Anti-Arab feelings still continue in America - GulfToday

Anti-Arab feelings still continue in America

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks about recognising April as ‘National Arab American Heritage Month.’ File/AP

State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks about recognising April as ‘National Arab American Heritage Month.’ File/Associated Press

During April, the US is marking Arab-American Heritage Month in a bid to counter long-standing anti-Arab prejudice and discrimination and celebrate the achievements of Arab immigrants despite their struggles to make their way and assimilate. Since both Arabs and Muslims from the worldwide Umma are involved in this struggle, it is significant that the first federal Arab-American Heritage Month coincides with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Although there were Arabs living in the land which became the United States before independence, the surge in immigration began in the late 1880s with Arab Christians from Greater Syria (Syria, Palestine and Lebanon) who were fleeing violence and poverty. By 1920, some 50,000 emigrants had arrived from this region, the majority ill-educated and poor who found work in low-skilled jobs. In 1924, the US restricted its intake and the numbers fell dramatically.  

The expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 war establishment and the revolutions in Egypt in 1952 and Iraq in 1958 triggered a second wave of immigration by largely educated elites. A third wave, including Muslims, followed after 1965 when the US abandoned the national quota system which had favoured immigrants from Europe.

 According to the US State Department, between 1980-2016 the regional population increased from 223,000 to 1.167 million but Arab-American sources put the figure at 3.7 million. In 2017, Donald Trump dramatically cut the number of Arabs and Muslims granted entry to the US despite the wars in Syria and Yemen.

 The American-Arab Heritage Month was promoted by Arab activists on local and state levels and was finally adopted on the federal level.  During 2019, Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib, two Congresswomen from Michigan, which has large Arab-American communities in Dearborn and Hamtramck near Detroit, submitted a House of Representatives resolution to officially recognise April as Arab-American Heritage Month.

This designation was, apparently, by word rather than resolution and was made last year in a press briefing by State Department spokesman Ned Price. Tlaib is a progressive Democrat who is a stalwart of the “squad” which also includes Somalia-born Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Jamal Bowman and Cori Bush.

 On April 1st, President Joe Biden messaged Arab-American organisations with his own take on the designation. He said Arab-Americans make the country strong and “more diverse and vibrant.

 “We also recognise that too many Arab Americans continue to be harmed by discrimination, bias, and violence. As president, I have made it a top priority to strengthen the Federal Government’s response to hate crime and to advance a whole-of-government approach to racial justice and equity so that all Americans, including Arab Americans, can meet their full potential.”

 Although Biden had kind words for Arab-Americans on this occasion, his lack of action on pledges he made during his campaign speak louder than his words. He promised to re-engage with the Palestinians, re-enter the Iran nuclear deal and promote peace in Yemen.  

 On the Palestinian front he has restored most but not all of the US contribution to UNRWA, the agency caring for five million Palestinian refugees. Biden says he supports the two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but has not pressed Israel to resume negotiations to achieve that end. As he has wavered for a year over returning the US to the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions, talks have repeatedly stalled.

Instead of offering Iran confidence-building measures, Biden has slapped fresh sanctions on Iran on top of the 1,500 imposed by Trump after he withdrew from the deal in 2018.  While Biden appointed Timothy Lenderking as his envoy for Yemen UN envoy Hans Grunberg has been far more active in peacemaking. Meanwhile, Washington’s relations with Gulf allies have deteriorated due to their diversification of external connections.  

 Arab-American commentators fear Biden is simply following Trump’s policies. He has little to fear from Arab-American voters, the majority of whom are committed Democrats who will not desert the party.   

 A 2017 poll revealed that 23 per cent of respondents, including 36 per cent of Republicans, view Arab-Americans unfavourably.  For decades, Arabs, especially Muslims, have been stereotyped and abused in Hollywood films and in books and the press. This has been built on, perpetuated and exploited by pro-Israel lobby groups and business interests. Anti-Arab feeling which embraced Muslim-Americans intensified after al-Qaeda’s strikes against New York and Washington in September 2001.

 Four days after the attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a bearded and turbaned Sikh – who was believed to be a Muslim – became the first fatality in a wave of hate crimes against Muslims. Victims were beaten and assaulted, mosques were burned and homes and businesses vandalised. Hate crimes rose by 1,617 per cent.  Although this high number of hate crimes fell, they have risen in recent years, in part due to ex-President George W. Bush’s disastrous war on Iraq and stoking of tensions by Trump.  

 A survey conducted by the University of California-Berkeley revealed that 80 per cent of US Muslims, the majority being of Arab origin, felt uneasy about their families’ safety. While Arab and Muslim activists and community centres have attempted to undo the Trump legacy of Islamophobic messaging, this takes time and outreach to largely uneducated whites who have been infected with this disease.

 In a bid to counter Islamophobia and anti-Arab attitudes, hundreds of Muslims gathered for the first Iftar of Ramadan in New York City’s iconic Times Square and other public locations across the US.  One of the Times Square organisers told CBS news, “We’re here to explain our religion to all those that don’t know what Islam is all about,” he said. “Islam is a religion of peace.”  Others told the interviewer that Muslims preach unity and non-violence.

 While Arab-Americans may have obtained some recognition as a community, this has taken decades and good relations have depended on events in this troubled region and across the Muslim world.

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