In “the West”, racist slurs targeted at Arab communities are often passed off as free speech or critical enquiry, and not enough is being done to value all ethnic groups and to protect them from prejudice. People often say that Islam must be open to criticism. I agree with this, because Islam is an idea that can be subject to change. Arabs, however, can find themselves ethnically bound by their identities. Criticising and smearing people based on their ethnicity is no longer a free inquiry into ideas but a racist attack on ethnicity and heritage. These things cannot change in the same way that a person can change their religion.
Antisemitism is similar to Anti-Arab hate-speech. This is because Judaism is not only about religion, but also about culture, heritage, family and ethnicity. Furthermore, the word Semite is the Anglacisation of the Latin word Sem, meaning Shem/Sham in Hebrew or Arabic. This refers to the people of roughly the Levant region. You may have heard this from the barbaric Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham, who often use this word instead of Levant. Both ethnic Arabs and Jews are therefore technically Semites, because many of them have either historically resided in or around the Sham region, or continue to share cultural or linguistic ties with the region.
Whilst the UK government had compiled, in 2014, invaluable work monitoring and raising awareness on the increase of antisemitic attacks against Jewish communities in Britain, their dossier does not consider anti-Arab hate-speech or hate-crime, nor is there any such separate document for anti-Arab hate-speech. I have nonetheless come to a personal conclusion that extending the government definition of antisemitism in line with its true etymological meaning is not the best way to combat anti-Arab hate-speech for the following reasons:
- Extending the definition of Semitism as a solution to racism would imply that only by being compared to Jewish communities can other ethnic communities be taken seriously;
- The definition of Semitism also excludes Hispanic, Asian and other ethnic groups who can still face largely unnoticed prejudice. Where does this leave them? Are they less important than Arabs and Jews?
Extending the government definition of Semitism in order to combat anti-Arab hate-speech should therefore be taken as a measure of last resort.
Our first point of action should be to monitor and crackdown on Anti-Arab hate-speech. In this article, I intend to monitor this form of discrimination to highlight that the problem definitely exists (although this realisation should be self-evident, as you will see).
- Jeff Dunham & his Terrorist Puppet
For example, Youtube commenters sympathising with Jeff Dunham’s famous ventriloquist sketch Achmed the Dead Terrorist make a series of defences. These range from the claim that Jeff Dunham’s viral videos criticise all ethno-religious groups to the claim that some of the commentators believe that the puppet – with exaggerated eyebrows, aggressively high cheekbones, a scruffy beard, and sinister piercing eyes – is a true representation of the average Arab man. The puppet is illiterate, has what is perceived to be a generic Middle Eastern accent, describes the eighth letter H in Arabic as ‘phlegm’ (oddly appearing in his name Achmed) and cannot engage in intellectual discourse. He instead threatens to kill anybody who disagrees with him. This is an attempt to racialise what a terrorist looks, sounds and thinks like. Achmed is being portrayed to Dunham’s audience as an accurate representation of an Arab man, but “humour” cannot guise the fact that this is problematic.
- John McCain & Co on Arabs
This problematic narrative was shortly followed by John McCain during his 2008 presidential election campaign. A critic of Barack Obama claimed that she couldn’t trust Obama because ‘he[ Obama]’s an Arab’. In response, McCain insisted that Obama is not an Arab, but ‘a decent family man,[ and] citizen’. McCain was applauded in the US for what was considered a graceful approach to dealing with his presidential rival – instead, he should have been questioned for implying that being an Arab and being a decent person are mutually exclusive attributes. The only popular figure to openly pick-up on this and speak out against it was Ben Affleck, speaking soon after on Real Time with Bill Maher.
- Netanyahu’s ‘Drove’ Comments
Netanyahu then warned Likud voters, in 2015, that Arabs are voting in ‘droves’, threatening Israel’s national interest. Not only is Netanyahu grouping Arabs into a single entity; he is also exaggerating the threat they pose (although, this is a separate topic and may require a subsequent article). The term ‘drove’ is the sort of terminology that one uses to describe pests or insects that can bare a liability when they are in a person’s presence. Palestinians are one in five in Israel and, whilst they can influence policy in the country, they cannot form a majority opinion to completely shift national affairs in a way that can ensure the right of return for displaced Palestinian relatives (if that’s what Netanyahu was concerned about!).
- Cameron’s ‘Swarm’ of Refugees
Five months later, David Cameron used similar rhetoric to warn Britain of a ‘swarm’ of Arab and African refugees entering through Calais, again comparing these refugees to pests that bare a huge burden on “European civilisation”. This completely ignores the fact that Lebanon, an Arab country, is having a bigger refugee crisis than any European country due to its small population, modest GDP and proportionally higher amounts of displaced Syrians and Palestinians taking refuge in the country. This also gives less liberal members of the British public the impression that Europeans do not, themselves, have a history of asylum, or that Britain is not partially responsible for destabilising the Middle East in the first place.
Ultimately, David Cameron’s words feed into the us-them narrative that IS also use to export their extremist ideologies from Iraq and Syria. This does not justify their actions, but it is worth taking into account the fact that IS can capitalise off Arab grievances in Europe, and should provide yet another incentive for seemingly astute policy-makers, such as David Cameron, to not openly use derogatory terms to describe predominantly Arab refugees.
Fear mongering is often used by popular figures looking to mobilise support for their problematic views on ethnicity, culture, heritage and values. This extends beyond David Cameron’s lifetime in politics. On the eve of World War II, a poll was conducted in the US on whether or not the country should accept 10,000 Jewish children as refugees from Germany – 61% of the American population voted ‘no’. In 1940, François Laffite wrote a book criticising the British government’s position on accepting Jewish refugees from Germany, in which he compared the Jewish communities to ‘aliens’, just as politicians today compare Palestinian Arabs to ‘droves’ or Syrian refugees to ‘swarms’. The Jewish communities are now amongst the most integrated in Europe and the US, and it is clear that accepting them as refugees was the right choice after all.
It’s a shame that we have not yet learned from history. I find it morally abhorrent, for example, that two North African women should be called ‘ISIS bitches’ on a routine London bus for simply wearing a headscarf and fulfilling their Arab stereotypes, as we discovered last year in the news. The bus driver did not even intervene, possibly because he is not trained to deal with the situation or because he does not view anti-Arab racism as serious as other forms of racism. Either way, there is a problem that extends from the political sphere down to the civil society level. These are some of many examples of anti-Arab racism that occur everyday across Europe and America that go both noticed and unnoticed.
I am torn between sympathy and resent for people who unconsciously play into this narrative, because we are becoming more desensitised to Arab loss and suffering as we become more sensitised to “Caucasian” loss and suffering. This is particularly the case following 9/11 and the recent attacks claimed by IS across Europe. We must help break down the cycle by institutionalising anti-Arab hate-speech. Only then can we send a message to both Arabs and non-Arabs that belonging to a particular ethnic group does not necessarily make an individual ideologically or culturally opposed to the grand majority (that is not to say that healthy disagreement is not desirable).
If we are serious about integration in a continuously globalising world, and if we are serious about tackling IS, Western governments must complement existing policies by cracking down on anti-Arab racism.
Osama Filali Naji, MA – constructive comments are always welcome