MAXWELL:  Indentifying Arabs who live among us

11/4/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A college chum in Chicago, a Palestinian who has been a U.S. citizen for as long as I can remember, telephoned recently with a reminder: While Americans are right in trying to identify their Arab and Muslim enemy, they also should pause to identify who is not the enemy.

He, his wife and three children are not the enemy. Like me, he studied English language and literature at the University of Chicago during the early 1970s and served in the U.S. Marine Corps. We both became college professors. I spent a weekend with them last year in their beautiful Hyde Park home, and they visited me for a few days in June while en route to Disney World.

Since the New York terrorists attacks, our status as Americans has diverged. His wife and two daughters no longer wear head scarfs in public, his son no longer plays basketball at the nearby park with the African-American teenagers, and he no longer rides the Illinois Central to the Loop. He now drives to avoid the stares and comments.

“I understand the fears,” he said during our last conversation. “But we’re also grieving for our country. My children were born here and have never been to Palestine. Now, they’re beginning to feel like they’re not American.”

He reminded me that, like him, many Arabs have blended into U.S. society, that others have become icons in their own right.

Some famous Arab-Americans include: Christie McAullife, the teacher/astronaut killed aboard the space shuttle Challenger; Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal; Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Doug Flutie; creators of radio’s American Top 40 Casey Kasem and Don Bustany; Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candy Lightner; Jacques Nasser, president and chief executive officer of Ford Mother Co.; Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps; White House chief of staff John Sununu; F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Wolfgang Mozart’s jealous rival composer in the film Amadeus; consumer advocate Ralph Nader; actor Danny Thomas; poet Kahil Gibran; former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell; heart surgeon Michael DeBakey; teen pop singer Tiffany; singers Paul Anka and Frank Zappa.

The fame of these people does not translate into safety and feelings of security for ordinary Arabs, such as my former schoolmate and his family. During my most recent trip to New York, for example, I noticed that several Arab taxi drivers had removed their names from their vehicles and had covered their photographs with pictures of the American flag or removed them altogether.

Before Sept. 11, I rarely rode in a New York taxi whose driver played a talk radio station. They played music. Now, each driver I rode with tuned into talk radio stations that specifically dealt with the World Trade Center attacks.

Culled from the Detroit Free Press and Proud, a magazine about minority journalists, and my own experiences, the following short catechism is a modest effort to foster better of understanding of Arab-Americans:

Who are Arab-Americans? They are U.S. citizens and permanent residents who trace their ancestry to or who immigrated from Arabic-speaking places in southwestern Asia and northern Africa, a region known as the Middle East. Not all people in this region are Arabs. Most Arab-Americans, estimated at about 3-million, were born in the United States.

Where do Arab-Americans live? They live in all 50 states, but about a third are concentrated in California, Michigan and New York. Another third reside in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.

Do Arabs have a shared language? The Arabic language is one of the great unifying and distinguishing characteristics of Arab people. Even so, colloquial Arabic differs from place to place.

Do Arabs have a shared religion? No. Arabs belong to many religions, including Islam, Christianity, Druze, Judaism and others. There are further distinctions within each of these, and some religious groups have evolved new identities and faith practices in the United States. Be careful to distinguish religion from culture. Although Arabs are connected by culture, they have different faiths. Common misperceptions are to think that Arab traditions are Islamic, or that Islam unifies all Arabs. Most Arab-Americans are Catholic or Orthodox Christians, but this is not true in all parts of the United States. In some areas, most Arab-Americans are Muslim.

How does conflict in the Middle East affect Arab-Americans? Because Arabs maintain close family ties, even when separated, and because many Arab-American communities include recent immigrants, most people have a keen interest in news from the Middle East. Remember, too, that one reason many Arab-American families immigrated was to escape the very conflicts that continue today. Mideast issues can unify the Arab vote in America.

What race are Arab-Americans? Arabs may have white skin and blue eyes, olive or dark skin and brown eyes. Hair textures differ. The United States has, at different times, classified Arab immigrants as African, Asian, white, European or as belonging to a separate group. Most Arab-Americans identify more closely with nationality than with ethnic group.

Are Arabs a minority group? This depends, in part, on your definition of minority. The U.S. government does not classify Arabs as a minority group for purposes of employment and housing. Arabs are not defined specifically by race, like some minority groups, but are united by culture and language. Some Arab-Americans see minority classification as an impediment to full participation in American life. Others are asking for protection from the same issues affecting people in minority groups, such as profiling, stereotyping and exclusion.

Are Arab-Americans more closely tied to their country of origin, or to America? Arab-Americans have dual loyalties. While they may be closely tied to their countries of origin, most Arab-Americans were born in the United States, and an even larger majority have U.S. citizenship. This is reflected in the expression, “Truly Arab and fully American.”

Nothing in the immediate future will change Americans’ fears of Arabs as a group. I would hope, however, that we treat Arab-Americans as individuals. If not, the next Arab-American mistreated on sight may be my schoolmate, a former Marine supplyman who served honorably in Vietnam.