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What Nobody Tells You About Muslims and Arabs

It frustrates me as an Arab American to see that we are portrayed in a way that is far away from reality, and no matter how hard Arabs and/or Muslims are trying to fight these misconceptions, it is still really a challenge to erase them knowing how effective the media is on every household.
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For a long time, media scholars and researchers across the world have been talking about "The three B syndrome" in which Muslims and/or Arabs are always being portrayed as one of the three B's: billionaire, bomber, and belly dancer. I can also add "terrorists, bedouins and uneducated." It frustrates me as an Arab American to see that we are portrayed in a way that is far away from reality, and no matter how hard Arabs and/or Muslims are trying to fight these misconceptions, it is still really a challenge to erase them knowing how effective the media is on every household whether we like it or not. According to Dr. Sahar Khamis, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Maryland, "This is a common way of looking at Arabs in the media, and describing their flawed media portrayal."

Thus, I decided to put together a list of things that most mainstream Americans do not know about Arabs and/or Muslims. I know that it is neither fair nor reasonable to keep explaining to people why or why not you do certain things or whether what they see in the media is true or not, but I guess building bridges and having the opportunity to dialogue is what matters the most. The fact that we as Arabs and/or Muslims know that these portrayals are false is not enough. Arab and/or Muslim Americans need to get out of their way to know the people who they live with. There are many reasons besides the media that created these misconceptions; part of this is the fact that Arabs and/or Muslims started immigrating and relocating to the United States way after the original settlers. Most of them (in the beginning) came for education and did not even have the time to erase these misconceptions nor expected them to even exist. Another part of the problem is the fact that Americans (second and third generations of the early settlers and those of Hispanic and African American origins) in general are not world travelers, they tend to focus on local traveling within the county itself. Part of this relies on the fact that the United States is a huge country that many would like to explore first and it is also too expensive and tiring to travel. Of course, add to that the effect of the media that portrays the untruthful image of Muslims and Arabs, and never allows the real image to appear and here you have it, a total negative and false image that we have to fight and change all the time!

As a Muslim/Arab community, I think we even have to put ourselves in everyone else's shoes and give them the benefit of the doubt. I also ask every American (of non-Arab/non-Muslim origin) to give himself/herself a chance to know their fellow Americans of an Arab and/or Islamic background; I assure you that your idea will be totally changed the same way mine did when I moved to America, but you have to give yourself the chance and be willing to truly educate yourself and accept others the way they are. I personally found it to be an excellent way to erase misconceptions and to feel welcomed and empowered.

I do not claim that the list is complete by any means but I am trying to bring my own experience to the mix, add some of the questions that I get asked frequently, and the surprises (sometimes shocking reactions) that I get from people that meet me and my family to the context of this list. I am sure many Arabs and/or Muslim Americans will relate to the list.

1. Not every Muslim is an Arab and not every Arab is a Muslim.

According to Drew DeSilver from the Pew Research Center, the world's Muslim population is more widespread than you might think. While many people, especially in the United States, may associate Islam with countries in the Middle East or North Africa, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region.

In addition, not all Arabs are Muslims. There are millions of Arabs that are Christians (and probably some other religions too that I am not aware of). Some of my best friends growing up were Coptic Christians. I would attend their weddings and funerals in their churches, celebrate their feasts the same way they celebrated Ramadan, Eid and other Islamic celebrations and we had absolutely no problem with that growing up (and we still do not!). Whatever you hear/see in the news is not even close to the truth. My mom and her siblings, who grew up in Egypt in the '50s used to call a Coptic Christian neighbor of them Grandma. It took me a while to understand the fact that they were so close that they considered themselves family. They celebrated nearly all feasts together and had so many things in common. What mattered for them is that they were all Egyptians.

