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American Responses to Islamic Diversity

Since it is more common in the United States for most of American society to think of the Arab and Islamic community in terms of a monolith, or a moderate mainstream along with a radical fringe, it is useful to consider how the presence of Arabs and Muslims in the United States has created challenges for American notions of diversity and multiculturalism.
In the wake of the September 11th attacks, these challenges have been greatly intensified given that there is now far greater attention given, much of it negative, to the American Arab and Muslim communities. I think it would be fair to say that American society now is attempting to grapple with the most serious challenge to its traditional commitment to the diversity in many years — I mean by this, the widespread perception that American Arabs and Muslims are either disloyal or fundamentally in opposition to American society in some manner.
Fear and suspicions of these communities of course existed prior to the September 11th attacks, as demonstrated by the extraordinary campaign of vilification coming out of Hollywood in recent decades in which literally hundreds of films featuring thousands of Arab characters consisted of almost complete negativity and vilification. However, the September 11th attacks, perhaps inevitably, led to a considerable increase in those fears and suspicions and the emergence of a climate of unparalleled difficulty for our community. At the same time, however, some key forces in our society, including the government and elements of the mainstream media, had been at pains to try to give people a rationale and a reason to remain tolerant in the face of such an outrageous attack.
The role of the government perhaps best reflects the tensions that exist in the relationship between American Arabs and Muslims and traditional normative expectations of American diversity. On the one hand, the government and national leadership have taken a very public and vocal positive role in preaching against vilification, discrimination and hate crimes against our community. In particular, President Bush deserves high praise for his outspoken leadership on this issue in the days immediately following the September 11th attacks. Through efforts such as his very public visit to the Islamic Center, Washington’s premier mosque, the president and others provided the American people with a template of continued tolerance and respect for Islam that did not in any way conflict with their patriotism or their anger and outrage about the terrorist attacks.
There is no doubt that such efforts were critical in keeping the number of hate crimes against Arab-Americans, Muslims and other people of color to a minimum in the aftermath of September 11th. Indeed, the government as a whole performed exceptionally well when dealing with discrimination on the part of non-government actors, including corporations and companies, organizations and private citizens. Law-enforcement at federal state and local levels made it clear from the beginning of the backlash that they would not tolerate any nonsense from those wishing to engage in violent hate crimes. Despite these efforts, ADC has confirmed over 700 violent incidents directed against Arab-Americans, or those perceived to be Arab-Americans, in the first nine weeks following the terrorist attacks. However, this situation clearly could have been far worse and gone on much longer. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has recognized employment discrimination in the context of the post 9-11 backlash as a discrete phenomenon, which needs to be dealt with vigorously and on its own terms. The Department of Transportation has been absolutely clear that racial profiling is unacceptable, and that the legal denial of service by removing passengers from aircraft following boarding but before takeoff based on concerns about their perceived ethnicity, is “not only immoral, but illegal.”
The number of reports of incidents of this kind we have received has dropped sharply since we launched lawsuits against three major airlines whose employees had engaged in this form of unlawful discrimination. So overall, it must be recognized that the government performed quite well when it came to discrimination by non-government actors.
Unfortunately, the government has sent a conflicting message through some of its policies and practices which are overtly discriminatory against Arabs and/or Muslims. This is particularly true in the field on immigration law-enforcement, in which a whole series of new policies and practices adopted since the September 11th attacks constitute a systematic reintroduction of ethnic and religious discrimination by the government. Policies such as alien registration based on national origin, investigations of 8,000 young men based on what was in effect an ethnic and religious profile, targeting Middle Eastern “absconders” for more urgent deportation, and, of course, the secret detention of at least 1200 Arab and/or Muslim men and the secret deportation following secret hearings of hundreds of them. Policies such as these reflect the belief and convey the message that Arabs and Muslims, particularly young Arab men, are by definition suspicions, potentially dangerous and of interest to the authorities. I would be the first to agree that the society and the government here has been placed in a difficult position give the existence of a radical and extremely violent organization of Muslims, Al-Qaeda, which is bent on launching massive attacks against American targets, combined with the presence of millions of Muslims in United States. Negotiating these realities is no easy task, and in spite of its admonitions to the public not to discriminate against Arabs and Muslims, the government has ended up to some extent at least in the position of telling Americans to “do as I say, not as I do.”
