In 1921 heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, starring in the black-and-white film The Sheik, introduced Americans via the big screen to the Arab—the progenitor of today's loosely defined, hysteria-inducing, mosque-building, uppity enemy. In the movie, Arabs were portrayed as exotic, temperamental, prone to rape and having small hands.
Those were the good old days.
Today's Islamophobic rapture, with its equally absurd extremes of Koran bonfires and public service announcements in which Muslims have to remind their fellow Americans that they are (good) Americans too, should not come as a surprise. Arabs and Muslims have a long history of being perceived and portrayed as utterly foreign to America.
This skewed version of reality is fueled by the invisibility of Arab- and Muslim-Americans in the nation's consciousness, coupled with a mostly negative hyper-visibility of Arabs and Muslims abroad. Thus, protecting the homeland against the lasting damage threatened by today's bigotry requires making Arab- and Muslim-American communities visible in US society. A simple task, but one that has conspicuously not been done.
Narratives of US history are full of omissions. People from the Arabic-speaking world started coming to the United States in the late 1800s. Yes, many were part of the huddled masses from other places—Poland, Sicily and Greece, for example—that we easily consider part of our collective American heritage. While most were Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims were also among them. Unlike other immigrant groups, they were found in every state in the nation, because of their early trade as peddlers. They worked in factories, opened groceries, homesteaded, formed baseball leagues, fought in the military, built churches, built mosques. In addition, Islam was one of the religions practiced by African slaves, who have been a part of this country from its inception. Since 1965 (when US immigration quotas were lifted), many more Arabs, Muslims and other Middle Easterners, as well as South Asians, have come to America and have helped build this country. And yet they are barely reflected in the historical narrative or in the other ways a nation imagines and celebrates itself.
The Arabs and Muslims who do exist in the American perception are overseas and foreign. We glimpse them as subjects of geopolitics and of American engagement in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which has often been adversarial and based on a reductionism that conflates many diverse countries, peoples and situations. This is not a dynamic that began with the "war on terror"; it has been in place since 1948, when the United States began to identify with the new state of Israel, which necessitated delegitimizing Palestinian national aspirations and any dissent from American-backed Israeli policies.
When the mainstream media or pop culture does feature Arab- and Muslim-Americans, it often feels like a safari. These Americans are treated as objects of curiosity instead of as a part of America's complexity. Similarly, when the government develops special laws or extrajudicial measures and procedures that seem to ignore our Constitution and applies them mostly to Arab- and Muslim-Americans, it is signaling that they are not real Americans, entitled to real American constitutional protections. Can we be so surprised, then, at the impunity with which some of the louder politicians, talking heads, extremist preachers and the like incite hatred of them?
September 2010 has recalled September 2001 in many ways: again the skies are early autumn blue, a new school year is beginning, eyes are trained on Lower Manhattan, a religion and its adherents are scrutinized—all while the pain of lost life still aches as if it were that same September. Now, as then, the national mood and conversation suffer because of the void caused by the paradox of being invisible and visible at the same time, with a new generation of Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern/South Asian–American children feeling its sting. Nine years ago, many Americans, particularly from within these communities, stepped into that void, intervening artistically, academically, politically or even just in conversation with their neighbors, to begin to illuminate and make familiar their history, lives and experiences.
But nine years later, they are hardly more visible, nor have their voices been granted the same megaphone as the more sensational ones. This is damaging on many fronts, from the quality of all our lives here, to our ability to focus on what we need to do to get the nation out of this economic crisis, to the image of the country in the rest of the world, to the integrity of our Constitution and the honesty of the American promise.