Posted by Ali Albassam on October 18, 2016 in Blog

As an Arab American growing up in a post 9/11 world, I faced a lot of challenges. Not only did I endure the attacks like every other American, but also the ensuing backlash in the form of suspicion, hatred, and fear.

Suddenly, I felt like a foreigner in the only place I ever called “home” – forced to counter the growing myths that undermined my identity. These challenges are felt by millions of Arab Americans and American Muslims; they are unique, complex and ever evolving.

Dr. Zogby, who has been on the front lines of these challenges for more than 30 years, illustrated its evolution which began to surface long before 9/11.

He explained that the initial challenges for Arab Americans weren’t so much an issue with “bigotry against an ethnicity,” but rather an issue with the way Arabs were typecast as “advocates of terrorists” simply because they supported justice for Palestinians. 

It didn’t help that American media, like the Hollywood film “Exodus”, served to reinforce negative stereotypes, which according to Dr. Zogby, “stuck in the American culture.”

“We took five years of TV shows and we found only negative stereotypes airing us either as terrorists or as oil sheiks, not a single positive image and not a single Arab American portrayed.”

Then  “ABSCAM”  happened – a sting operation organized by the FBI during the late 1970s featuring operatives, poorly dressed as Arab sheiks, bribing public officials.

“I asked the director of the FBI why he did it and said it was very hurtful to an entire culture and he said ‘well you know you might be right but we needed something that was believable.’”

This was the spark that compelled Dr. Zogby to take action.

In 1980, with then Senator James Abourezk (D-SD), he co-founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) to create a vehicle that would combat anti-Arab bigotry.

Five years later, he also founded the Arab American Institute to represent the policy and community interests of Arab Americans and promote Arab American participation in the U.S. electoral system.

The initial roadblocks he encountered were a strong indication of the need for such efforts.

“We had to fight to get acceptance. The Democratic party wouldn't talk to us for four years…if it hadn't been for Jesse Jackson, Ron Brown and then later Bill Clinton we never would have gotten access.”

The September 11th attacks and the “war on terror” served as the tipping point for the pervasive anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry we see today. Dr. Zogby argued that “The fear associated with 9/11 then became the problem, so Arab American Muslims faced a double whammy.”

And as an Arab American Muslim ­–  I can attest.

Dr. Zogby provided a glimpse into the Arab psyche by referencing his Arab opinion polls, which revealed a very different reality from the myths we hear about the Middle East and North Africa. Those myths, according to Dr. Zogby, have “played a role in shaping our policy in the region.”

“What drove the negative was not our (American) values because 80% of Arabs like our values. They didn’t like the way we treat them.”

Dr. Zogby ended his appointment with Harvard’s students by prescribing a solution for these challenges.

“The only way that Americans will know us is if we go to them,” Zogby said. “The most learning will be accomplished through meeting one another.”

Heeding his own advice, Dr. Zogby offered his personal email to the many students in the audience left with unfulfilled curiosity and welcomed anyone to continue the conversation with him.

 You can watch the full discussion here.