The Aftermath of September 11, 2001: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims in America

Article excerpt

Words and images [run] together like watercolors on a child's easel--Arabs, mosque, terrorism, Muslims, extremists--making it hard to tell where one began and another left off. (1)


THE DEMONIZING OF ARABS AND Muslims in America began well before the terrible tragedy of September 11, 2001. It can be traced to deliberate mythmaking by film and media, (2) stereotyping as part of conscious strategy of 'experts' and polemicists on the Middle East, (3) the selling of a foreign policy agenda by US government officials and groups seeking to affect that agenda, (4) and a public susceptible to images identifying the unwelcome 'other' in its midst. (5) Bearing the brunt of these factors are Arab and Muslim non-citizens in this country. A series of government laws and policies since the 1970's have steadily targeted Arab and Muslim non-citizens for selective interrogation, (6) detention, (7) harassment, (8) presumption of terrorist involvement, (9) and removal from this country. (10) The Patriot Act, (11) recent round-up and detention of over 1,000 (12) and list of interrogation targets of 5,000 individuals, (13) and the Presidential Order to establish quasi-military 'tribunals' (14) exacerbate the selective targeting of Arab and Muslim non-citizens in a climate of fear that completely sanctions blatant racial profiling. (15)

A. The Stereotype of Arabs as Demonic Terrorists and Religious Fanatics

Commentators fit anti-Arab, anti-Muslim animus into various 'racist' theories, from anti-immigrant sentiment that targets whichever group represents the most recent immigrant population (16) to a more dynamic process of 'racialization' that focuses on a social-political order that requires a marginalized 'other.' (17) The former only partly explains the demonizing of Arabs and Muslims in America, especially as Arabs (not necessarily Muslims) in particular have been part of the fabric of United States society since the late 1800's. (18) The latter, Omi and Winant's characterization, is more helpful, but does not precisely delineate the very specific factors that have come together to 'racialize' Arabs and Muslims in the United States. Still, the reasons for defining race as a process are particularly valid, as they indicate both the severe damage 'racialization' can do to the communities and individuals affected, and that the process can be reversed. (19) Social or historical analysts focusing on the problem h ave identified how and why Arabs and Muslims in particular have been racialized in America:

Anti-Arab racism does not emanate from a single source, and certainly is not limited to passions stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Several types of anti-Arab racism and violence can be discerned. The first, and most obvious, is the political violence of Jewish extremist groups, which is correctly viewed as emanating from the Arab-Israeli conflict.... The second is a more nativistic violence which is xenophobic and local in nature.... The third is a form of jingoist hostility and violence usually associated with international crises involving U.S. citizens.... (20)

Nabeel Abraham is not alone in identifying these sources of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, but his work is particularly helpful in marshalling evidence to corroborate each factor. (21) His second factor is better viewed as including xenophobia fed by film and media stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. His third factor is also more accurately broadened to include hostility and violence related to foreign or domestic crises in which U.S. citizens are seen as victims. To his list, however, must be added a fourth factor, which is deliberate misinformation, distortion and institutionalized racism existing in government, law enforcement and influential institutions that target Arabs and Muslims both within the U.S. and abroad. Evidence on each point is discussed below. …