Debunking Six Myths about the Arab Community

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As we honor Arab American Heritage Month, let’s reflect on and debunk some common myths about the Arab community.

Growing up as a child of West African Muslim immigrants, we were often confronted with misconceptions about Arab culture and identity. Like many people who aren’t from Arab communities, we sometimes assume that all Arabs are Muslim and look a certain way. This assumption, deeply rooted in ignorance, the human tendency to generalize, as well as stereotypes perpetuated by media and societal narratives, contributes to a narrow understanding of both Arab and Muslim identities. With a rise in Islamophobia and Anti-Arab hate, it’s vital to reflect on the diversity of Arab people and debunk a few myths about who we think Arabs are. 

  1. Not all Arabs are Muslim, Not all Muslims are Arab
    While Islam is a prominent religion in the Arab world, it’s not the sole belief system. Arab Christians, Mizrahi Jews (this term is more commonly used instead of ‘Arab Jews’ to describe Jews coming from what is known as the Arab and Muslim world, including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. While it’s said that most of the Jewish people who lived in these countries now live in Israel or the United States, there is still a minority of Jewish people in countries like Turkey, Iran, and Morrocco), Arab atheists, and people of various other faiths or belief systems also exist within Arab communities. When it comes to Islam, Arabs only make up 15-20% of the Muslim population. Recognizing this helps us to honor and acknowledge the rich history and practices in the Arab world, even if the history and practices are about a group of people who are considered minorities.
  2. Terrorism and violence aren’t inherent Arab or Muslim traits
    Associating all Arabs and Muslims with terrorism and violence isn’t only inaccurate (the majority of all terrorist incidents in America since 1994 have largely been from right-wing attacks), it’s also harmful. Terrorism is a complex global issue with perpetrators from various backgrounds, and it’s unfair to attribute it to an entire ethnic, cultural, or religious group. People automatically think that Arabs are Muslims and, therefore, violent when, in actuality, the majority of Muslims condemn violence and are taught to orient towards a life of peace. The assumption of inherent violence has created fear and justification for bias and discrimination against Arabs and Muslims, such as “flying while Muslim” or misdirected anti-Muslim hate crimes against Sikhs
  3. All Arab women aren’t oppressed
    The portrayal of Arab women as universally oppressed is another stereotype that fails to recognize the diverse experiences and agency of Arab women. While gender challenges exist, and Arab women have shared the ways culture and extremism have impacted their livelihood, there’s a detailed history of how rights have evolved for Arab and Muslim women. While Arab and Muslim women continue to strive for equality, we have to be careful not to assume that every Arab or Muslim woman feels or is experiencing oppression. Further, the portrayal of helpless Arab women creates justification for Western ideologies and people to position themselves as better or as saviors of the Arab world when, in actuality, we’re also working towards dismantling harmful patriarchy within our respective communities. 
  4. Arab isn’t a race
    The Arab world consists of various countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab identity isn’t tied to race but encompasses diverse ethnicities, languages, and cultural backgrounds. Often, being Arab signifies that there is a shared history among many people across communities who also speak the language. As a result, Arabs can be of various racial backgrounds and have varying physical appearances, which is why the American census fails to capture the essence of what it means to be Arab. This is why many people are looking forward to the change that will be made in 2030- where the US census will add a Middle Eastern, North African (MENA) category.
  5. Arabs aren’t uncivilized
    This stereotype perpetuates the notion of Arabs as primitive or backward, ignoring the rich history and contributions of Arab civilizations to fields such as science, mathematics, literature, and architecture. Often, colonizing nations have portrayed colonized nations as ignorant or lacking “proper” knowledge, wisdom, or the ability to make decisions for their communities. The oppressive and stereotypical language and descriptions we use to describe non-Western groups create a false narrative of hierarchy,  further justifying why “uncivilized people” should be treated or viewed as inferior and less human.
  6. All Arabs aren’t homophobic or heterosexual
    While segments of Arab society hold conservative views on LGBTQ+ issues, it’s important to remember that there are groups, such as Muslims for Progressive Values, who support LGBTQ+ rights and advocate for equality and inclusion. Over the years, views have shifted when it comes to Muslims who favor gay marriage. Arab communities, like any other, encompass a spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities. LGBTQ+ individuals exist within Arab societies, and their experiences are diverse and multifaceted. While there’s still work to do around human rights laws and policies to support LGBTQ+ Arabs and Muslims, assuming that all Arabs are homophobic and heterosexual erases the existence and experiences of queer Arab communities.