For Arab Americans, this is a bittersweet holiday season. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayer, began last week amid deep anxieties about civil liberties and discrimination, and a relentless drive toward war with Iraq. Arab-American Christians look to the upcoming Christmas holidays with similar concerns.
The past year has been deeply trying for Arab Americans. The immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks saw violence, including a number of murders, directed at the community. Various forms of discrimination, including employment discrimination, have become much more widespread. Racial profiling is being built into government policies, and in more than 80 cases in the past year, passengers have been illegally removed from aircraft based on their perceived ethnicity.
The community has also faced an extraordinary set of civil liberties challenges. Immigrants have been targeted. There have been hundreds of secret detentions, hearings and deportations. The Justice Department just added new requirements to the process of alien registration based on national origin and ethnicity. The government has insisted on “voluntary interviews” of thousands of young Arab men, gathering personal information, asking about their political beliefs and the beliefs of their friends, and compiling this information in a law-enforcement database.
Our government has reintroduced ethnic and national origin discrimination into our immigration policies. The idea is clear: Arabs, especially young Arab men, are by definition suspicious, potentially dangerous and of interest to the authorities.
Meanwhile, leaders of the evangelical Christian right have stepped up their attacks on Islam. Jerry Falwell calls the Prophet Muhammad a “terrorist,” while Pat Robertson says he was a “killer” and “brigand” and that the Koran preaches violence. Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention call Muhammad a “demon-possessed pedophile,” and Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, tells followers that Islam is “a very wicked, evil religion.”
Yet tremendous efforts have been made to reach out to Arab Americans and Muslims with support and compassion. Statements from President Bush and both houses of Congress have defended the community. The Justice Department and EEOC have taken strong measures against hate crimes and discrimination.
The reality during this difficult time is very different – both from the horror stories circulating in much of the Arab press and the videos being circulated in Islamic countries by the State Department that deny Muslims in the United States face any problems whatsoever. Most Arab Americans have not directly suffered abuse, but the community is very vulnerable, and people are acutely aware of their exposure.
The drive toward war with Iraq greatly heightens these anxieties. While few have any doubts about the brutality of Saddam Hussein, the community is profoundly concerned about the suffering of the Iraqi people during the past 10 years of sanctions and bombing, and about the civilian deaths from a new Iraq war.
There are also tremendous fears about the political consequences of such a war. Nothing will persuade most Americans that an extended occupation of Iraq would be an exercise in old-fashioned imperialism. Nothing will persuade most Arabs that it wouldn’t be. For all the talk about bringing democracy to Iraq, the main beneficiaries in the region are less likely to be long-suffering reformers and proponents of civil society, than oil cartels and religious extremists.
The community finds itself caught between two worlds increasingly alienated from each other. Influential voices on both sides speak of a fundamental contradiction between the United States and the Arab world, or Islam and the West. At times it seems as if the drift toward a clash of civilizations is inexorable.
So as Arab-American Muslims enjoy their Ramadan, and Arab-American Christians prepare for Christmas, many in the community worry that an already grim situation could become even grimmer.