Sunday, September 16, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Arab Americans: dispelling myths

Before the flames from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were extinguished, many Americans already had an image of the culprit: someone with Middle Eastern features, someone of Islamic faith, someone with a seething hatred of America.

The primary suspect, Osama bin Laden, fits that description. Sadly, though, some people in this country assume that anyone who looks like their image of an Arab is worth targeting for retribution.

The result of that assumption has been violent and ugly.

One man stormed into a South Seattle mosque and threatened to burn it down. Another poured gasoline on a North Seattle mosque and tried to fire a gun at some of its members.

And Friday, a turban-wearing taxi driver was attacked by a man who accused him of being a terrorist. The driver wasn't of Middle Eastern descent: He was from India. And he wasn't a Muslim: He was a Sikh.

Clearly, some Americans' need for revenge is mixed both with hatred and with ignorance. Especially profound — and especially important at this point in history — is widespread ignorance and misconceptions about Arabs, Arab Americans and the religion of Islam, even among many Americans who would never commit such hateful acts.

The Arab culture is one of the oldest on Earth, and Islam one of the fastest-growing religions.

Below are some questions and answers to enlighten and educate. Much of the material here comes from a guide for journalists produced by The Detroit Free Press, a newspaper published in a city with one of the nation's largest populations of Arab Americans.

As the Free Press guide states: "The differences that seem to separate Arab Americans from non-Arabs can be much smaller than the variations that at times differentiate them from one another. It takes time to learn the issues and to understand them, but it is essential and rewarding for us to do that. Misunderstanding ultimately hurts each one of us."

Q: Who are Arab Americans?

A: Arab Americans are U.S. citizens and permanent residents who trace their ancestry to, or who emigrated 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 were born in the United States.

Q: How many Arab Americans are there?

A: Estimates vary because the U.S. Census does not use Arab American as a classification. Most estimates put the number at about 3 million.

Q: Where do Arab Americans live?

A: They live in all 50 states. The population centers are Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. An estimated 30,000 live in Washington state.

Q: Do Arabs have a shared language?

A: The Arabic language is one of the great unifying characteristics of Arab people. Even so, there are many different dialects, and people from some regions have difficulty understanding those from some others. Modern Standard Arabic is used in formal letters, books and newspapers. Not all Arab Americans know Arabic, of course, as many are second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans.

Q: Do Arabs have a shared religion?

A: No. They belong to many religions, including Islam, Christianity, Druze, Judaism and others. It's a common misperception to think that Arab traditions are Islamic, or that Islam unifies all Arabs. Yes, most Arabs around the world are Muslim — but more Arab Americans are Christian than are Muslim.

Q: But isn't Islam mostly an Arab religion?

A: No. Only about 12 percent of the estimated 1 billion Muslims worldwide are Arabs. There are more Muslims in Indonesia, for example, than in all Arab countries combined.

Large populations of Muslims also live in India, Iran, other parts of East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Islam has a strong Arab flavor, though, as the religion's holiest places are in the Middle East, and the Koran was originally written in Arabic.

There are an estimated 6 million Muslims in the United States. The U.S. State Department says that Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, and by 2010 the American Muslim population is expected to surpass the Jewish population of 12 million as the second-largest religion in the country behind Christianity.

In the United States, about 78 percent of Muslims are immigrants.

Q: What do Muslims believe?

A: Muslims, followers of Islam, follow the Koran, said to be the word of God, Allah, to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. Muslims follow five basic precepts:

• There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet.

• Followers should pray five times a day, facing Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia that is the holiest place.

• They should give alms to the poor.

• They should fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

• And they should make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Q: Is Islam a violent religion?

A: The Koran teaches nonviolence. Throughout history, political groups and leaders have used Islam and other religions to justify many things, including violence. Groups and individuals involved in terrorism around the world have claimed their work was done on behalf of Islam.

Q: What is meant by the phrase "Islamic fundamentalist"?

A: This is complex. The term fundamentalist, whether applied to Muslims or Christians, is used to imply political conservatism, religious literalism or the use of those views to justify extremism.

The term "Islamic fundamentalist" has been used to refer to people who use Islam to justify political actions. This has blurred the distinction between religion and politics. Because of this, acts carried out for political reasons are sometimes attributed to religion.

Q: To which places do Arab Americans trace their ancestry?

A: Arab Americans trace their roots to many places, including parts or all of Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Some Arabs are Israeli citizens.

Q: Shouldn't Iran be in that list?

A: No. Iran is not an Arab country. It is descended from the Persian Empire and has a different language and cultural history than the Arab countries. The dominant language in Iran is Farsi, not Arabic. Iran's location, the fact that it is an Islamic country and the similarity of its name to Iraq may confuse people.

Q: So, not all people from the Middle East are Arabs?

A: Correct. The four main language groups in the Middle East are Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish. Other significant language groups are Kurdish and Berber. Arabs are largest in terms of population and land holdings.

Q: When did Arab people come to the United States?

A: Most are native-born Americans. The first significant wave of immigration began around 1875. It lasted until about 1920. After a period in which the United States restricted immigration, a second wave began in the 1940s.

Q: Why did Arabs first come to the United States?

A: Like many people who came to the United States, they were seeking opportunity. Most early Arab immigrants were from Lebanon and Syria, and most were Christian. After 1940, more came because of the Arab-Israeli conflict and civil war, and more of them practiced Islam. Many in the second wave were students.

Q: What race are Arab Americans?

A: They 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.

Q: Are Arabs an official minority group?

A: The U.S. government does not classify Arabs as a minority group for purposes of employment and housing.

Q: Why do some Arab women wear garments that cover their faces or heads?

A: This is a religious practice, not a cultural practice. It is rooted in Islamic teachings about hijab, or modesty. While some say that veiling denigrates women, some women say that it liberates them. Covering is not universally observed by Muslim women and varies by region and class. Most Muslim women in the United States do not wear veils.

Q: Some Arab men wear a checked garment on their heads. What is that?

A: It is called a kafiyyeh and is traditional, not religious. Wearing the kafiyyeh is similar to an African American wearing traditional African attire, or an Indian wearing a sari. The kafiyyeh shows identity and pride in one's culture.

Q: Who are some well-known Arab Americans?

A: Here are just a few:

• Christa McAuliffe, the teacher/astronaut who died aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

• Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal.

• Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Doug Flutie.

• Radio celebrity Casey Kasem.

• Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candy Lightner.

• Jacques Nasser, president and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co.

• Helen Thomas, longtime reporter in the White House press corps.

Q: Who are some prominent Arab-American politicians?

A: Here are a few:

• Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

• Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

• Former secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala.

• New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

• Former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff John Sununu.

• And 2000 presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

Q: Is there an Arab lobby?

A: Not in the sense of a monolithic, controlling body. There are several organizations that lobby in behalf of a variety of issues, including domestic and international concerns. One is the Arab American Institute, which supports presidential and congressional candidates who are receptive to Arab-American concerns. Another is the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a civil-rights group.


Arab-American Web sites


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