Relations Not a Casualty

By Amber Nizami

After the tragic events of September 11, American Muslims braced themselves for the worst, as victims of both terrorism and prejudice. Unpleasant memories of Oklahoma City—in which Middle Eastern terrorists were immediately suspected until the arrest of Timothy McVeigh—were resurrected by the media, creating an overwhelming sense of déjà vu for Muslims. Fortunately, the legacy of Oklahoma City would not be exclusively composed of a blind repetition of the hate, prejudice, and suspicion experienced by Muslims in the wake of these attacks. Instead, it would encompass a social and political re-evaluation of the stereotypes and prejudices that led the American people to wrongly accuse an innocent minority in their rush to judgment the first time around.
      Times of crisis such as these have acted not only as a crucible for oft-celebrated American values, but also as a wake-up call for Muslims to actively disassociate Islam from terrorist violence. But the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy proved more than a bit surprising for American Muslims. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, bomb threats to mosques, businesses, and organizations were apparently far outnumbered—about 15 to 1—by reports of unexpected acts of kindness and support from Americans from all walks of life, including neighbors, co-workers, students, teachers, and religious organizations.

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AP/Wide World Photos

Two American Muslim girls look out the back window of a bus as they leave an Islamic school in Brooklyn, New York.

Accepting Others as Individuals

Hostile acts against Arab Americans and Muslims have increased dramatically since the terrorist acts in September. As soon as Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden was identified as the chief suspect, I knew these groups would be singled out for harassment. Instances of violence and vandalism, including the defacing of mosques with ethnic slurs, have been reported in Los Angeles, Detroit, Madison, Wisconsin, and elsewhere across the United States. Ironically, Arab Americans and Muslims were singled out for this same kind of derogation in April 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, until it was determined that Timothy McVeigh, not Islamic terrorists, was responsible for that act of terrorism.
      For more than 10 years I have been conducting programmatic research on the attitudes of the host-receiving society in the United States toward smaller ethnic immigrant groups, why people use derogatory ethnic slurs against immigrants, and what makes people see others as foreign.

      As an ethnic immigrant group, Arab Americans exhibit those traits that go the furthest toward identifying a group as being “Other.” Arab Americans comprise a small group in the United States. Some of them have “foreign”-looking faces and dark complexions. Some have accents. These attributes of relative group size, facial appearance, complexion, and linguistic difference make social targets stand out, and influence people to think of those social targets in simplified, often derogatory, ways. One of the most pernicious indicators of this is found in the use of ethnic slurs to hurt members of those ethnic immigrant groups.
      Fortunately, our research here at Syracuse University has shown that people can be trained to think about members of out-groups as individuals, instead of only seeing them as members of the group. Any individual is capable of acquiring the skills that will allow him to look at a person on the street and respond to that person as an individual, even though there is so much in our environment that presses us to respond to that person as a member of an out-group.

—Brian Mullen, professor of psychology,
College of Arts and Sciences

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Main Home Page Contents Chancellor's Message Opening Remarks
Reflections In Memoriam Time of Terror Lessons of Hope
Future Impact Voices

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