Eye on the United States

The Uneasiness of Arab-Americans

Muslim Americans walk the streets of Brooklyn, NY
Shuttered stores in a Muslim-American neighborhood of New York, Sept. 13, 2001 (Photo: Henry Ray Abrams/AFP).

It is the time of the women and children at the Karbalaa Islamic Educational Center, an Iraqi mosque in greater Detroit. A swarm of young mothers, veiled in black, is crowding around the Coke machine. Every day, several hundred Shiite refugees come to pray under the dim neon lights of this former warehouse.

They arrived in the United States after the first Gulf  War, fleeing the brutalities of the Baghdad regime. Like Husham Al-Husainy, their imam, they are among the most fervent supporters of the “regime change” advocated by George W. Bush. “This intervention is something we have all hoped for,” comments Ghasaq Qureeashi, a 20-year-old woman. She adds: “If Saddam is overthrown, we will leave on the first plane.”

At age 7, Ghasaq had to cross the desert to reach a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. Today, she is an American citizen, a student in pharmacology. “The Iraq crisis,” she says, “has deeply divided the city’s Arab community. On campus, I spend my days arguing with the other Arabs. They are against the war, especially the Palestinians. Some of them consider Saddam a hero, because he supports them against Israel. In the meantime, the Iraqis are the ones who are suffering. My brother-in-law still bears the scars of the tortures to which he was subjected. Three of my cousins disappeared without a trace. Those who do not want this war are selfish.”

Dearborn, Michigan. The dark silhouette of an imposing dome, still covered with scaffolding, can be seen through a snowstorm. Here, at a cost of $17 million, the largest mosque in North America is being built. On Warren Avenue, the stores, with names like “Euphrates Groceries” and “Al-Salam Supermarket,” display their specials in Arabic and English. This blue-collar suburb of Detroit, in the heartland of the automobile industry, is considered the capital of the Arab-American community. Christians who were driven out of the provinces of the Ottoman Empire, Syrians and Palestinians who arrived after the Second World War, Lebanese and Yemenis fleeing their civil wars, have all come to Dearborn in successive waves. For the past 10 years, it has been the turn of the Iraqi Shiites. After being incited to overthrow Saddam Hussein
following the Gulf  War and then abandoned by their allies to suffer repression, they found refuge by the thousands in this icy city where one of every three residents has roots in the Middle East.

Between these newcomers and the earlier arrivals, things are no longer going well. When George Bush came to raise funds for his party in the ballrooms of the Dearborn Ritz-Carlton in October, two parades of demonstrators filed in front of the hotel. “The Iraqis were demanding a military intervention from one side of the street, while the rest of the community was chanting pacifist slogans on the other,” as Nabeel Abraham, a professor of anthropology at Henry Ford Community College, recalls.

The dispute has remained civil, a “gentlemen’s disagreement among Arab brothers.” Nonetheless, the split runs deep. “The Iraqis feel misunderstood,” notes Hassan Jaber, assistant director of ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services). “Their feeling of being excluded is all the more acute since they are the latest arrivals and as such the least well integrated.”

As for the community leaders, they are resolutely opposed to the use of force against Iraq. Riding in his gleaming black Cadillac, with his cell phone pressed to his ear, Osama Siblani, age 48, is among the notables of the city. This American, born in Lebanon, publishes the bilingual weekly Arab-American News, with a circulation of 25,000 in the region. Woven with diatribes against the government’s foreign policy (“Paul Wolfowitz’s diabolic cabal,” “The United States, Great Britain, and Israel: The true axis of evil”), his newspaper, he says, reflects “the convictions of the immense majority of the community.”

According to him, the Iraqi refugees “do not deserve” the freedom promised by the United States. “You want to overthrow Saddam? Then do it yourselves!” he shouts, pretending to address his “Arab brothers.” “You don’t free your country by hiding behind the tanks of a foreign power.” But it is for the U.S. administration, which he calls “a gang of  Taliban in three-piece suits,” that this editor in chief reserves his harshest words. Still, Siblani lent his support to candidate Bush in 2000. “He even called to thank me,” he says. “But in hindsight, I could kick myself.”

According to the polls, the majority of Arab-Americans in Dearborn voted for “George W.” in the presidential election. The Republican candidate assiduously courted this prosperous community, made up of businessmen and merchants. Flattered at finally being a part of the electoral landscape, the community gave him its votes. This was a decision reinforced by religious considerations. As Abed Ayoub, a law student, readily put it: “Al Gore would have gotten more votes in Dearborn if his running mate, Joe Lieberman, had not been a Jew. But today, those who voted for Bush bitterly regret it. They feel betrayed.”

After Sept. 11, the Arab-Americans in the city displayed the Stars and Stripes everywhere. “People were trying to outdo each other,” recalls Nabeel Abraham. It looked as though the community was shouting, “Look at us, we’re loyal! We are Americans!” The appeals for tolerance by the White House seemed to bode well to them. Then the wind shifted. According to Imad Hamad, the regional director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Arabs are in the hot seat. “We are being questioned for no reason. Our conversations are being wiretapped and the accounts of our businesses are under scrutiny by the FBI. Even those who were born here are the objects of suspicion.”

In the area of foreign policy, the break with the White House is complete. Arab-Americans never talk about Iraq without immediately bringing up Israel. “We can no longer put up with this double standard,” chimes in Imad Hamad, who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. “The anti-Americanism at work in our countries of origin distresses us, but how can we defend our adopted country? The United States’ policy in the Middle East is unjustifiable.”

Another source of resentment is the “partiality” of the media. “I signed up for satellite, because my sons could no longer stand to see me screaming in front of the television,” reports Fadia Faraj, 38. Today she watches the BBC, Al-Jazeera, and the American pacifist stations Free Speech and WorldLink TV. “I have them to thank that I am not completely depressed,” she says.

Baker Albaaj, in contrast, does not hide the joy he feels as he sees the military machine gearing up. This right-hand man of the imam at the Karbalaa Center, an Iraqi with a crew cut, demonstrated in favor of the war in Washington and New York. At the end of February, he was chanting anti-Saddam slogans at a meeting with the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who had come to Dearborn to garner the support of Iraqi refugees.

In 1991, Albaaj took part in the Shiite uprising against the dictator of Baghdad. After spending four years in a camp in Saudi Arabia, putting up with snakes and sandstorms, he was welcomed by the United States. “After what happened in 1991, it is hard to trust them,” he said, speaking of the U.S. government. “We aren’t naive; we know very well that they are not going into Iraq on account of our good looks. But to get rid of Saddam, there we have a common interest.”