Did you watch the Academy Awards? Catch Sacha Baron Cohen on the red carpet spilling ashes down the front of Ryan Seacrest? Pretty hilarious, huh?
For Arab Americans, not so much.
Cohen was buffooning as a fictitious Arab dictator to promote his upcoming film. There was plenty of buzz over the fact that he made a mess of Seacrest’s Burberry tuxedo, but not much of an outcry about the blatant Arab stereotype.
Arabs are among the few cultures that Hollywood still exploits with impunity. Routinely, we are profiled as unsavory or sultry characters — generally terrorists, dictators, sheikhs, oil tycoons or Bedouins. But it’s not just Hollywood that perpetuates this imagery. These stereotypes are promoted through the media, law enforcement, our courts, legislatures, Congress and our political candidates. They become an ugly message that trickles down to the general public: Arabs and Muslims are untrustworthy; they are un-American; they are… fill the blank.
The NYPD’s widespread surveillance of Muslims and New York Mayor Bloomberg’s refusal to do anything about it is just the most recent example. Another is the FBI training material that included biased and inaccurate depictions of Muslims. We’re routinely regaled with ignorant statements from political leaders, whether they’re city planning commission members voting against a legal Islamic school because of “traffic concerns”; state lawmakers pandering to voters with “anti-Sharia” legislation, (as if the U.S. Constitution were inadequate protection against religious intrusion in our legal system); or presidential candidates talking about how they will keep Muslims out of their cabinet.
So, why don’t we speak up more vociferously against this widespread profiling?
Over the past decade, Congress has passed a laundry list of laws that have had a chilling effect on the free speech and assembly of Muslim and Arab Americans. These started with passage of the sweeping USA PATRIOT Act — which facilitated wiretaps, surveillance and detention of Americans and immigrants without charge — and continues through today. The most recent measure, passed in December as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), allows the military to indefinitely detain people far from any battlefield, including on American soil — without charge or trial — based on suspicion alone.
These measures are not just parked on the books as tools to be deployed against the next big terrorist plot. They are effectively targeting — and quieting — millions of law-abiding Americans. Muslims last year filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security saying they are routinely detained, questioned and even handcuffed as they attempt to cross the U.S.-Canada border. The Muslims said they are asked about their worship habits, including how often they pray, whether they attend prayers at a mosque and who else worships with them.
Human rights and immigration activists throughout the country this week are remembering Alex Martinez, a U.S. citizen who was shot 13 times by Border Patrol and law enforcement officials in Washington state on Feb. 28, 2011, after his father called 911 and, speaking Spanish, requested medical attention for his son.
The kind of bias and profiling that led to Martinez’s death mirrors the experiences of too many other Americans, whose accents, national origin, skin color or clothing makes them targets. Not all of these stories end in the kind of tragedy that took the life of Alex Martinez, but the result – both cumulatively and on an individual level – is exacting a costly toll on our society by dividing and silencing Americans.
In 1940, Earl Warren, then the attorney general of California, issued this caution against bigotry:
It should be remembered that practically all aliens have come to this country because they like our land and our institutions better than those from whence they came. They have attached themselves to the life of this country in a manner that they would hate to change and the vast majority of them will, if given a chance, remain the same good neighbors that they have been in the past regardless of what difficulties our nation may have with the country of their birth. History proves this to be true… We must see to it that no race prejudices develop and that there are no petty persecutions of law-abiding people.
Those are important words to remember this week as we contemplate the NYPD, Alex Martinez, and yes, even the damaging lunacy of Sasha Baron Cohen.
Nadia Tonova is director of the National Network for Arab American Communities, a coalition of 23 Arab American organizations throughout the United States. Click here to listen to Arab Americans recount their post 9/11 experiences through StoryCorps.