At Risk of Prejudice: The Arab American Community. (Teaching about Tragedy)(Cover Story)

Article excerpt

"IF THEY FIND OUT that the attackers were Arab, will they put us in internment camps like the Japanese in World War II?" An Arab American boy posed this question to his parents in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. His fears were not laid to rest in the week after the tragedy, when hundreds of hate crimes were perpetrated against Arab Americans, both Muslim and Christian. These included verbal and physical attacks, shootings, bomb and death threats, and vandalism against homes, businesses, and places of worship. A general mood of hostility toward Arabs and Muslims was evident among the American public. The communities found themselves bearing the blame for the tragedies that had unfolded at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Media commentators, community leaders, politicians, and President Bush spoke out against the scapegoating and ill treatment of Arabs and Muslims. Likewise, school administrators and educators scrambled to find ways to stave off the discrimination and stereotyping that would eventually find their way to their students. After teaching tolerance and an appreciation for diversity for many years, teachers, multicultural coordinators, and guidance counselors now wondered how to stop a tide of prejudice from seeping into their classrooms. How can we teach about the Arab world in an objective way?, they wondered. Where can we obtain appropriate resources about the Arab world and Islam? What can be done to allay the fears of Arab and Muslim students and provide them with a safe and nurturing environment?

The Arab World as the "Other"

Teachers often say that before starting a unit on the Middle East, they have to spend time guiding students to "unlearn" the stereotypes that the media and popular culture have propagated for decades. The terrorist, the harem girl, the wealthy oil shaikh, and the "mysterious East" are but a few of the impressions that many Americans have about the Arab world--from cartoons and comic books to TV shows and feature-length movies. Such images serve to exoticize that area of the world and make it strange and unfamiliar and different. We know that lumping any ethnic or racial group--in this case, 250 million Arabs--into categories, especially hostile ones, provides fertile ground for discrimination and "othering." Arabs become the "other," a people and a culture that exist outside Americans' concepts of what is "good" and "civilized." Essentially, a person begins to feel that she or he has nothing to do with "that group."

The textbooks available to teachers deal more seriously with the Arab world but still have some common defects. First of all, they often present Arabs as a homogeneous people (in fact, there is much diversity in the Arab world) and use photographs that reinforce stereotypes, such as camels in a desert and nomadic peoples. (1) Although these do exist, such glimpses only show one aspect of life in Arab countries. Images of urbanization, industry, farming, the arts, strong family ties, education, and sea coasts and mountains all would add important breadth and understanding to our knowledge of Arab society.

Second, textbooks often focus on the Arab world as a "region of conflict" without properly exploring Arab culture, civilization, and history. The result of this treatment is to reinforce stereotypes of Arabs as a violent people. Of course, there is conflict in the Arab world, but the last hundred years have also witnessed conflicts of extraordinary magnitude in the world as a whole. When we teach about our own historical conflicts or those of other western countries, we give those conflicts a context by showing how they fitted into and affected our views of ourselves as a people, with our distinctive aspirations, values, and way of life. Teaching about conflicts involving Arabs without teaching about Arab culture and civilization can lead to a distorted, one-dimensional image of Arabs. Offering a fuller view of Arab history and culture would go a long way toward fostering a deeper appreciation of the Arab world, and it would encourage students to see that in many ways "Arabs are just like us. …