By Louise Cainkar
President, Arab American Studies Association
Associate Professor, Marquette University
Arab American Studies is a strong and growing group of interdisciplinary scholars. Whether our work is about the historical, literary, political, or current social conditions, we have much to contribute to matters of public debate because we are driven by knowledge and the search for accuracy. Many of us feel an imperative to speak out because our work concerns persons who have been maligned in the West for a very long time. Today’s popular hysteria in the U.S. over Syrian refugees is only one of many such cases. Emotions have reached such a zenith not because of anything Syrian refugees have done, but rather due to the circulation of misleading information by irresponsible hate mongers. Their stories implicate Syrian refugees in violence, when in fact Syrian refugees are the ones fleeing violence. Incendiary material about Syrian refugees circulates as if truth and is kept afloat by pumping up hostility and hatred, sentiments that rarely direct anyone to fact checking.
We are witnessing a historical repeat. After the 9/11 attacks, widespread government and popular targeting of Arab and Muslim Americans was able to continue for years not because of the attacks themselves but because pre-existing animosities towards Arabs and Muslims as human beings made it possible to hold millions responsible for the acts of few. A devastating invasion of Iraq, a country bearing no relationship to the attacks, could be sold to the public as legitimate retaliation. Japanese internment in the US bore witness to the same sequence of events: widespread negative stereotypes and racism made it easy for the government to cast tens of thousands of Japanese, including US citizens, as dangerous to the nation. This relationship between the mass incarcerations of Japanese, efforts to block Syrian refugees, and talk of banning Muslims from the US may be the only thing that Donald Trump got right. He says we have implemented such policies before and implies that historical precedence makes it right. Our work demonstrates quite the opposite: collective animosities lead to practices that bring on national shame, often only acknowledged as such many decades later.
In my class on immigration at Marquette University we watch the film “The Letter” and discuss what went wrong in Lewiston, Maine after the arrival of a large number of Somali refugees. Was it that they were culturally different? Black? Muslim? Poor? Non-English speaking? Of course, all of these played a role in the negative turn of events there, when hatred of Somalis became the tenor and meaning of the daily lives of a significant proportion of the town’s population. But we also find a failure of leadership; the mayor at the time was key to cultivating that hatred among Lewiston’s long time residents. He gave it the green light that culminated in a nationally organized white supremacist rally, and then he fled. History tells us that we should never underestimate the power of hatred. Hatred drives the murders committed in the name of ISIS; it drove the murders of three Palestinian Muslim students in North Carolina and the murders of Sikhs in Wisconsin. Hatred nurtured by “leadership” is the foundation of all genocides, as widespread support for mass killing must be cultivated and rewarded. In my view, persons claiming to be leaders who use their positions to foment hatred are no more than bullies wielding power irresponsibly and dangerously; they possess less human dignity than any single Syrian refugee.
Let’s look at a few of the facts.
No one in a position of authority has said that a Syrian refuge was part of the Paris attacks. What they have said is that all of the attackers are assumed to be EU citizens, that a false Syrian passport was found next to the body of one of the attackers, and that it is tied to a person who moved through Turkey, Greece, and on through Europe, “posing” as a refugee, presumably to hide his identity. I am trying to find a situation in which an entire group has been found guilty for a crime attributed to someone “posing” or sneaking in as one of them, but so far I have been unable to do so. Nazi sympathizers snuck into countries of the Americas posing as displaced Germans, but I do not know of talk of expelling all Germans to be on the safe side. Likewise, it was well known that convicted criminals were part of Cuban refugee movements, but halting that refugee movement was not on the table, while at the very same point in time, refugees from Haiti were incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay simply because they were Haitian. These examples speak to my point: pre-existing sentiments towards people determine responses to them, not facts. And if fear and hatred of Muslims were not there to begin with among some in the US, certain prominent U.S. political figures have done their absolute best to create these feelings.
The Syrians who fled to Europe did so because the border countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey have been overwhelmed with almost 4 million refugees over the past few years. In Lebanon alone, 1.4 million Syrian refugees now make up about ¼ of the population. While the Syrian refugee crisis has been going on for quite a while, it seems that few across the world cared until the refugees entered Europe. Technically, the Syrians who fled to Europe are asylees seeking refugee resettlement, for which they will be interviewed and vetted. This status makes them more comparable to the children from Central American who have surged the US border over the past few years, similarly fleeing desperate conditions and traveling by foot and dangerous modes of transportation.
As compared to these types of sudden, large, risky, and unmonitored flows of people, US refugee policy works quite differently. Persons must first be interviewed and registered with the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], usually in a country bordering their homeland. Later, those selected for resettlement are interviewed multiple times and vetted. The US vetting process is complex and takes up to two years to complete. According to an Arab American Institute blog post it “involves multiple domestic and international agencies, including the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), State Department, Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Screening Center, and the National Counterterrorism Center. The process includes extensive paper applications, in-person interviews, and medical screening tests.” While it is convenient to scare people with images of mass invasion, this is a politically driven tactic that seeks to polarize and plays on the worst of human emotions.
What we do know is that the more a group of people is stigmatized, the more strongly its members will seek ways to develop pride in that identity. Socially imposed identities become “an anchor of subjectivity” and are used to empower their holders,” argues Kim Crenshaw [1993: 1297]. She says, “A strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for disempowered groups is to occupy and defend a social position rather than to vacate and destroy it.” Despite the wishes of some who are uncomfortable with difference and use fear tactics to sway others their way, neither Syrian refugees nor Muslims are going to disappear.
Yet the monster these American demagogues of hate are creating is really quite scary. They would benefit from a bit of reading, a taking stock of the actual damage done in the name of US foreign policy. The information is there, ready for consumption. Using uninformed collective animosity to drive the policies of the wealthiest country and largest military in the world is a very frightening proposition indeed.
Professor Cainkar has published dozens of articles and book chapters in the field of Arab American studies. In 2004 she won a Carnegie Scholar Award for her work on the reinvigoration of Islamic practices among second generation Muslim Americans. Her 2009 book, Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience after 9/11 (Russell Sage Foundation) was honored as Outstanding Adult Non-Fiction by the Arab American National Museum. She serves on the board of directors of the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies and is President of the Arab American Studies Association. Her current research is on transnational Arab American teenagers who attended high school in Yemen, Palestine, and Jordan.