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Muslims & Arabs Forging New Minority Identity In United States - 2003-01-28

In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, much attention has been focused on Muslims and Arabs in the United States. In some cases, the scrutiny has resulted in discrimination, profiling and distrust. But it may also offer Muslims and Arabs an opportunity for unity and acceptance.

Political science professor Peter Skerry says there is widespread confusion about Muslims and Arabs in the United States. He says, simply put: "Today in the United States, most Arabs are not Muslims and most Muslims are not Arabs."

Professor Skerry – who teaches at California’s Claremont-McKenna College – is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

He says, "Certainly, for most of the 20th Century and probably still today, most Arabs in the United States are not Muslims. They tend to be Christians of various denominations and sects, say Marionite Christians from Lebanon. And conversely, most Muslims in the United States are in fact not Arabs. First of all, we have a large contingent of African-Americans who are Muslims. Not just the Black Muslim followers of Elijah Mohammed, I might point out, or Louis Farrakan, but other, more orthodox Sunni Muslims. And then, of course, there are large numbers of Pakistani immigrants to the United States, who are certainly Muslim, but again not Arab."

He says there are a number of reasons for the widespread ignorance, both at home and abroad, about the make-up of the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States. He says it has to do, in part, with the confusion and anxiety that followed the September 11th attacks. But he also says it’s due to “the ignorance Americans had – and still have – about these large numbers of immigrants.”

The professor says, "We Americans, I think, really are in many ways extremely tolerant of immigrants of all sorts of backgrounds. But what comes with that tolerance I think is a kind of indifference – a kind of blithe ignorance. We accept people very much on faith. I think that’s clearly what we did with many of those involved in the September 11th attack. But what comes with that blithe indifference is a relative lack of knowledge and often a lack of curiosity about where people come from and exactly how their background differs from other people who may or may not sound like them, look like them, share a religion or so forth."

Professor Skerry says many Americans have looked upon Arabs and Muslims as one large homogenous group, when in fact they’re not. However, the new registration requirement by the U-S Immigration and Naturalization Service for many men from Muslim countries is helping to forge – what he calls – “a new minority identity.”

He says, "By treating these different national origin groups in a similar fashion – in a fashion whose implementation was clearly clumsy and unfortunate – it tended to forge these different groups, who see themselves differently, as being commonly and similarly situated vis-ŕ-vis the INS - I think it helped forge the beginnings of an American-Muslim identity."

He says typically immigrants come to the United States and assimilate by becoming part of a group. He says the group identity of Muslim-Americans is a step toward becoming full-fledged Americans.

Professor Skerry says, for example, the same thing happened to Italians when they first came to the United States early in the last century. Since Italy, at the time, was still a rather new country, Italians identified themselves by their city, village or region, such as Neapolitans or Sicilians. However, going through the various stages of immigration, they began to accept themselves simply as Italian Americans.

The Brookings Institution senior fellow also says September 11th gave - what he calls – a “jump start” to American acceptance of an unfamiliar religion, Islam.