Neighbors or Enemies? > In a World at War


Louise Cainkar

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Senior Research Fellow, Great Cities Institute

People who study Muslims start history in the 1990s, with the first World Trade Center bombing. I see a longer history because I am studying Arabs. It’s all about US foreign policy and who is allowed to have a voice in this country.

Post-9/11 policies (more than laws) have targeted Muslims, including non-Arabs, so for the first time Pakistanis are included. The communities are converging more — maybe not socially, but in terms of what the community is facing — among Arabs, Pakistanis, Iranians. It is something that I never saw before.

For a long time Arabs have been bashed and dehumanized in the media, but had no voice. Scholars like Elaine Hagopian, Naseer Aruri, and Edward Said formed the Association of Arab American University Graduates to get the Arab perspective out, but they were silenced. … They don’t get any airtime. This community is supposed to be voiceless.

In twenty years of this work there have been five wars, two sets of sanctions, 15 US bombings of Arab countries. For Americans, 9/11 was a big deal. For Arabs, it is one event in a long series.

FBI raids began as far back as Operation Boulder, in 1970 in Dearborn, Michigan. Then there was Abscam in 1980. Campaign donations from Arabs began being returned. These are all interrelated pieces of the same fabric.

It’s a new era. My research assistant is Pakistani — now it’s just like being an Arab. There is a convergence of interests and concerns. I question whether a Pakistani would have seen the first Gulf War in the same way. Before, they were similar to other immigrant groups. They were not targeted for silencing or religious persecution.

The mainstream theory is that the challenge of Islam is a challenge brought by immigrants, similar to the challenge once posed by Catholics. Eventually they were assimilated. This view sees the challenge as surfaced by new waves of immigration, for example by Bangladeshis.

There is also a theory that the Saudis financed mosques to send imams, as part of a global conspiracy. This is a common idea among journalists.

For twenty years, I’ve seen a complete resistance to anything about Arabs. The voicelessness is seamless from top to bottom. There is no funding for research. I couldn’t get my research published in mainstream journals. Academia, foundations were no different from the rest of society.

Now, in the post-9/11 climate, there is more openness. For the first time the scholarly world is recognizing the relationship between foreign policy and domestic concerns.

The “clash of civilizations” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Media stereotypes of Arabs, the one-way presentation of Middle East issues, is determined by US foreign policy. Human details are presented only when the government begins making some movement toward a political resolution. …

I think eventually we will come out of this ahead. It will be a different country ... There is a lot of resistance to accepting different styles of dress, as “non-Western.”

Demography will lead us there. It cannot be extinguished, the blend will occur.