Building Bridges: The Role of Four NYC Nonprofit Organizations in Promoting Intercultural Education Post-September 11th

Osama does not want to get up in the morning because children at school harass him due to his name. It has come to such a critical point that his parents want him to transfer to a different public school, although this would force him to commute every day. However, his request cannot be granted because of “administrative reasons.” Osama will continue to suffer from this sort of discrimination and these painful memories throughout his life. The problems that Arab and Muslim-Americans endure in the U.S. do not only come from the ignorant perception that all Arabs and Muslims are the same, but from the unwillingness of many public officials to make any efforts to encourage the integration and well-being of Arab and Muslim-American communities. In this article, we will examine four different organizations in New York City working to prevent discrimination and promote tolerance by educating the public about Arab and Muslim-Americans. 

Before & After September 11, 2001

Like other immigrant communities, Arab-Americans have always faced discrimination in the U.S., but after September 11th, 2001, this discrimination became especially apparent.. Before September 11th, Arab-Americans were largely considered “the ‘invisible’ racial/ethnic group” of the United States (Naber 2000:37). Due to this invisibility, the American public was never highly knowledgeable about Arab culture and Islam—or the difference between the two. International events and media coverage of these events contributed to negative stereotypes of Arabs in America, portraying every Arab as a Muslim or even a terrorist. However, Arab and Muslim-Americans come from many different religious, cultural, socio-economic, political and national backgrounds, and therefore there is no stereotypical Arab or Muslim-American. Perhaps surprisingly, around two-thirds of the Arabs in the U.S. are in fact Christian (Vera Institute 2006:5). However, this information is not widely know to the American public.

September 11th had a substantial impact on Arab and Muslim-American communities, who subsequently faced increased levels of public suspicion—exacerbated by increased media attention—hate crimes, employment discrimination, targeted government policies and mistreatment by law enforcement. Furthermore, many families were torn apart by government actions and laws that sanctioned racial profiling, mass detentions and deportations focused primarily on Arab and Muslim communities. Religion has played a small role in determining who has been affected by these policies; Christian Arabs are not less targeted than Muslim Arabs because people recognize Arabs solely through their appearance and accent. However, South Asians and non-Arab Muslims were also severely affected by post-September 11th-related bias.

NYC & Public Opinion

Since New York City is known as one of the most multicultural cities of the world, it is hard to imagine that intolerance towards Arab and Muslim-Americans could be practiced in such a place. However, since New York was directly targeted by the attacks, many people were affected by the events in some way. This situation has served as a breeding ground for misunderstanding, causing stereotypes, discrimination and harassment to escalate. People that have been victims of injustice are sometimes more likely to be unjust towards other people. 

The third annual poll on religion in American public life in 2003 indicated that 44% of the American public now believes that Islam is more likely than other religions “to encourage violence among its believers,” an increase from 25% of Americans in March 2002 (van Driel 2003:1). The hostile attitude of Americans towards Islam and its perceived adherents is a trend on the upswing.

Models of Intercultural Community Outreach

As noted earlier, Arab-Americans were historically an invisible ethnic group within American society. However, the events of September 11, 2001 brought this group to the forefront of the American public’s scrutinizing eye. Stereotypes propagated by American media and politicians seem to be one of the main reasons why the community experiences so much discrimination and harassment. In order to evaluate efforts to combat prejudice against Arab and Muslim-Americans , promote tolerance and understanding between Arab/Muslim-Americans and non-Arab/Muslim Americans, we spoke with and profiled four civil society organizations who have worked on these issues since September 11, 2001. Each organization approaches the issues using different educational and outreach models and each has had varying degrees of success.

Enhancing the Image of Arab-Americans

Rami Museir, an attorney for the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY) has worked on cultural sensitivity programs with law enforcement post-9/11 and believes that it is important to build better relationships between Arab-Americans and law enforcement as well as the American public in general. After 9/11, AAANY was frequently invited to churches and synagogues to speak to people who wanted to learn more about the stereotypes surrounding Arabs and Muslims. One component of this work involves using well-known celebrities who have “contributed to the fabric of American culture” to show the American public that Arab-Americans have been successful in the U.S. and to prove that the stereotypes about Arab-Americans are false. Rami says that the best technique to educate people is to let them actually come face to face with Arabs and then they will realize that Arab-Americans are just regular people like everyone else and not ‘evil’- this is an important step to debunking the stereotypes. Rami feels that there is a desperate need to enhance the image of Arab and Muslim-Americans and to promote the beautiful and rich culture of Arabs by advocacy efforts and dialoguing with other groups. He especially emphasizes working with youth, who he believes hold more promise than adults who are already set in their ways.

Changing Behavior Through Practical Training

The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding takes an entirely different approach, focusing on practical training in order to educate Americans about the Islamic faith. Joyce Dubensky, Executive Vice President of Tanenbaum, explained that her organization develops educational curricula which “changes behavior.” Dialogue, in fact, is kept out of the curriculum. 

Tanenbaum trains employers, doctors, law enforcement, teachers and many others to recognize and respect differences that arise due to religious diversity. For example, Tanenbaum teaches police that if a Muslim woman doesn’t allow an officer into her home, it is probably not because she is hiding something, but rather that her husband is not home and she is not allowed to let males into her home without her husband present. 

