November 27, 2009

Book review: Post-September 11 "Homeland Insecurity"

Barbara Aswad, The Electronic Intifada, 26 November 2009

After the 11 September 2001 attacks there have been many books and articles regarding the misuse of justice and harsh treatment of Arab Americans and Muslims in the United States. Louise Cainkar's extensive research and excellent analysis is the most complete published so far. Homeland Insecurity is an ethnography which took three years to complete and benefits from more than a hundred interviews. Cainkar conducted 80 percent of the interviews personally and participated in local events in Chicago's Arab-American community. This rich source base allows her to examine the effects of national, global and local events on individuals and communities that are viewed as a potential threat to the security of the US.

Cainkar argues convincingly that the anti-Arab, and Anti-Muslim attitudes were not created solely by an 11 September backlash, but that instead the images of the Arabs and Muslims as an "other" were present much earlier. Although Orientalist tropes about Arabs and Muslims were present in the US prior to the Second World War, they were more common in Europe, which had a longer history of interaction with the "East." Thus the fear, xenophobia, nativism and suspicion in the wake of the attacks was accompanied and reinforced by government attempts to implement and enforce policies of racial and ethnic profiling, expulsion and arrest.

In Cainkar's review of the history of Arab immigration to and racial formation in the US, she finds that their social status changed by mid-century. In the early part of the 20th century, Arab immigrants were largely comprised of Christians from present-day Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Egypt and were generally viewed as "marginal" whites which provided them with a degree of belonging to American society. Arab-American political organizations and associations were formed from 1915 to 1951. They opposed the partition of Syria into Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan by Britain and France, the partition of Palestine and US support for the creation of Israel.

However, integrating into American society was not as easy for Muslims. The establishment of Israel in 1948 and the erasure of Palestine and the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War were major consciousness raisers for Arab-Americans, and significant Arab-American organizations were formed. The "brain drain" immigrants in the 1960s were active in these organizations. Meanwhile, Hollywood consistently portrayed Arabs and Muslims as villains. Thus began the social and political exclusion as their official classification as white was overridden by a racial narrative of them being basically different

Cainkar reports that there has been a dramatic growth in Muslim American communities over the past half-century. By some estimates there were toughly two to three million Muslims residing in the US by 1987, the majority of whom were not members of a mosque. By 2005, this estimate is between six to seven million, although there are figures much lower and much higher. About a third are African-American, another third of South Asian descent, and a quarter of Arab descent. Cainkar discusses how this demographic growth was accompanied by an increase in Muslim organizations and schools. However, when the 11 September attacks occurred, Arabs and Muslims experienced increased marginalization, discrimination and hostility and Cainkar argues that it began to change to a characterization of "social pariah and political outcast" (p. 72).

Homeland Insecurity opens with five oral histories, and demonstrates the complexity of and differing affects of the 11 September attacks on members of Chicago's Arab-American community. This is an important introduction to the subject, since it provides context and demonstrates diversity in the treatment and fears experienced by members of the community. While there may be demographic variables in other US communities, Cainkar asserts that it is fair to say most Arab-Americans experienced similar anxieties. She states that substituting the words "Arab and Muslim men" for the word "terrorist" in a statement by former US Attorney General John Ashcroft provides a proximate rendering of the US government's anti-terrorism policies in the aftermath of the attacks and reflects the way those policies were perceived especially by Arab and Muslim men (p. 114). Ashcroft warned of using every available statute and prosecutorial advantage on terrorists, stating that "If you overstay your visa -- even by one day -- we will arrest you" (p. 114).

Cainkar extensively and clearly discusses the laws passed in the wake of 11 September and their consequences. Hate crimes and emotions of victims are discussed extensively, and provide an inventory of the damage done to individuals. She chronicles how the USA Patriot Act expanded the power of the federal government, including: the use surveillance and wiretapping without probable cause, permitted secret searches and access to private records, detention of immigrants on alleged suspicions and denial of admission to the US based on speech, FBI interviews, a special registration program for persons mainly from Muslim countries, and deportations. It also inspired the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002.

Cainkar calls this enhanced power "the security spotlight" and she contends that it greatly affected the conduct of everyday life. It helped to dehumanize individuals and groups, divesting them of human values and feelings shared by other groups. They are "not like us," do not enjoy weddings, holding children or show affection. Of those interviewed, 53 percent said they experienced discrimination, and the largest proportion spoke of workforce discrimination. Schools were also an area of confrontation and although her interviewees were more than 19 years of age, these scenes were recounted by parents. The fact that most Americans did not attack them did not reduce the effect of fear when other persons or mosques were attacked. They said they felt most safe in Arab communities or in the mosques. An additional result of these fears is that many innocent members of families left the US if they felt a member of their family had violated a visa requirement. Other families left because they feared discrimination and harassment for themselves and their children. However, a very important conclusion of Cainkar's study is found in her statement, "This study shows that when weighed against each other, the American people provoked much less fear among Arab and Muslim Americans than did the federal government -- the Bush administration" (p. 8).

One of the most interesting discussions is that of gendered nativism, whereby men are threatened the most by laws, but that women, especially those wearing the hijab (headscarf), are perceived as a cultural threat to everything "American." Cainkar argues that although no Arab or Muslim citizens of the US were implicated or convicted of supporting the 11 September attacks, the hijab was a convenient way of demonizing and further marginalizing the population.

Barbara Aswad, PhD is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Wayne State University.

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