Book editors discuss local Arab life in the ‘Terror Decade’

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Pain and gain
Henry Ford Community College counselor Imad Nouri (front row left) asks a question during the HFCC panel discussion Wednesday.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Arab-American community has faced added pain and unexpected gain, members of a Henry Ford Community College panel said Wednesday.

The panel-led discussion based on the book “Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade” was held in the Liberal Arts building auditorium at Henry Ford Community College. It looked at how life has changed for Muslims in the decade following the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

Hosted by the book’s contributing editors, professors at Henry Ford Community College and the University of Michigan, the collaborative work examines how the diverse Arabic community in the Detroit area has been transformed in the past 10 years.

The panel included contributing editors Nabeel Abraham, HFCC professor of anthropology and HFCC director of the Honors program; Sally Howell, University of Michigan-Dearborn assistant professor of history and Arab American studies and Andrew Shryock, University of Michigan anthropology professor.

Kim Schopmeyer, HFCC associate dean of Social Science and one of the book’s contributors also served on the panel.

In addition to discussing the book, which includes an overview of the diverse Arabic-American Detroit community, the panelists described post-9/11 pain – growing prejudice, political backlash and increased surveillance – as well as unexpected gains, including an opportunity to expose mainstream America to Muslim culture, and increased support for local Arabic charities – before fielding questions from the audience.

One student asked the panel if they thought Arab-Americans would ever return to a state where they didn’t feel as if the country was against them.

Shryock responded by explaining that anti-Arabic sentiment has occurred in the United States before: In the 1990s during the first Gulf War, in the 1980s with events in Lebanon, in the 1970s during the Iran hostage situation and during the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries Oil Embargo, and during the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War.

“Arab-American and Muslim-American identities are crisis formations,” Shryock said. “In other words these political crises actually shape the way Arabs and Muslims see themselves as a community.”

He said that not all ethnic communities in the United States are defined by crisis: some are defined by labor migration or by racism in America.

Shryock added that whether the Arabic-American community returns to a “more placid phase” will depend on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the response of other countries to U.S. policy.

Imad Nouri, an HFCC counselor, asked the panelists why, when given that the 9/11 attacks have been described by U.S. officials as being perpetrated by people jealous of U.S. freedoms, is the American media not providing more coverage of the “Arabic spring,” a phrase used to describe the current Arabic political rebellions and uprisings occurring throughout the world. He asked the panelists if they thought increased U.S. media coverage of overseas Arabic protests in favor of freedoms and improved human and civil rights might be perceived by the American people as an antidote to what he referred to as the current climate of terror.

Abraham said that public perception is not easily changed, and the U.S. media tends to stay with an approach that works for them.

“American history has always had a bogeyman,” Abraham said. “I grew up with the Communists … it used to be a ‘communist under your bed.’ You had to check at night because it could come out to get you.”

He added that prior to World War I the Germans were depicted as killing babies with bayonets to convince the U.S. population of the need to enter the war in Europe. He added that during World War II the United States depicted the Japanese as being ‘utterly vicious.’ He said that similar tactics were used in the past to sway public opinion about Native Americans and Mexicans.

“We’ve always had enemies,” Abraham said. “The standard-bearer this time around is the Arab and the Muslim.”

HFCC student Justin Clark asked the panelists why they thought the Islamophobia that has spread throughout Europe has not occurred in the same manner in the United States.

Howell said that she thinks the Tea Party movement is largely responsible for embracing many anti-Muslim ideas and are using them in their campaign.

She added, however, that she believes The Unites States is different from Europe because it has a long history of immigration from many countries, a smaller percentage of Muslims, and Europe is closer to the Middle East and Muslim parts of the world than the United States

Shryock added that the demographics of immigration between European countries and the United States are very different, and that European countries in general are seeing Arab immigrant laborers who are poorer and less educated.

“The U.S., when it’s dealing with immigrants from countries far away likes to let in highly educated, well-to-do people who have means, who already have families here,” Shryock said. “The immigration pattern in Europe (has) many of the poorest people… the workers without protection or insurance, the fodder of the capitalistic system of Europe. These are people from Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Nigeria – so it’s a very different set of people with different possibilities for participating in society.”