Making a Home in a Foreign Land
By Saher A. Ashary and Meryem Maaroufi
SHARJAH, UAE/IFRANE, Morocco – Global communication in the 21st century has reduced the distance between people from different cultures and regions, and immigration has brought people from different civilizations closer to one another. Yet diverse ideologies, value systems and religious beliefs held by people sharing the same physical space often result in divergent views on how individuals should behave and the extent to which each group is able to participate in society.
Tension between a country’s native and immigrant populations is most pronounced in Europe, especially when it comes to Arab-European relations. Arabs and Europeans both hail from established civilizations with strong but different value systems formed by centuries of time-honored religious beliefs and social habits.
An unwillingness to change on both sides has led to social polarization. According to Harvard University scholar, Jocelyn Cesari, Arab immigrants in Europe have had a difficult time fitting into society; they have the highest unemployment rates of all minorities, and the greatest tendency to live segregated lives in the poorest neighborhoods. The implications of this polarization were apparent in the 2005 riots in France.
Examples of such schisms exist throughout the United States as well but, overall, the United States has been much more accepting of new cultures, partly due to its relative youth as a nation, and partially because it accepts a smaller number of Arab immigrants, roughly four times less than the approximately five million Arabs living in Europe. This smaller group tends to stem from a wealthier, more educated segment of society.
On average, Arab Americans do not live in ghettos and enjoy a richer lifestyle, both financially, and in terms of quality of living. According to data collected in 2000 by the US Census Bureau, they appear to be better able and willing to take advantage of US educational opportunities: 41 percent are college graduates, compared to the 24 percent of the American population as a whole with college degrees.
Their education and hard work pays off. The average income of an Arab American family is $52,300, 4.6 percent higher than the national average, giving this segment of society employment and lifestyle opportunities and removing some of the burdens of unemployment and segregation faced by their European counterparts.
However the events of 9/11 have hampered this progress. Now, the terms Arab and Muslim (often used incorrectly as synonymous with one another) are increasingly being associated with terrorism, extremism and barbarism. Terrorist attacks, perpetrated in the name of Islam, continue to fuel Western suspicion of anything Arab or Muslim.
In this age of increased communication, all societies, cultures and social groups must find ways to understand each other in order to live in peace and harmony. These are simple words, but require tremendous commitment and efforts on the part of each of us.
Thankfully, individuals are rising to the challenge.
Many Arab-Americans are trying to explain their culture and religion to Americans because of the backlash following the 9/11 attacks. For example, an Arab man, Mehdi El-Afifi of Teaneck, New Jersey was driving his daughter and her friends home on the morning of the 9/11 attacks when a woman began pointing her finger at the girls inside. She yelled, “Take off your headscarves!”
Following this incident, Mehdi El-Afifi, along with his fellow community members, began a series of talks explaining Islam and the Arab world across New York and New Jersey. Together they visited churches, synagogues, schools, women’s organizations and youth clubs. They raised awareness of their cultural differences, destroyed negative stereotypes in the process, and showed that Arab and Muslim Americans are not terrorists who want to bomb the country.
Individuals like these help bridge the gulf between citizens sharing the same geographic territory. But more people must be involved; today, a conscious effort is required not just from members of civil society, but also from politicians, historians, and religious leaders. Such examples as this could prevent further polarization from occurring around the world, especially in our global and technologically linked society where the power of improved communication and interconnectedness enable us to learn from one another’s examples.
The writers are juniors at the American University of Sharjah, majoring in international relations.Filed under: Opinion