By Tareq Ramadan, a second-generation Arab-American and currently a PhD student and instructor in the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University. Tareq previously taught various courses on Middle Eastern and Islamic History with the Department of Near Eastern and Asian Studies as well as courses on Arab and Islamic culture with the College of Engineering’s High School Engineering Training Institute, both at Wayne State. He has also given talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Egyptian Revolution, and other Middle East-related affairs and has published several articles on early Islamic coins. Tareq currently teaches an archaeology course on "Lost Cities and Ancient Civilizations” at Wayne State and is working on a book on the numismatic history of Arab Palestine.
While teaching a summer course for promising high school students at a pre-college outreach program at my university, I had a rare opportunity to address the stereotypes associated with and applied to Arabs and Muslims. When asked what thoughts, words, ideas, or images came to mind when hearing terms like “Arab”, “Muslim” or “Middle East", the most recurring responses were “terrorism”, “violence” and “Islamic radicalism” (although they told me they did not understand what the last phrase meant, except they had heard it repeatedly on television).
I explained that like other communities, Arabs and Muslims, interchangeably, have been unfairly characterized by the behaviors of a few members of those societies. And while those members may represent a tiny, statistical minority, the deviant actions of a few have, unfortunately, come to represent the collective character of hundreds of millions of people. With the mainstream media’s constant portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as "backwards", "conflict-stricken", and "fundamentalist", it comes as no surprise that so many of us hold negative views about Arabs and Muslims. In a post-9/11 U.S., suspicion of both Arabs and Muslims has reached unprecedented levels, and while these two groups are spoken of interchangeably, the majority of this country’s Arabs are, in fact, Christian, not Muslim.
Adding to the increased unfavorable opinions towards these groups is the belief that both communities are made up entirely of foreigners bent on disseminating strange and "un-American" cultural values- values deemed much too different from our own. While largely viewed as quite alien to the U.S., historians will tell you that both Arabs and Muslims have had a presence in the New World as early as the late 15th-early 16th centuries. In fact, the first country to recognize the U.S. as an independent nation was the Arab-Muslim country of Morocco on December 20, 1777. Centuries before this, Arabs and Muslims, from southwestern Europe to central Asia, launched a "Golden Age" of technological and scientific achievement that undoubtedly helped usher in the "European Renaissance." It was the Arabs and the Muslims who introduced paper as well as our current numeral system to the Europeans and, by extension, to us Americans. Even today, hundreds, if not thousands, of English words that we use in our daily conversations have Arabic roots including terms like "sugar", "algebra", "alcohol", "safari", and many more. And while we regard our own country as a unique and diverse "melting pot", it was in Arab-Muslim Spain that one of the worlds most impressive and vibrant civilizations flourished- a civilization based on religious tolerance, pluralism, and multi-culturalism. Whether we are cognizant of Arab-Islamic history or not, the impacts and influences of past Arab and Muslim civilizations have had a profound effect on us all and in a multitude of ways and should not be forgotten, especially at a time when "Islamaphobia" is gradually becoming an accepted social norm.
With that in mind, it is our duty, as cognizant, patriotic Americans to correct the misconceptions, misperceptions, and blatant anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments that are gradually earning a position of prevalence in our society. Rather than denounce our national diversity, let us celebrate it.