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When Arab and Muslim Stereotype Fuels Dangerous Assumptions

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When Arab and Muslim Stereotype Fuels Dangerous Assumptions

Orientalism has a long history of smoking guns.

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If people and the media weren't so quick to confuse Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners as one and the same, fewer atrocities would find their source in assumptions, argues guest writer Jillian C. York.

A few days after the horrific events at Fort Hood, a Marine reservist in Florida mistook a visiting Greek Orthodox priest for a “terrorist” and beat him with a tire iron. The reservist (who was indeed white) made all sorts of wild claims — that the priest yelled “Allahu Akbar,” that he made a lewd hand gesture. . . claims that have been widely refuted.

What really happened is this: The Greek priest, Father Alexios Marakis, was visiting Florida for the purpose of blessing another priest. He got lost while driving, and pulled over to ask for help. He was dressed in a robe and did not speak English very well, so the Marine, Jasen Bruce (who is sticking to his story and refuses to apologize) got freaked out and beat the crap out of him.

Because he looked like a terrorist.
Which really means he looked Muslim.
Which really means he looked “Arab.”
Which really means he looked different, and that scares white people.

The Inner Orientalist in Every American

I don’t know exactly what it is about white Americans. . . I can say, from anecdotal personal experience, that Europeans and other white people traveling throughout the Middle East and North Africa often make silly orientalist comments, and I’m fully aware of the idiotic British BNP (and other European right-wing parties) that would happily rid Europe of all Muslims. However, there seems to be a special kind of ignorance amongst white Americans when it comes to Muslims and Arabs. It goes something like this:

They don’t know the difference between “Muslim” and “Arab.”Remember last year during one of John McCain’s town hall meetings when a middle-aged white woman objected to Obama by saying, “but he’s-he’s-an ARAB!”? It was obvious to many of us that what she really meant to object to was his religion — after all, it was part of the zany right-wing public debate at the time — but instead she just somehow got confused and cried “Arab.” You know, because it doesn’t really matter right? Which brings us to McCain’s response . . . “No, he’s not, ma’am, he’s a DECENT family man.” As if being an “Arab” disqualifies a man from being a decent family man. Which leads to:

They think “Muslim” and “good person” are mutually exclusive. McCain was quite aware that the woman meant to say “Muslim” and yet chose to defend Obama not just by saying “No, ma’am he’s not,” but also by feeling compelled to add “he’s a decent family man.” The implication? That one cannot be both an Arab (or Muslim, since that’s what we all know the woman meant) and a good man. I often hear comments about how obesity is the last acceptable prejudice in this country, but I’d like to argue that Islamophobia is far more widespread and accepted. Can you imagine if white people blatantly still said such horrible things about black people? It’s completely unheard of in many parts of the United States for someone to say “nigger,” but “sandnigger”? In many places in this country, that’s totally okay.

They don’t realize that most Muslims aren’t Arab. Going back to the first point, the imagery of what it means to be Muslim in the United States is so tied in with our images of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (not even the Arab world on the whole!) that even on progressive blogs, you will often see people refer in blanket terms to Muslim women’s dress as “the burqa.” What they don’t seem to realize is that the countries with the largest Muslim population are all in Asia (where, mind you, women don’t even wear the burqa), and not Arab at all!

They mistake non-Muslims and non-Arabs for Muslims and Arabs. In the years since 9/11 (though before as well), many groups have become collateral damage in racist attacks against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. Iranians, Greeks, Sikhs, Hindus, and sometimes, anyone with a beard seems to be a target.

They think “Middle Eastern” is a race. Except on the census. While the region also known as the Middle East and North Africa is often referred to as “the Arab world,” the latter is somewhat of a misnomer and more accurately refers to a shared language (kind of like the way Latino is often used). From Morocco to Saudi Arabia, there are Arabs, but there are also Amazigh (Berbers), Moors, Bedouins, and plenty of other native groups that prefer not to be referred to as “Arab.” But when they come to the United States, it doesn’t matter anyway, as they’re expected to check the “White” box. . . imagine arriving from Mauritania, on the continent of Africa, and being told you can’t check the “African-American” box. True story.

They assume that all Arabs are Muslim. I love this one. . . It never ceases to amaze me the blanket statements made about “that part of the world,” and “their practices.” Nevermind the native Coptic, Maronite, and Orthodox Christian populations, the converts, the Jews, the Druze, the Zoroastrians, the Baha’i. And if on the off chance you do meet someone who is aware of those other populations, they’re still likely to try to convince you that they’re those populations are all oppressed by the Muslims, anyway. Which brings me to my last and most important point.

They pretend it’s not racism. So, Islam is not a race, and to many, “Arab” isn’t either. . . It doesn’t matter: there is plenty of evidence of racism against all of the aforementioned groups. In fact, there’s significant evidence to suggest that systematic racism is practiced against Muslims and those with Muslim or Arab-sounding names (regardless of actual faith) in a number of places. This BBC article discusses the racist practice of not hiring Arabs and Muslims based on name alone (in France). Though I’m not aware of any study, I’ve seen the same happen in the U.S. And the exclusion of North Africans from being qualified as “African-American” on the census and on scholarship applications (again, they’re supposed to check the “white” box) means they’re doubly discriminated against: Not really white, but not non-white enough to benefit from certain programs.

Next Page: The Pity of Assumptions

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