Osama Bin Laden, the man whom many believe is behind the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, is from Saudi Arabia. Many of the 19 hijackers who participated hailed from Arab countries. There also have been reports of celebrations in some Arab and Moslem quarters, not just on the West Bank but also in Arab sections of the United States.
All of this has prompted an outburst of incidents against Arabs, Muslims, Middle Easterners and even South Asians in the United States, some of them in New York. The president of the Moslem Students Association at Queens College (where I teach) was targeted for attack and bursts into tears in class when discussing the bombing.
Both Mayor Rudy Giuliani and President George Bush have been scrupulous in asking the American public to avoid scapegoating innocent Arab and Muslim Americans. But there is some evidence that their calls are not working. In one poll, 34 percent of teenagers say they view Arab-Americans as potential terrorists.
What do we really know about the Arab-American community? Arab Americans seem to be following the pattern of other very successful immigrant groups to the United States. They are balancing their attachment to their new home country with their attachment to the Arab world. As with many immigrant groups some are torn between traditional and customary roles and the opportunities available in the United States. In short, they are becoming American.
According to the Census Supplementary Survey, about 1.2 million residents of the United States say they are of Arab ancestry, up from 870,000 in 1990, an increase of about 40 percent. The largest number of these are Lebanese, at 419,000, with a further breakdown as follows: Egyptian (124,000), Iraqi (41,000), Jordanian (65,000), Moroccan (45,000), Palestinian (64,000), Syrian (137,000), Arab/Arabic (262,000), and Other Arab (93,000). It should be noted that, as with any ethnic groups, the ethnic advocates such as the Arab American Institute and others put the real numbers several times greater than the official numbers.
In 2000, 77,000 Arabs lived in New Jersey and 124,000 in New York State.
Arab Americans seem to be quite successful. A poll done in 1999-2000 found that over one-third of households had incomes in excess of $75,000. Large proportions are employed in managerial and professional jobs. Many are educated.
To get "inside" the Arab American group, Jen'nan Ghazal Read of Rice University carried out a study presented at a recent sociology conference of the attitudes of Arab American women. For Christian and Muslim Arabs alike, Islamic values have shaped many Arab cultural values. The family remains the foundation of the Islamic community, Islamic law (sharia) influences what is considered proper interaction between men and women. Men expect women to be modest, and to content themselves with bearing and rearing the children. Few Arab American women accept these limitations. Many now work outside the home, have married non-Arabs, and support goals of the women's movement. The Arab American women seem to be "Coming to America" in Ghazal Read's words, as they balance their new life in America with their ties to Arab place and culture.
Though a tiny handful of Arab terrorists caused incalculable damage to New York City and the United States, the Arab Americans in our midst are hardworking, largely successful immigrants to the United States, balancing their Arab with their American identity.
Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981. Since 1993 he has done demographic analyses and consulted for the New York Times. He has provided expert testimony in districting and redistricting, housing discrimination, and numerous other civil rights cases in the metropolitan area and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in Topics are his alone.