me] honest,” a precedent already established in our society that needs no further encouragement.
Justifiably, Arab communities, both Christian and Muslim, are developing a siege mentality. They see people pulled off planes because a stewardess feels “uncomfortable”, or because a passenger complains about “the Arab-looking” man flying with him. For decades, Arab Americans have watched movies and read the media and found themselves portrayed in roles misrepresenting their respective cultures, religious beliefs, and/or histories. Today, in New York and elsewhere, Arab Americans find themselves pleading with authorities to intervene in their behalf because they are no longer able to walk the streets or protect their children against harassment and abuse in public schools. Worse yet, in the panic-stricken response of a justice system run amok, Arabs are being incarcerated by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, without due process; this despite official pronouncements to the contrary. Like our war-against-terrorism-turned-war-against-Afghanistan, their search for terrorists among us has turned into an unspoken collective punishment against Arab communities. The ironically titled US Patriot Act did not arise out of kids’ drive-by shootings perpetrated on other youngsters; nor out of McVeigh’s crime against innocent citizens; nor did it arise from the ashes of the 1.5M Iraqi “collaterals”, the most vulnerable and innocent in that population. Rather, it was ethnic and religious bigotry that drove our legislators to enact the law to protect ourselves against the ‘The Evil of the East’.
Every Presidential and official announcement disguising this fact has been countered by a thousand acts declaring it. As a matter of fact, we paid lip service to the Arab and Islamic world when we declared war against the poorest of the poor Muslims, in the name of bin Laden. We made a mockery of Arabism and Islam. We still do, and it shows right here under our noses. Arabs and Islam seemingly belong to a lesser god, not the God who blesses our daily bread and bombing. Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” is more in tune with the language of today’s officialdom than when written nearly a decade ago. West is West and Islam is Islam; that was Huntington’s belief. This was Huntington’s march toward ignorance! But then, ignorance is often regarded as bliss and more especially so, when our representatives and the media agree that ignorance is a standard by which they can measure the pulse of the nation. Let me confide in you a secret: the US Patriot Act affects me more than it affects you, and you know why.
These are difficult times for Christian and Muslim Arab-Americans, regardless of their country of origin. Perhaps today there is more witch-hunting in America than anywhere else in the world. The target: Arab and Muslim communities. The consequences of declared witch-hunts are fear and alienation; both are doubly tragic. We cannot afford to alienate these communities. My experience in America over the past 50 years has demonstrated beyond any doubt that these victims constitute model communities in all respects: entrepreneurial, intellectually inclined, family-oriented, conservative, nearly devoid of crime and, myself excepted, pious.
The Albuquerque telephone directory is replete with Arabic-sounding names, many of which are already lost in the maze of America’s cultures and as American as apple pie. And that’s good. Arab and Muslim Americans need our assistance as much as we need theirs. They are today the most maligned ethnic-religious minority in the US and deem themselves defenseless against the entertainment industry and the media for reasons unrelated to their collective or individual behaviors. We must eradicate the stereotype of the Arab and Muslim fostered by the entertainment industry and the media. Now is the opportune time to open up to these communities and welcome them as equal partners in society.
Let our President build his international coalition against terrorism. Let’s build our own coalition against dehumanization, hate and stereotyping. I am confident that you’ll be pleasantly disappointed to find that the “Arab Who Lives Down the Street” is everything but what you’ve seen on the screen or read about in the media. I assure you.