An important exacerbating factor in this equation is the presence of a growing and pernicious space in our popular culture for outright vilification with impunity of Arabs, Arab culture and Islam as a faith. The situation in this regard has been deteriorating steadily over the course of the past year, and is the only part of the equation which is unquestionably deteriorating. I would do so far as to say that we have entered into a period that can be described, to borrow a cliché from Madison Avenue as “anti-Semitism lite,” insofar as it can be most usefully compared to the climate of defamation facing Jews in United States in the 1920s and 30s. I mean that during that period it was possible for otherwise respectable people such as Henry Ford and Father Coughlin to say on the radio or write the most outrageous and racist things about Jews and Judaism and not face significant social or political sanctions. This is not to say that most people agreed with them, but rather that their hate speech was regarded as permissible and tolerable. In the same way, some of the leading evangelical Christian ministers in the country have taken to routinely vilifying and defaming Islam, Arabs and Muslims without being held to account.
The Rev. Franklin Graham, who presided over the inauguration of President Bush, has repeatedly described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion.” The Rev. Pat Robertson has described Islam as inherently violent. The Rev. Jerry Falwell and other ministers in the Southern Baptist convention have described the Prophet Mohammed as “a demon possessed pedophile” and just recently he called Prophet Mohammad a “terrorist”. None of these people has been turned into a pariah, as Minister Louis Farrakhan was when he described Judaism as a “gutter religion.” Instead, while most Americans do not agree with such sentiments, they are generally treated as interesting and legitimate contributions to the national conversation and points which should be debated. In addition to these far right wing but highly influential evangelical leaders, are a cadre of pro-Israeli commentators who eagerly join the campaign to vilify Arabs, Muslims and Islam. Professional Arab and Muslim bashers, most notably Stephen Emerson and Daniel Pipes, have made careers out of trafficking in defamation against these communities that is deeply reminiscent of anti-Semitic slurs. Emerson’s career, which had been destroyed by a long series of false accusations against Arabs and Muslims, has been resurrected by the September 11th attacks, and Pipes has become one of the most visible “experts” on American television. In addition, many more commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, have gone out of their way to spread the false notion that Muslim organizations and clerics, both here and in the Middle East, failed to denounce the September 11th attacks. The basic thrust of the message of both the Christian right and the pro-Israel Arab bashers is that “the Arabs and Muslims among you may look like nice reasonable people just trying to live a nice normal life in United States, but you need to know that they are, in fact, your mortal enemies who worship a hostile and alien god and who seek to subvert and ultimately destroy our Western civilization.”
This is, you will readily recognize, also the fundamental accusation out of traditional anti-Semitism. As these defamatory attacks continue to spread, they lay the groundwork for potentially much more serious hate crimes and discrimination in the future, particularly in the event of another major attack by Muslims or Arabs in United States. Each time one of these figures launches a defamatory attack of this kind and receives no sanction or stigma for having done so, this space for hatred and vilification in our popular culture and media grows ever wider. There are precious few signs that the situation is going to do anything but continue to deteriorate.
On the other hand, through both polling data and all available anecdotal evidence, the overwhelming majority of Americans remain absolutely committed to principles of diversity in spite of anger and anxiety resulting from the terrorist attacks. In spite of the very real problems with hate crimes, discrimination and defamation experienced by Arabs and Muslims in United States over the past 12 months, the United States remains an extremely tolerant society. Most Arab Americans and American Muslims have not experienced violence or discrimination firsthand, and many have experienced acts of kindness, compassion and reassurance. As we survey the challenges to American values of diversity posed by the September 11th attacks in the context of a large and growing American Muslim population, it would be irresponsible and unfair not to recognize the continued commitment to tolerance which our society, over all, has demonstrated.