Racial profiling of Arab, Muslim Americans in US media
18 April, 2006
By Ishtiaq Ahmad
The process of racial profiling of Arab and Muslim Americans in the US print media was the subject of the inaugural lecture delivered by Suad Joseph on March 22 at the 7th Mediterranean Meeting organized by the Robert Schuman Centre in Florence, Italy.
A world renowned scholar on Muslim women and Islamic cultural studies, Suad is Director of Middle East/ South Asia Studies at University of California Davis, USA, General Editor of Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Culture, and founder of the American Universities in Cairo and Beirut.
According to her, the Arabs and Muslims in general and Arab and Muslim Americans by association and by direct action have been increasingly racialized and targeted for discriminatory politics and practices in the United States, fueled by the "war on terrorism" media frenzy.
"We live in dangerous times, the media and public authorities drum daily. No threat is more imminent than that of Islam, no site more at risk than the American homeland, and no enemy more fearful than the enemy within, we are told," she said.
The media mantra of the urgent threat of Islam and of the Arabs and Muslims who transport it, according to Suad Joseph, travels through numerous venues. Of particular interest is the manner in which respected print news media increasingly reflect and reproduce racialization of Arab and Muslim Americans and Islam globally. She examined how The New York Times (NYT) and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), arguably the most influential US newspapers, narrate Arab and Muslim Americans and Islam globally in ways that result from and enable racial policing by associating them with terrorism and a demonized, globalized Islam.
That the NYT is widely considered as a "liberal" newspaper known for advocacy of civil and human rights, makes it a critical site for examining the representation of Arab and Muslim Americans in print media. That the WSJ is considered the leading newspaper for the financial/economic sectors of US society, makes it an additional critical case.
Fuad Joseph's main thesis was that the NYT and WSJ, taken as representational apparatuses, have contributed significantly to the project of racializing Arab and Muslim Americans. While they cannot dictate how their readers consider race, they are representational apparatuses, composite articulations of projects, situated within larger, constantly reconstituted arrays of racial projects and formations. She advanced the following seven arguments in defense of her thesis.
First, the NYT and WSJ represent Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in a manner that mostly operates to differentiate them from other Americans. The ordinariness of and internal differences among Arab Americans and Muslim Americans is at times subtly and at times crassly subverted through a series of direct and indirect associations and representations, the effects of which are to essentialize and racialize Arab Americans and Muslim Americans and represent them in their "collective," essentialized identities, rather than their individualities or differences. Arab Americans an Muslim Americans are portrayed largely as Muslim, even though the overwhelming majority of Arab Americans were Christian until the 1970's and some scholars argue that Christians are still the majority of Arab Americans.Muslim American are represented as largely Arab, even though Arabs are a minority of Muslims in America and the world. Indeed, the largest grouping of Muslim Americans is African Americans and the
largest grouping of Muslims globally is South Asian.
Second, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are represented as intimately tied to their countries of origin, perhaps more so that other immigrants and perhaps more tied to their countries of origin than they are to the United States.
Third, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are represented as highly religious, and perhaps more religious than most Americans. Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are represented as religious devout Muslims.
Forth, devout Muslims are represented as devoted to Islam and other Muslims before they are devoted to the United States and other Americans.
Fifth, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are represented as linked to international Muslims and Muslim movements, which are themselves racialized as people of colour, dark and dangerous.
Sixth, Muslims around the world are represented primarily in terms of their religious devoutness. That devoutness is represented as being thinly differentiated from religious fanaticism and fanaticism is represented as the character of people who are trained primarily for collective identity rather than for individuality.
Seventh, the "fanaticism" of global Muslims against the United States then becomes a thin veil separating the hearts and heart beats of Arab and Muslim Americans from globalized Islamic fanaticism and terrorism, making Arab Americans and Muslim Americans high risk citizens and subtly justifying indiscriminate violation of their civil rights of, as well as possible violence, against, a vibrant part of the body politic.
To justify each one of the above arguments, Suad prepared a sample database of the news reports and opinion columns dealing with Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and islam in America published in the NYT and WSJ between late 2001 and early 2003. Then under different themes, such as "terrorism" and "policing," she selected some words and phrases. For instance, words such as "terrorist," "terror," "fear," in the case of "terrorism;" and words such as "arrest," "suspect," "security," "deportation" in the case of "policing." Then, in each newspaper's case, the word count was done?to show as to how many times, ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred times, a particular word was used in each news report or opinion column.
Fuad referred to at least a couple of dozens of news stories in the NYT and WSJ, whereby the Muslims apprehended for extremist behaviour or action were actually Pakistanis, but they were depicted as Arabs in both headlines and contents of the news stories.
While Fuad's presentation was applauded, it did receive some criticism from the audience. For instance, she failed to mention that the present process of racial profiling of the immigrants belonging to a particular religious ideology or ethnic background was not occurring for the first time in US history. Likewise, the US citizens of Japanese origin were racially profiled and victimized during the Second World War; or, for that matter, the alleged Communists experienced a similar fate during the 1950's wave of McCarthyism.
Secondly, besides failing to analyze the issue of racial profiling in the US in a historical context, her presentation lacked the comparative perspective. As a participant in the audience asked, if the racial profiling of Muslims or Arabs in the US in the present age of "terrorism" was a reality, then what about widespread racism being practiced against non-Muslims in the Muslim world? A reference was made to an Afghan Muslim who had converted to Christianity but was facing the danger of a death penalty, to prove that the state of non-Muslim minorities in some conservative Muslim countries goes beyond the notion of racial profiling.
As the only Pakistani participant on the occasion, I pointed out a few more flaws in her presentation. First, that she was using essentially a racist argument to condemn racism. Since Islam itself originated from Arabia, the ethnic identity of the Arabs cannot be separated from their religious identity? The same way, it is difficult to separate South Asian Muslims from Middle Eastern Muslims, or Pakistanis from the Arabs, especially in the light of the violent Arabist shift in Pakistan's traditionally pacifist religious creed since the start of the 1970's.