The University of Iowa

Speaker addresses local Arab discrimination

March 7th, 2011

By Kendall McCabe, The Daily Iowan

See the original article, photo slideshow and a video here.

Children of Arabic descent in the United States get teased and called such names as “Osama” and “terrorist” each year around the anniversary of 9/11, said Shams Ghoneim, the former president of the Consultation of Religious Communities of Johnson County.

It even happens in Iowa City.

Ghoneim said she herself has not been discriminated against in Iowa City, but she knows Muslim children and women who wear traditional dress in the community have had problems.

“We really have issues that are ongoing, like attitudinal barriers in hiring, but these are things that are very difficult to prove,” said Ghoneim, who was raised in Egypt but has lived in Iowa City for 44 years. “It is, unfortunately, the legacy of the horror of 9/11. We’re trying to work on it, but we need everybody, not specifically Muslims, to be our partners.”

And to address this problem, James Zogby, an author and the founder of the Arab American Institute, spoke as part of “WorldCanvass” in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber on Sunday evening. He talked to a crowd of more than 50 about the misconceptions between Americans and Arabs and how to combat them.

Zogby said one key to eliminating bias is education.

Only 300 American universities offer classes on the Arabic language and fewer than 1 percent of American high-school students study Arabic, according to Zogby’s book Arab Voices: What They are Saying to Us and Why It Matters.

University of Iowa Associate Professor Ahmed Souaiaia, who specializes in the study of Islam in the Religious Studies Department, said there are a few especially challenging circumstances facing most Arabs and Muslims in Iowa City, but mostly, “they wish to be understood in proper context.”

UI junior Dan Olinghouse, who was studying in Egypt during the recent uprising, said he felt a lot of anti-Arab bias is generated by American media.

“It’s so hard in the media to get good solid information and to be able to touch it,” Olinghouse said after participating in a panel discussion at Sunday’s event. “Maybe instead of going to, you go to Al Jazeera. Really seeing it and having a tangible example, it jolts your system.”

Stereotypes about Arabs are “culturally driven through media,” Zogby said, noting the most pressing concerns of Arabs are jobs, family, education, and health care, similar to many Americans.

Olinghouse also addressed inaccurate stereotypes, saying the Egyptians he encountered during his time abroad loved movies and American fashion brands.

Zogby said he hopes the youth involved in the recent Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings will one day crisscross the United States and share their stories so Americans can get to know them.

Souaiaia said he hopes the ongoing revolutions in the Arab world will be an opportunity for Americans and Arabs to learn the facts about one another.

“Maybe the last place change is going to come is here,” Zogby said, referencing the recent uprisings. “We have to change our view of the world.”