Are Arabs and Middle Eastern subjects to discrimination?

Arab Americans

Arabs and Middle Eastern people have long been the subjects of sweeping stereotypes, especially in the Western world. They are often portrayed in Hollywood shows as villains, terrorists or misogynists – if they are even represented at all. It is exceedingly rare to find a Western show that portrays an Arab or Middle Eastern as a hero or a good supporting character, which only lends to the discrimination these people face on a daily basis. 

In America, the term “Arab Americans” is usually used as a catch-all to indicate people of all these descents: Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Iraqi and other Arab ancestry (including Yemeni, Kurdish, Algerian, Saudi, Tunisian, Kuwaiti, Libyan, Berber, Emirati (United Arab Emirates), Omani, Qatari, Bahraini and Bedouin), according to the United States government. The United States’ politicians usually simply label all Middle Eastern immigrant communities as “Arabs”, resulting in groups of people who are not even Middle Eastern, such as South Indians and Pakistanis, sometimes being mistaken for Arabs and becoming targets of discrimination. Ignorance about and violence directed at Middle Eastern people has existed for decades and is still occurring today. 

Additionally, Arabs are usually assumed to be synonymous with Muslims, although the differences between the two are distinct – Arabs are a race, while Muslims are a religious group. While it is true that most Arabs may be Muslims, there are a fair number of non-Muslim Arabs, such as Christian Arabs, which most of the Arab American population identifies as. There are also a large number of Muslims who are not Arabs – in fact, Arabs make up only 12 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Unfortunately, people’s associations tend to result in stereotyping of Middle Eastern people, which have led to bullying, racial discrimination, racial profiling and hate crimes against this group of people. 

It has been observed that the counts of violence towards Middle Eastern people has increased whenever the United States has a confrontation with a Middle Eastern country. For instance, there were hundreds of hate crimes performed against Arabs during the Gulf War in 1991, including arson, bombings, assault and attempted murder. Despite this fact, few people have ever faced charges for anti-Arab actions, while the authorities have seemed keen enough to apprehend Middle Eastern people for a crime, even if there have been no clear charges against them. One murder was that of Alex Odeh, a regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). He was killed in 1985 when a bomb was trip-wired to his office door, but there was little reaction from the authorities or the media. Another incident showing the discrimination of Arabs occurred in 1995, when a federal building in Oklahoma was bombed. Although the perpetrators were unknown then, the government and media blamed the Arabs and Muslims for the act, which also started off a chain reaction of violent actions toward people in these groups until the FBI finally found that a white anti-government militia had been behind the bombing after all.

Possibly one of the worst straws was the 2001 September 11 attacks on the United States. Following the attacks, Arab Americans across the country were ostracized and harassed, both by their communities and state agencies. They were forced to undergo arbitrary detention, racial profiling, aggressive checks and detention for questioning when passing through airports or borders. On top of that, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that in the first few days after the attack, around 75 Arab and South Asian men were rounded up and detained in secret locations. The number was only added to in the aftermath of the attacks. Also, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state and local fair employment agencies, there was an increase in the number of charges that alleged racial or religious discrimination at the workplace since the occurrence of September 11. Most of the individuals who filed reports were of Middle Eastern descent or religion, and they reported being harassed and unfairly discharged based on their race or religion. 

The media seems to hold a long-going stereotype of Arabs being barbaric, villains, terrorists, foreigners or belly dancers. When Coca-Cola released its commercial during Super Bowl 2013, it was heavily criticized by Arab Americans for the misrepresentation of their race, which involved featuring Arabs riding camels in the desert. The commercial showed the Arabs competing with Vegas showgirls and cowboys to find a more convenient form of transportation to reach a gigantic bottle of Coca-Cola in the desert. In a teaser the company released before airing the full commercial, they asked viewers to vote online which character they thought would win the race. On the poll, there was no option for the Arabs. This caused a huge backlash from the Arab communities in the United States, stating that Coca-Cola was implying that Arabs were backward and not comparable to the other characters portrayed in the commercial. 

Disney had also faced a similar backlash in 1992 when releasing its film “Aladdin”. Arab American groups were outraged a number of depictions in the film that suggested negative connotations for Arabs and Middle Eastern people. For instance, the lyrics of the theme song stated that Aladdin came “from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” There was also a scene where an Arab merchant threatened to cut off a woman’s hand after she stole food for her starving child. Additionally, most of the Middle Eastern characters in the film were featured with huge noses and sinister eyes. Disney made some changes to the film after the outrage from the Arab Americans. 

It is not only in current times that society has discriminated against Arabs and Middle Eastern people or their religions. As early as 1492, Arabs that converted to Christianity were labelled “Moriscos” and expelled from Spain to North Africa by the Spanish Inquisition. “Moro” today in Spanish means “moor” and has a negative connotation. The term was also used by the Spanish to refer to Muslim tribal groups in the Philippines since the 16th century. 

While we can agree that Arabs and Middle Eastern people have long been marginalized especially in American society, there have also been positive developments towards recognition of these groups of people in the United States, mainly by the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, founded in 1980, claims to be the largest Arab-American grassroots civil rights organization in the United States. The organization aims to address anti-Arabism in the country and focuses on the issues and interests of Arab Americans across the United States.