Another example Dubensky provided was a lesson designed for school children to learn more about different religious practices. This is presented in story format in which each child reads two stories, for example, about a Japanese tea ceremony and the Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan in Jordan. Then the students compare the stories, identifying the similarities and differences in the two holidays as well as with holidays from their own religious backgrounds and asking questions if they would like to know more. This emphasis on doing practical training, claims Tanenbaum,  promotes interreligious understanding while also fostering public speaking, reading, and a range of other basic skills.

In-reach Efforts: Empowering Arab-Americans

Dahlia Eissa, founder of the Arab American Justice Project (AAJP) which offers the community legal services, has a negative view concerning tolerance education models. Immediately after September 11th, AAJP offered educational outreach programs about Arab and Muslim-Americans to American schools and universities. However, she found that people weren’t interested. She tried to go through student groups, especially groups concerned with Arabs, Muslims or Interfaith groups, but she was discouraged because more often than not, the university said that it has already dealt with the issues concerning stereotypes and discrimination and that there are no longer any problems. She found the same pattern occurring with the New York City Board of Education. Dahlia says that she was also invited occasionally to speak at interfaith or Jewish organizations, but she often felt that the event was just for show and was in actuality an insincere attempt on behalf of the organizations to deal with issues of discrimination and stereotyping. 

Dahlia believes that “inreach” efforts within the Arab-American community are more effective and positive. She says that it is important for AAJP to win legal battles because if the outcome of a decision is in the community’s favor, the community feels empowered. This in turn helps to bridge the gap between the community and the outside world.

Dahlia concludes that Arab-American and Muslim-American organizations cannot be very successful in changing the public’s attitudes toward them because they are essentially powerless. Instead she is in favor of other groups joining in the struggle to dispel stereotypes because other voices have more political clout and are thus viewed as more legitimate.

Building Bridges Through Interfaith Collaboration

Naz Ahmed Georgas works for the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), an organization which seeks to build bridges with the wider American public by lecturing in schools, universities, churches and synagogues and creating programs focusing on  non-political aspects of Islamic heritage in art, culture and music. ASMA has several main projects and programs focused in particular on collaborating with Jewish and Christian communities, including The Festival Cordoba. ASMA joined together with other Jewish and Islamic organizations to host a concert celebrating Jewish and Muslim music. By coming together to find common factors within each of these communities, such as common heritage, common food, common history and commonalities in culture, despite religious boundaries, ASMA claimed that people learned to respect religious differences because they identify with certain common threads in both traditions. Although Naz believes that these programs have been very successful, she feels that often these outreach efforts are “preaching to the choir”- those involved are people who are already committed to peace and interfaith work. She says the real question is “How do we reach out to the many (or majority) of Americans who are unaware or somewhat ignorant of the Muslim culture and of other religions in general?”

The Legacy of September 11th: A Price Too High ?

Although there is a lot of work being done by nonprofits in New York City to promote tolerance and understanding of Arab and Muslim culture, everyone we spoke to said that more must be done. It will certainly require decades of efforts until stereotypes and discrimination faced by Arab and Muslim-Americans are erased in American society. An event such as September 11th, in which thousands of Americans died, will never be forgiven; entire communities of Arab-Americans and Muslims will have to pay for these events even though they did not support them. Rami says that many years will pass before the damage done to Arabs by September 11th will be fixed. Furthermore, discrimination continues to proliferate, especially now, because people are worried about how the Arab-American community will react to the current situation in the Middle East, including the conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza. Rami says that this is a continuation of the fear that was provoked by September 11th. Dahlia agreed on this point, adding that “Politicians need to step up to the plate. Right now they are adding fuel to the fire. By justifying the war, this reinforces people’s perceptions of Arabs and Muslims. Few politicians are taking a stand.”

Although September 11th was a high price to pay, many believe that it has opened new doors for important inter-community dialogues. Many, including Joyce Dubensky and Rami Museir believe that there were some positive aspects of September 11th. Joyce thinks that 9/11 uncovered the depth of division among groups and one cannot address this problem until one recognizes that it is there. Rami says that the Arab-American community is coming together more now and that the general public is learning more about Arabs and Muslims. However, he believes that the price for this was and continues to be too high.

References

American Society for Muslim Advancement website, www.asmasociety.org

Naber, Nadine. 2000. “Ambiguous Insiders: An Investigation of Arab American Invisibility.”  Ethnic and Racial Studies. 23.1 37-61.

Van Driel, Barry. 2004. “Confronting Islamophobia in Educational Practice.” Trentham Books Limited.

Vera Institute of Justice. 2006. “Law Enforcement & Arab American Community Relations After September 11, 2001 : Engagement in a Time of Uncertainty. ”

Interviews

Rami Museir, attorney, Arab American Association of New York and President of American Mideast Leadership Network (27 July 2006).

Joyce Dubensky, Executive Vice President, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding (27 July 2006).

Dahlia Eissa, founder & attorney, Arab American Justice Project (27 July 2006).

Naz Ahmed Georgas, Coordinator for Muslim Spiritual Affairs, Masjid Al-Farah & Lecturer on Islam/Sufism, American Society for Muslim Advancement.

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

United-states United States 2007

Authors:

Related Media

Browse all content