2. Yes, you can be a Muslim and/or Arab and an American.

My kids go to an Islamic American school -- the only reason is that we want them to stay connected to who they are and learn how to read/write Arabic. it was so interesting when a colleague of mine came up to me and asked me if my kids have Veterans Day off. I was very surprised with the question, and I immediately assured him that they do. I wondered why he was asking this question, and he said he did not think that an Islamic school would be interested in American holidays! I was very surprised yet I blamed myself (and the whole Islamic/Arab community) for not communicating (and making clear) how loyal Arab/Muslim Americans are to their country. At the school, the only flag up is the U.S. flag, and the only national anthem sung is the American National Anthem. While these kids learn the teachings of their faith, they still hold their American identity above all. Just like kids who go to Catholic, Jewish or Punjabi schools, there is no difference. We are all Americans, hard workers and understand the basic obligations of a loyal citizen. There are even Americans of Arab and Muslim origin who serve in the American Army. The only difference is that many Arabs/Muslims still maintain strong connections to their own homelands because they are still first or second generations. Also, many of them come here leaving their families behind thus they still maintain the connection, but they are faithful, loyal, and embed themselves in the American society just like anyone else. In fact, Muslim Americans are one of the most respected Muslim groups worldwide. They are among the best well-practicing Muslims and they do not see anything in the American lifestyle that can contradict with their religion. Whether they do certain things or don't (like drinking alcohol, eating pork, etc.), these are personal choices that do not differ in any ways from choosing to be a vegetarian, vegan or even gluten-free!

3. Muslim and Arab Men oppress women.

I am not sure what else Muslim/Arab women can do to show that they are empowered. They have fought for education, won Nobel prizes, excelled in almost every career track, participated in the Olympics, held governmental positions (even in the U.S.) and more! While we feel empowered, others are still talking -- and thinking -- that we are oppressed. Often, people are surprised by me attending a gala alone while my husband (who is an international scientist himself) is babysitting the kids! It is not only us; millions of Muslim/Arab Women are strongly supported by their spouses, dads, brothers, etc. While we still hear the stories of oppression, I feel that they are no different than any other abusive stories that we hear about anywhere in the world -- like women in the USA not receiving the same pay as their men counterparts. Aren't all women trying to "lean in" any way?

It is not a Muslim/Arab Women problem; it is a universal problem that has nothing to do with a woman's origin. Muslim/Arab women have a right to divorce, to education, to financial independence. They do not even change their last names after marriage so they can keep their identities, pedigree and heritage alive.

4. We speak English too!

It might come as a surprise for many when they see us (Arabs/Muslims) speak English. Often times I have seen people's jaws drop because I speak English so well. While it mostly depends on where you got your education, most Arabs know how to speak English. The dialects and accents are different depending on the school you went to, how further you continued your English studies and so on. Thus, you should not be surprised -- especially if you see someone who was born and raised in the USA (or went to an international school) -- if they speak perfect English. We still try to keep our Arabic language alive and strong. It might not be easy to force it on our kids sometimes, but we try to keep it as it comes in handy in many situations -- especially if you end up with a career in translation, politics or diplomacy.

5. Muslims and Arabs support violence and terrorism.

If you want to know how many times Muslims and Arabs condemned violence and extremism just google "Muslims against terrorism" or "Muslims Condemning ISIS" or any similar words and you will be surprised by the thousands of Muslim institutions, scholars, and governments that are condemning and fighting terrorism while assuring everyone that this does not have anything to do with the peaceful message of Islam and the Arab world. The majority of Muslims are moderate, peaceful people who have been affected by terrorism and violence more than non-Muslims/non-Arabs. In fact, a new report by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the United States' Military Academy at West Point in New York has shown that the vast majority of al‐Qa'ida's victims are Muslims. They prove that Al-Qaida kills eight times the amount of Muslims than non-Muslims. They had to depend on Arabic media sources and look into the terrorism trend through a non‐Western prism. Unfortunately, this is not shown in the mainstream media for reasons I do not really know.

6. Muslims and Arabs don't value education.

While today many Muslims and Arabs lack the right educational opportunities because of the economic and political circumstances, most Arab and Muslim household place a high value on educating their children. A typical Arab/Muslim family will do the most they can to have their children go to good schools and colleges. The families set high expectations and many children end up with master's degrees and Ph.D.s; others are entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, doctors, government officials, athletes and so on. On the other hand, Arabs and Muslims have a huge interest in movie making, singing, architecture, art, and literature. All forms of art are welcomed and the world has to remember that the European renaissance happened as a result of the ancient and new knowledge reacquired from Muslim scholars. (1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization.)

While I can keep going with the list, I think these points are the most important ones for mainstream Americans (and others living in the West) to understand. I might be too optimistic -- many of my family and friends think that I definitely am -- but I have faith in humans, and I feel that if every one of us did his/her own part we can change misconceptions in the world one person at a time. Everyone, though, must be willing to do his/her own part to help spread the truth, erase misconceptions and live in peace.

Let's build bridges and break barriers!

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