Speculation after jetliner crash revives bitter Arab stereotypes


Here we go again. In the wake of the tragic crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, Arab Americans once more find themselves subjected to wild speculation and rushes to judgment based on grotesque cultural misunderstanding and insidious stereotypes.

Essentially, we are being asked to believe that a veteran Egyptian pilot with a spotless record and apparently everything to live for, decided to commit both suicide and mass murder because he reportedly uttered a reference to God in Arabic.

Combined with the lack of an obvious mechanical explanation for the bizarre and terrifying behavior of that aircraft, the “cryptic reference to Allah” has been taken to indicate a sinister or demented state of mind.

Worse, this media speculation follows the insidious and highly irresponsible lead of the crash investigators who released premature, incomplete and inaccurate information such as the “cryptic reference.”

We should be well past the point when a reference to God in Arabic, a language infused with religious references, is so readily associated with violence and dementia. Would any Christian American make such an association with the Lord’s Prayer?

What this week’s orgy of lurid, baseless and offensive speculation has reminded Arab Americans of is that the our language, culture and faith are still stigmatized by both the government and the media. On Friday, USA Today “informed” its readers that “Cairo . . . is dominated by fundamentalists whose views are more in line with the likes of Iraqis and other U.S. foes.”

There have been many rushes to judgment in recent years but surely none so insidious as those involving stereotypes of Arabs.

Following the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, some professional Muslim-bashers and elected officials were quick to point the finger at the Arab American community.

The New York Times reported that there were, ominously, no less than three mosques in Oklahoma City, and the FBI circulated sketches of two “Middle-Eastern looking” suspects. An Arab American arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport from Oklahoma City was arrested for possessing “bomb-making equipment,” a hammer and a spool of wire, in his luggage. When the real culprit turned out to be an all-American neo-Nazi from upstate New York who was trained in explosives by the U.S. Army, the rush to judgment and the stereotypes that had driven it were starkly exposed.

Many in the government and media vowed not to repeat the mistake. But when TWA Flight 800 exploded over the ocean off Long Island in July 1996, it became readily apparent that neither the media nor the government had learned any lessons. Once again the media engaged in wild speculation about Arab culprits, and “experts” such as Steve Emerson were again relied upon to assure us that the crash was caused by an Arab bomber. Vice President Gore chaired a commission on airport security that recommended the “profiling” of potential terrorists at airports. Even after it became clear that the crash was caused by a frayed wire that ignited an explosion in a fuel tank, the profiling system was mandated anyway. As a predictable result, there is hardly an Arab American who has not been “profiled” or who does not know a friend or relative who has been abusively singled out at an airport.

Of course, there is more to the current speculation about a crazed Egyptian pilot than anti-Arab prejudice. As in the case of TWA Flight 800, where theories of an errant Navy missile also abounded, in the face of such a disaster people seem to be comforted by theories of human agency. Human behavior, as opposed to catastrophic nonhuman factors, seems far more controllable. Pilots rightly complain that they are the first to be blamed whenever something goes wrong during a flight.

When there is no person to blame for such a catastrophe, we are uncomfortably reminded of the extent of our own vulnerability to natural or mechanical disaster. We want a quick and relatively reassuring explanation and look therefore for an individual scapegoat.

The demand for this kind of explanation has combined with anti-Arab stereotypes to produce the defamatory theory for the EgyptAir crash, which has caused so much harm to a probably blameless man’s reputation, and the feelings of his grieving family, the Egyptian nation and the Arab American community.

Arab Americans are left to wonder whether the media and government will ever abandon a reliance on anti-Arab stereotyping. For now, at any rate, “blame Arabs first” clearly remains the rush to judgment of choice. It is, as they say, “deja vu all over again.”